At first glance, the reports appearing in the American media last summer sounded very much like news about drought-stricken villages in the Indian hinterland. Till, of course, you saw the dateline and carried on reading in utter disbelief about desperate farmers and rural residents praying for rain in the United Sates of America. Since presidential help on the expected scale was not forthcoming, it was perhaps inevitable that god was called upon to do the needful. The Washington Post reported that President George Bush was unwilling to spare more finances for drought relief than had already been set aside in the USD 180 billion farm bill that he had signed earlier in May. The president, however, emphasised his commitment to helping farmers under existing programmes, including the agriculture department’s decision to make USD 150 million worth of surplus milk – “spoilt milk” as the Democrats called it – available for use as animal feed in four drought-stricken states.
A drought of this magnitude is unprecedented in the recent history of the US. Crops have withered and fodder has become scarce, hence the need to feed milk to livestock. There is a scramble for new water sources even as urban residents have been asked to stop watering lawns and washing cars. Ranchers have sold off herds rather than let them starve for lack of pasture on their heat-baked fields. “I have never seen it like this and I’m 60 years old”, said Richard Taylor, who owns 37,000 acres in Texas and New Mexico but had to sell off much of his cattle herd.
Serious hydrological problems have developed with wells, reservoirs and streams going dry and groundwater depleting drastically. Wildfires have broken out in many areas, scorching an estimated 4.6 million acres, twice the average acreage burnt in the previous decade. “It is pretty dire”, said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Centre. From southern California to South Carolina and from Montana to New Mexico, there have been reports of extraordinary levels of damage. Not since the great “dust bowl” days of the 1930s, so poignantly described in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, have US farriers experienced so extensive a crisis of production. Wheat output is expected to fall to its lowest level in close to 30 years. In July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculated that 49 percent of the US contiguous landmass was suffering from ‘moderate to severe’ drought conditions. ‘Exceptional drought’ conditions, the most acute form of all, prevailed in 13 states, including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.
By strange coincidence, India too was reeling this year under its worst drought in a long time, which ravaged 12 of 29 states. Such was the level of crop damage that rice production this year is expected to touch an all-time low. Unlike the American story, however, the Indian one is not exceptional. Drought is just one of the many seasons of the Subcontinent and crop failure is inscribed into the lifecycle of the farmer. But the American story comes as a rude shock to those who have been taught at universities to greatly appreciate the US farm model and its unmatched capacity for success. One year of drought has been sufficient to demonstrate its vulnerabilities. The vaunted drought-proofing of American agriculture that we have heard so much of is obviously not quite what it is made out to be.
Of agrarian India there are no claims to systemic sophistication. It is a known fact that Indian agriculture falters because of its complete dependence on the monsoons. The fragmentation of land holdings, subsistence farming methods, poor productivity and low levels of exploitation of the natural resource base have cast serious doubts about the sustainability and viability of farms. Consequently, the only escape for the country, we are invariably told by agricultural scientists, is to follow the American model, with its industrialised technology, scale-driven economies, massive investments and surpluses so huge that the government must pay farmers to keep producing output in excess of domestic demand. Yet, the reality is that just one drought has been sufficient to demonstrate the inadequacy of this scientifically sophisticated industrial farm model for agrarian economies in the semi-permanent grip of drought?
World food summitry
Rather than quelling the din, however, the technological virtues of agrarian America are still being peddled not just for dealing with drought, which is a sporadic rarity in the global North and a seasonal fixture in the under-developed South, but also for allegedly solving that pernicious and scandalously permanent third world condition — hunger and chronic malnutrition For years it has been the fashion in the rich man’s club to prescribe a naïve technological fix for the problem of starvation on a world scale. For instance, last year, hundreds of people in the United States, mostly agricultural scientists, signed an AgBioWorld Foundation petition appealing to the multinational seed giant Aventis CropScience to donate some 3000 tonnes of genetically- engineered experimental rice to the needy rather than destroy it. (Destroying food for various reasons, including protecting farm productivity from the negative effects of weak demand, is a time-honoured policy ritual of rich nations.) There is good reason to believe that this appeal was less about concern for feeding the hungry, and more a public relations exercise to lend humanitarian lustre to the biotechnology community’s predatory agendas.
Aventis, for its part, never tires of expressing concern about the hungry of the world. Driven by this concern, it is “working hard to ensure that US farmers can grow abundant, nutritious crops and… hope’s] that by contributing to that abundance all mankind will prosper”. At the same time that Aventis was out to save all mankind, the AgBioWorld Foundation did not fail to capitalise on the opportunity provided by the starving masses to convey its “disapproval of those who, in the past, have used situations similar to this one to block approved food aid to victims of cyclones, floods and other disasters in order to further their own political (namely, anti-biotechnology) agendas”.
Eradicating global hunger is no doubt a pious intention, but the humanitarian credentials of those leading the crusade to achieve it through biotechnology are seriously in doubt. The US agri-biotech industry and the scientific community affiliated to it have raised no end of a hue and cry about the breathtaking generosity of donating a mere 3000 tonnes of genetically modified (GM) rice, the human health risks of which have still not been ascertained. But when they were told that India has a surplus of as much as 65 million tonnes of non-genetically modified foodgrain and vet has a staggering population of some 320 million people who go to bed hungry every night, those who signed the appeal did not seem to register the paradox. Clearly, biotech generosity has as little to do with ‘humanitarian intentions’ as farm productivity has to do with food surpluses, and food surpluses have to do with the mitigation of hunger.
The problem is not a simple one of just production. It is more fundamentally a question of how to define the surplus, who produces that surplus and how it is produced. This simple yet crucial point has been obscured by too many profiteers masquerading as philanthropists. The problem with hunger is that the so-called international community, which is at the forefront of a great many dubious campaigns to profit transnational corporate interests in the guise of bringing welfare to the masses, has been using its political clout to pursue devious agendas. At the first World Food Summit (WFS) in Rome in 1996, heads of states of all countries of the world had “reaffirmed” the right of all people to have access to “safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”. They considered it unacceptable that more than 840 million people throughout the world did not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs.
These leaders consequently committed themselves to halving the number of hungry people by the year 2015. They would need another 20 years to provide food to the remaining 420 million people. In other words, the task of feeding the world had been postponed indefinitely, since the eminent leaders had obviously forgotten that in an unequal world the number of hungry people is constantly on the rise. Not only will the world fail to halve the number of hungry people by the year 2015, but also by the time that year dawns to haunt the luminaries of the international community, the number of hungry people to be fed will have risen to a mindboggling 1.2 billion, a figure that exceeds the entire current population of India.
The heads of state convened again in Rome in June 2002 for ‘WFS plus Five’, to take stock of the progress since they met five years earlier. A quarter of the time frame set to halve global hunger had already elapsed and no substantial improvement had been registered. Every day, some 24,000 people were dying from hunger, starvation and related diseases. Strangely enough this entire period was also a time of plenty in terms of food surpluses.
Hunger stands at the confluence of too many vested interests, and is a precondition for corporate profits to free ride on governmental and multilateral expert group recommendations for biotechnocratic solutions. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that the lack of political will to find independent and locally relevant solutions only accentuates hunger and destitution. There is also no recognition of the fact that political power is being exercised to promote technologies and strategies that actually reinforce the imbalances responsible for hunger in the first instance. Instead, at these global fora, the political elite joins hands with industrialists and agricultural scientists to celebrate the miraculous capacity of genetic engineering to boost food production and so do away with hunger and malnutrition.
Hence, the tedious repetition of the virtues of US agriculture, despite its demonstrable vulnerability not just to drought but also to corporate monopolies, and the plea to replicate it even in those parts of the world where farming is undertaken by capital-starved marginal farmers in drought-prone and semi-arid conditions. But this campaign to solve hunger by generating surpluses through biotechnological infusions is itself part of the contradictory mix of global nostrums that include free trade, elimination of protection, unrestricted competition and the abolition of subsidy, even as the attempt is made simultaneously to push in highly subsidised products from the protected OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) agricultural sector into the rest of the world. These subsidised food imports have already resulted in the further marginalisation of small farmers and the loss of supplementary livelihoods and other poverty-coping mechanisms for millions of agricultural workers in the developing world. Since importing food is like importing unemployment, in the climate of ‘liberalised trade’ the reason for at least a part of the hunger in the third world lies in precisely those quarters of the developed world that are allegedly committed to eradicating it. Hunger is not just a matter of productivity and surplus, as the co-existence of huge surplus stocks and a large hungry population in India only confirms.
Free trade and market-led agriculture are precisely the reason why food does not reach those who need it most. Market processes in the developing countries are geared towards supporting commercial farmers and the export of crops. Projections for various time horizons indicate that the market demand for foodgrains can be met largely from output within countries. Strengthening self-reliance in foodgrain production within the developing world should therefore be more of a priority than imports from the developed world. Food-insecure populations need income through employment generated in the production of food.
This is the where the current orthodoxy of economic development parts company with common sense. Its twin engines of growth – the technological revolution and globalisation – will only widen the existing gap between those who are food-deficient and those who control the food surplus. Corporate biotechnology will only push more people into the trap of hunger while the gung-ho celebration of engineered seeds diverts attention and resources away from the ground realities.
The argument that GM technology has the potential to complement other more traditional research methods as the new driving force for sustained growth in agricultural productivity is based on some very narrow assumptions. For one, it assumes that growth of agricultural productivity is the only factor of significance if the world is to produce enough food to provide for what is likely to be a stable but large population in this century. Numerous projections over different time horizons have been prepared to assert the necessity for urgent biotechnological intervention. This is then generalised into the belief that the only solution to the larger question of poverty is to harness ‘technology to address specific problems facing poor people’. And in an environment in which biotechnology comes wrapped in ever-stronger intellectual property rights packages, the way is paved for depriving farmers of any real control over seeds and denying developing countries the opportunity to undertake research based on their own specific needs. Add to these the destruction of the traditional rights of farmers and the introduction of ‘genetic use restriction technologies’ (GURTS), and the technological dominance of the corporate world is complete. In effect, while the local farmer continues to be under the control of the middleman in disposing of his output, he now is also brought under a regime of corporate monopolies in acquiring his input.
Even the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) once-respected annual Human Development Report (HDR), in its 2001 version, appropriately titled ‘Making new technologies work for human development’, has succumbed to the vogue despite taking note of a very obvious contradiction. In a rare moment of lucidity, the controversial report conceded that “technology is created in response to market pressures – not the needs of poor people, who have little purchasing power” and, yet, it went on to make a strong sales pitch for flogging a high-risk technology on the resource-poor communities of the South.
The report insists that emerging centres of excellence throughout the developing world are already providing hard evidence of the potential for harnessing “cutting- edge science and technology” (the euphemism for biotechnology) to tackle poverty. To say, as the HDR does, that “if the developing community turns its back on the explosion of technological innovation in food, it risks marginalising itself”, is in reality a desperate effort to ensure that corporate interests are not sacrificed at the altar of development. Such is the desperation at the growing opposition to the genetic engineering industry and transgenic food, that all manner of permutations and combinations, including increased food aid to Africa’s school-going children and force-feeding GM food to hungry people in southern Africa (while non- GM food is available in plenty), are being attempted. The problem arises because at almost all genetic engineering laboratories, whether in the North or in the South, the focus of research is on transgenic crops, edible vaccines and bio-fortification by incorporating genes for Vitamin A, iron, and other micronutrients to address the problems of malnutrition or ‘hidden hunger’. But if hunger is not removed in the first instance, hidden hunger cannot be eradicated. Those mandated to develop the under-developed are proposing ad hoc and symptomatic solutions with the sole aim of assisting corporate giants recoup their investment. But market- friendly development cannot eradicate market-led underdevelopment, and hidden hunger is not an issue anymore once hunger is taken care of.
In India, which is technically speaking ‘self-sufficient’ in foodgrain production, reports of hunger and starvation pour in regularly from the infamous Kalahandi region and, more recently Kashipur, in Orissa. Kalahandi, with a population of 20 million, suffers from hunger and malnutrition despite being a very fertile and surplus-producing district. Kalahandi today is the biggest contributor of surplus rice to the central food reserves. Between 1996 and 2001, the region provided on average some 50,000 tonnes of rice annually to the Indian buffer stock. The reason why people die of starvation and hunger in Kalahandi is not the lack of food but the lack of resources to buy the food. No amount of biotechnology can put purchasing power in the hands of the rural poor. Unfortunately, UNDP apparatchiks are either oblivious of or indifferent to these obvious realities of rural South Asia, namely that the question of productivity becomes relevant only when the capacity to purchase food in the market becomes a generalised fact.
Instead of grappling with this problem, the spin doctors of development have gone so far as to stretch the truth to its limits and claim that biotechnology offers the only ‘tool of choice’ for marginal ecological zones – left behind by the green revolution but home to more than half of the world’s poorest, dependent on agriculture and livestock. The UNDP’s valiant crusade is part of a two-pronged approach to selling a technology, which, if left to market forces, will not find too many takers. Consequently, extra-market forces are made to work to ensure its survival. Multilateral agencies create the necessary ideological smokescreen of expertise behind which lurking corporates and nonaccountable governments plight their troth to promote the state-led development of transnational capital.
Simultaneously, corporate trouble-shooters take it upon themselves to look after the nuances of the implementation, such as the ‘education’ of crucial members of the domestic elite. (This is now a regular practice among those firms that have the necessary resources. When Enron set up shop in Maharashtra, it successfully educated the Indian decision-making establishments of the executive, legislature, judiciary and the ‘free press’ to the tune of USD 20 million. See Himal, March 2002.) Since many countries maintain a semblance of democratic appearances, it becomes necessary to ensure that certain key institutions such as the judiciary are not allowed to squander the national benefits of this technology simply for lack of requisite information. This is a particularly sensitive matter for the industry since biotech products have a rather persistent habit of coming up for litigation. Adverse judicial decisions can create a crisis of confidence in products that have already, been subject to searching scrutiny and criticism. Fortunately for these companies, the judiciaries of many third world democracies are not too finicky about being educated in technological matters so long as appropriate financial incentives are provided.
Such is the unseemly haste to ram through the technology in India, before farmers, consumers and the odd people of credibility within the policy establishment can publicise possible negative consequences, that very ‘transparent’ efforts are underway to co-opt the judiciary. Almost a year ago, a visiting US delegation of 10 judges and scientists met the then-chief justice of India, AS Anand, to impress upon him — and the rest of the judicial fraternity — the benefits of biotechnology. Dr Franklin M Zweig, president of the Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the Courts in the United States, an advocate of genetic engineering and a prominent speaker at the 88th session of the Indian Science Congress in New Delhi in January 2001, denied that the two-hour long meeting with the chief justice was to ‘influence’ the judiciary, but clarified that it was to ‘educate’ judges about the basic principles of public information for use by courts and court systems. The delegation invited the chief justice to the US and offered to hold ‘workshops’ in America for the judges of the supreme court and the high courts to enlighten them about transgenics, and safety protocols in biotechnology research.
When judges and journalists are given the hard sell, what is omitted from the heroic saga of the technology’s many triumphs is the progressive elimination of biodiversity as farming practices come increasingly under the more or less total control of corporate decision- making. The irony is that genetic diversity in particular species, which is the fundamental prerequisite for ensuring stable levels of food productivity in much of the world, is being severely compromised. Genetic contamination has already severely affected regions of Spain and Mexico, and while the scientific community had previously been at the forefront of protecting genetic diversity, it has since taken up the biotech industry’s cause. For instance, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), which houses the world’s largest collection of wheat and maize germplasm, rationalised the genetic pollution of maize in Mexico’s Oaxaca province by arguing that the contamination would actually increase genetic diversity by offering plant scientists more traits to choose from. Such an assertion is completely at variance with the principles of conservation and utilisation that are supposed to guide CIMMYT’s policies, and indicates the alarming direction in which sponsored scientific research is heading (See Himal, September 2002).
This abdication of responsibility by the non-corporate scientific establishment is appalling. Agricultural scientists once collected plant varieties for preservation after the FAO recognised the threat posed by genetic erosion in 1963. It is a measure of modern folly that plant varieties have been evacuated from the fields and pushed into conservatories controlled by technocrats to whom biotech corporates have more access than the real cultivators of food do. It is bad enough that hundreds of millions of dollars have to be spent to artificially keep alive plant varieties that are being systematically destroyed through modern agricultural practices. It is worse when agricultural technocrats wilfully endorse the continued corporate contamination of the remaining varieties that grow or are grown freely.
It should have been clear enough to the professionals entrusted with the preservation of biodiversity that the industry’s aim is to undermine that objective by ensuring the contamination of existing natural reserves. Once genetic contamination reaches a critical level, the world will be left with no other choice but to rely on genetically engineered crops. And this is the final defeat of the campaign to eradicate hunger. No matter what the UNDP says, the generalised use of modified seed will only replicate the current situation, where food is being produced in excess but the number of hungry people is increasing. To compound matters, the entire agrarian sector across the world will have been reduced to a corporate pawn.
The US Supreme Court’s crucial ruling of December 2001 upholding ‘utility patents’ over plant varieties is only a de jure confirmation of a reality that has already arrived to haunt the world. The US ruling effectively forbids farmers from saving seeds, and comes at a time when, at the other end of the spectrum, India recognises the right of the farmer to save seeds under the newly introduced Plant Variety Protection and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001. In India, there is no other option but to permit not only the saving of seed but also its sharing and free sale, since a majority of the country’s estimated 110 million farming families are small and marginal landholders.
It is only a matter of time before these two opposing perspectives on farming rights, particularly on so basic a matter as seed rights, clash. The conflict is bound to have a profound impact on farming communities in the entire third world, where seed saving has been a practice ever since the beginnings of agriculture. With the biotechnology industry throwing its weight behind any and every move that strengthens monopoly through patented control over plant varieties and their genes and cell lines, it may not be long before the trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPs) under the World Trade Organisation are re-interpreted.
‘Utility patents’ have been in vogue for a while but what is alarming is the rate at which nature is being depleted and then privatised through administrative measures. Hundreds of utility patents have already been granted to seed multinationals like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. Such patents have been the greatest hurdle to crop improvement. There is the classic example of a utility patent awarded for a hybrid maize variety. At a time when the CIMMYT was making available semi-dwarf improved varieties of wheat to developing countries to launch the green revolution, a single-cross hybrid variety of corn was denied to India, since this variety, which was responsible for the growth of the corn sector in America, was covered by the utility patent. As a result, though India was the seat of the green revolution, maize production in the country never really picked up.
The number of utility patents issued has increased rapidly in the US in recent years. By December 1994, 324 utility patents had been issued for new plants or plant parts and 38 for animals. Most of these were awarded to the private sector. Thus, the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime has encouraged private control of farm techniques. But what is even more worrying is the speed at which life sciences firms are drawing patents on genes, gene sequences and cell lines. For instance, Monsanto owns US patent No 5,159,135 covering all GM cotton. In addition, there are another 228 cotton gene sequences that are also patented. In 2000, The Guardian reported that there are 25 patents on pineapple, 25 on raspberries, 21 on grapes, 11 on oranges, nine on apples, eight on pawpaw, six on kiwi, four on strawberries and cherries, two on grapefruit, and one each on tamarind and peach. There are 43 patents on silk genes, including on the golden orb-weaving spider, which makes the strongest and finest thread.
In the case of wheat, which is regarded by many as the greatest nutritional hope for mankind, gene companies have already acquired patents on 228 gene sequences. Meanwhile, 152 patent applications are pending for rice. These patent applications cover 584 genes or partial gene sequences. The US giant Dow has applied for patents on 655 maize gene sequences, which adds up to a stupendous 30 percent of the total number of applications. DuPont has applied for another 587, Affymetrix (US) for 418, Monsanto for 102, AstraZeneca for 83. The top five maize companies have nearly 85 percent of the total 2181 applications between them. The monopoly implications of genetic control on this scale are obvious.
Much of the focus of corporate interest is on cereal crops with huge global commercial value like rice, maize, wheat, millet, sorghum, soya and cassava, and patent protection covers not just genes and gene sequences, but also their compounds and properties. This will have a profound effect on the future of agricultural research in the developing countries. Take the case of rice, which is broadly classified into two categories – indica and japonica. The names themselves are indicative of the regions from which these particular kinds of rice originate. The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), the world’s second biggest farm research infrastructure in the public sector, recently bought a cloned rice gene from Japan at a cost of INR 3,000,000. The gene was inserted in Indian rice varieties but failed to show positive results.
The compulsion to purchase genes for rice from foreign agri-business companies and institutes compromises the possibilities of research in developing countries. Buying genes at prohibitive cost just for biotechnology research without even the assurance of any success is not a feasible option for poor countries. With product and process patents in agriculture already coming into vogue, the third world is fast heading towards scientific isolation.
Produce and perish
Meanwhile, as the developed world and its firms strain themselves tirelessly to sell techniques to increase productivity in the third world, developing countries such as India are finding it difficult to deal with the ‘surplus’ that they already produce. After the paddy harvest in September 2000, hundreds of thousands of farmers in the frontline agricultural states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh waited in vain for over three weeks to sell their output before government agencies stepped in to purchase ‘excess’ stocks. Three weeks is a long time of post-harvest uncertainty for most Indian farmers. At least a hundred farmers, unable to bear the mounting losses, committed suicide by drinking pesticide. In Andhra Pradesh, in south India, there were no buyers for over five million tonnes of paddy. In the poverty-stricken belt of Bihar and Orissa, the story if anything is worse.
Farmer suicides are a reflection of the breakdown of institutional safety nets, which in the past have cushioned the impact of agrarian crisis. This crisis is not a supply side problem but a demand side problem. In 2000, India had a record food surplus of 20 million tonnes over and above the 24 million tonnes required for the buffer. In 2002, the total surplus had grown to 65 million tonnes. It was not a problem of real excess production, but because more and more people were unable to buy the food. The problem is so serious that the government of Andhra Pradesh has publicly requested farmers not to produce more paddy. In Punjab, the citadel of the green revolution, farmers are being asked to shift from staples like wheat and paddy to cash crops.
The paradox of plenty is not confined to India. Till recently, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Indonesia were overflowing with food grains. In Pakistan, farmers had to burn the harvested grain lying in markets because the prices were too low. In Indonesia, farmers waited endlessly to sell their rice while the government proceeded to import it from Vietnam. And in this dismal scenario of unsold food, the food professionals of the world want farmers to go on producing more foodgrain.
Clearly there is no one to seriously take on the challenge of eliminating hunger, the root cause of which is poverty and lopsided economic development. Instead the task has been left to the market. There is obviously something terribly wrong with the reality on the ground and the agrarian strategies that are being thrust on farmers. On the one hand, planners and policymakers want to increase productivity through technology. On the other hand, policy implementers want farmers to produce less food. Either way, those who live in hunger are doomed to die of hunger. If there is no one to look after their needs, then for the sake of decency, they should at least be left alone to die in peace.
Profits of hunger
There is money in hunger and malnutrition. For the Indian government, exporting ‘surplus’ wheat and rice brings in much-needed hard currency. And for private companies, it is immensely profitable to convert traditional animal feed into value-added nutritious food for chronically malnourished Indians. The paradox is compelling. While the government plans to export ‘surplus’ and ‘unmanageable’ rice and wheat stocks, an American company, RiceX, has entered into collaboration with the multinational agribusiness giant, Monsanto, to produce and test its patented technology for nutritious food. Simply put, the technology is being field-tested for the first time on Indians.
RiceX has developed a process to extract and stabilise nutritious rice bran from raw rice kernels. The El Dorado company sees third world rice-growing countries as a profitable market. And it has reason to. After all, the number of the hungry and malnourished in rural India alone has been steadily rising, from 224 million in the early 1990s to 250 million in the mid- 1990s. This corresponds to an almost constant increase in the incidence of rural poverty and a slow decline in the incidence of urban poverty, as confirmed by a World Bank report.
In three to five years, if the tests prove successful, the conversion of rice bran into ‘nutritious’ human food will yield a projected revenue of USD 400 million a year. That will be a welcome contrast to the company’s USD 5 million loss last year. Company chairman Daniel McPeak is reported to have said that the deal calls for RiceX and Monsanto to split the cost of sending two processing units, a container ship of US-grown rice and staff to India. RiceX employees will process both US and Indian rice bran there during a six-month test phase.
The Monsanto-RiceX project will convert abundantly available rice bran, which is normally used as low-grade animal feed, into nutritious food for Indians. Says Charles F Hough, business development chief of the nutrition and consumer division of Monsanto, “We are keenly interested in expanding our activities in India. The RiceX proprietary technology could be a vehicle for Monsanto to contribute significantly to the nutritional well-being of the people of India”.
In effect, India will be simultaneously importing food to feed the poor and exporting food to feed cattle in the West. In any other country, including the United States, food exports are allowed only after the nation’s food requirements have been adequately met. In the US, for instance, the government spends USD 54 billion to make food available to an estimated 25 million people languishing below the poverty line. In India, on the other hand, food buffers are built essentially by keeping the food away from the reach of the poor. With food prices continually rising, and with a large percentage of the population earning less than a dollar a day, more and more people are finding it difficult to meet their daily food needs. The result is obvious: India will feed Western cattle with human feed while the West will feed the Indian poor with cattle feed!
IN A desperate effort to repair its damaged credibility, the genetic engineering industry is all set to unleash its ‘secret weapon’, and that too on millions of unsuspecting, destitute smallholders in the developing world. In India, through an Indo-Swiss collaboration, ‘Golden Rice’ technology is to be made available to the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Indian Department of Biotechnology. The project, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss government and the European Union to the tune of USD 2.6 million over seven years, aims to engineer pro-Vitamin A genes into local varieties of rice. Golden Rice is being touted as the miracle which can allegedly meet the micronutrient requirements of the starving masses of the South. However, Golden Rice is not all that it is made out to be by its promoters. It can provide at best a tiny fragment of micronutrient needs. The remaining intake will have to be met from other nutritional sources. In India, for instance, rice is consumed invariably with a combination of pulses, which provide the essential proteins and vitamins that the human body requires.
Unfazed by such empirical constraints, the Swiss firm Syngenta’s representative, Adrian Dubock, recently claimed that “the levels of expression of pro- Vitamin A that the inventors were aiming at, and have achieved, are sufficient to provide the minimum level of pro-Vitamin A to prevent the development of irreversible blindness affecting 500,000 children annually, and to significantly alleviate Vitamin A deficiency affecting 124,000,000 children in 26 countries”. He also stated that each month that the entry of Golden Rice into the market is delayed will result in 50,000 children going blind. However, a simple calculation based on recommended daily allowance (RDA) figures shows that an adult would have to eat at least 12 times the normal intake of 300 grams of rice to get the daily recommended amount of pro-Vitamin A from Golden Rice.
Micronutrient deficiency in human food is nothing new. Societies over the centuries have evolved dietary systems that take care of the nutrient balance that the human body needs. What is perplexing in this instance is, who has decided that Vitamin A is the most essential micronutrient that should be incorporated in rice? Why not Vitamin B complex? After all, several hundred million people in India alone suffer from malnutrition (as compared to only half a million people worldwide who go blind from Vitamin A deficiency). In India, some 12 million people suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, but the number of people who are Vitamin B complex deficient is several times more.
ICAR’s tryst with Golden Rice is in reality a blind experiment and a desperate attempt to regain its lost pride in agricultural research. Suffering from a credibility crisis in the absence of any significant breakthrough after the initial phase of the green, revolution, ICAR’s aim is to drum up some recognition. But the process only serves to distract attention from more pressing problems confronting rural society. A majority of acutely malnourished people, who the proponents of Golden Rice claim to be targeting, cannot afford to buy rice from the market. If these poor people cannot afford to buy normal rice, how are they to buy Golden Rice? If these hungry millions were able to meet their daily requirement of rice, there would be no malnutrition in the first place. The problem, therefore, cannot be addressed by providing nutritional supplements through genetically modified rice but by bringing in suitable policy changes that ensure food for all. Until now the problem for the hungry was that their needs were not being attended to. Now that such ‘sympathetic’ attention is being showered on their needs, their problems are set to multiply.