From green revolution to... (11/7/2006)

"Unless India is vigilant, the future can, indeed, be dark."

Eagle Eye: From green revolution to...
KP Prabhakaran Nair
Down to Earth, India's Science and Environment Magazine

How feasible would it be for India to open up its research institutions for foreign "collaboration", asks KP Prabhakaran Nair.

Indian agriculture is at a crossroads. To make agriculture viable and profitable, the thrust should be to improve the situation of poor farmers and not just powerful farmers owning hundreds of hectares, in whose fields the so-called green revolution took place.

The green revolution promised much. But today it's caught up in a cloud of environmental controversies, with fertile land turning barren due to chemical overuse, drying aquifers and vanishing biodiversity. The keyword today is "gene revolution". But even here, poor farmers stand to suffer.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) on knowledge initiative on agricultural research and education was signed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and US department of agriculture, whereby US private capital will freely access ICAR research facilities, after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington in July 2005.

As per the MoU, ICAR scientists would be sent to the US for "capacity building" and a "tuition fee" would be charged to them for the same. The focus of the knowledge initiative, for which the Indian outlay would be Rs 400 crore, is on accelerating rapid commercialization of Indian agriculture.

Interestingly, during the deliberations, representatives of both Wal-Mart - the giant US retail trader in food and Monsanto - the agribusiness giant, were present. One wonders if this knowledge initiative is a tacit admission on ICAR's part that it is incapable of delivering to the nation what the US promises to deliver.

Why else is the government's department of biotechnology investing colossal sums into ICAR research efforts, which is the prime focus of the MoU.

Moreover, how feasible would it be for India to open up its research institutions for foreign "collaboration"? The clandestine biopiracy in the 1960s, aided and abetted by our own native collaborators, which led to the theft of our famous basmati and came to the world market as "Texmati", released by Rice Tec - a Texas-based agribusiness company - needs to be kept in mind as a cautionary example. Besides, Monsanto charges farmers Rs 1,850 or more for a 450-gramme packet of BT cotton, while the native hybrid varietyy for the same quantity comes for just Rs 350.

The US is frantically trying to create a market for its genetically modified (GM) food and plant materials in India. In such cases, decisions of the genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), the government of India's regulatory body on genetically modified food materials, need to be examined critically. The latest Exim policy announced by the commerce minister on April 7, 2005, mandated pre-import clearance of GM foods from GEAC. What prompted the commerce ministry to introduce the restriction remains a mystery. But, it is noteworthy that between April 7 and May 4, speculators in the edible oil market made a killing on the oil futures exchange by jacking up prices artificially by over Rs 4,000 a tonne. This has hurt both the consumer and the grower. The price rise was unjustified.

Meanwhile, in a meeting on May 2, 2006, convened by the ministry of environment and forests to discuss guidelines for obtaining GEAC permission, multinational representatives Cargill and Monsanto were present, while those who have a direct stake in the matter, including the domestic soybean processing and refining industries, were ignored. This speaks volumes of the kind of backstage manipulations by those with vested interests to somehow get a toehold in the agriculture sector for GM materials. The fact is GM food has been entering the country for several years now, and the government is not vigilant enough. The rate of farmer suicides is also going up.

Like the green revolution, the gene revolution will also only benefit rich corporate farmers and the small and marginal ones will be at a complete loss.

It is important to remember that close to 60-70 per cent of Indian agriculture is in the hands of farmers with landholdings of one-hectare. Unless India is vigilant, the future can, indeed, be dark.

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