A few months back the US-based Indian biotechnologist, C.S.Prakash, responded to an article on the rice genome by New Delhi based food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma . As the questions he raised are often brought up by GM proponents in public forums, Devinder Sharma's detailed point by point replies are of particular interest.
Below Devinder Sharma's reply is an earlier article, "Rice genome mapping
NO RESPITE FOR THE HUNGRY"
Dear Dr Prakash,
I have tried to answer your concerns, point by point. What you said in your letter, is in bold letters, followed by my reply.
[C.S.P.] You make some valid points about the problems facing rice farmers but you cite many current and past problems which have nothing to do with biotechnology.
[D.S.] Biotechnology CANNOT operate in isolation. It too operates under the prevailing political economy. To say that the rice genome mapping will help result in increased production in the years to come is simply an emotional and PR exercise, which cuts very well with the politicians and policy makers. But in reality, what is the use of these "biotechnological breakthroughs" when the farmers (in India, for instance) are being asked not to produce more?
[C.S.P.] Scientific advances in genomics and transgenics can simply help us develop more productive and efficient rice varieties that may help cut down the use of pesticides, provide a degree of stability to the yield, shield crops against the vagaries of attack by drought or a pest, and the most important, increase the income for these farmers so that they can also buy other things they need.
[D.S.] Aren't these the usual pronouncements of the potentials of biotechnology? And I am sure you know better than me about the term "green washing"?
I think the entire focus of the scientific community (including CGIAR) is to divert attention from the real issues confronting agriculture. The tragedy is that agricultural scientists DO NOT want to go into the farmers fields. They globe-trot at the slightest pretext, stay in five star comforts, work in air-conditioned labs, but when it comes to going into farmers fields, they don't want to soil their hands. We may not accept this. But we cannot simply wish away the ground realities.
There are much better and simple ways to increase production (if need be), develop "efficient" rice varieties that help cut down the use of pesticides. And that reminds of what President Suharto had done in Indonesia at the behest of IRRI-FAO scientists who had gone to advise him on how to meet the challenge arising from the attack of pests on rice. President Suharto had, by a Presidential decree, banned 57 pesticides on rice in one go. At the same time, he launched the IPM [Integrated Pest Management] on rice. The USAID, the US Embassy and the MNCs had then also made a lot of noise, telling the President that such an action will push his country into a hunger trap. After all, rice is the staple food of Indonesia.
But somehow, the President stood his ground. In two years, rice production increased by 18 per cent and the usage of pesticides came down by 65 per cent. Why can't we replicate the model elsewhere?
To say that biotechnology will help increase the income of farmers so that he can buy other things, I think is completely incorrect. By using such environmentally-harmful genetic engineering technologies, farmers will actually be getting into a still worse debt-trap, a trap that will certainly force many of them to resort to suicides. Who will be held accountable if the cotton farmers in India start committing suicide following the failure of Bt cotton on account of insect-resistance that is sure to develop in the years to come? Will Monsanto take responsibility for this? Will those, who blindly support genetic engineering, take responsibility for this?
[C.S.P.] Do you have any alternative constructive suggestions to improve the access and distribution problem?
[D.S.] Oh, yes. I have a number of 'constructive suggestions' on how to improve access and distribution. Let me cite just one of these approaches. In the heart of the infamous hunger and starvation belt of India, called Kalahandi (in Orissa), a cluster of 20 villages have never faced hunger for over 20 years now. They resort to a traditional community-based system of "foodgrain banks". They do not get any support from the government. The community manages this grain bank. But because there are no possible kickbacks from this approach, no government or the private initiative is willing to take this further.
[C.S.P.] No one claims that biotechnology or any technology would solve all the agricultural problems which are related to misguided policies, strangling of farm economy by statist intervention, and bureaucratic controls of farm inputs and price controls.
[D.S.] I think the biotechnology industry DOES give an impression as if it is going to help solve all such problems. You have yourself said earlier that the technology will help in the production of efficient crop varieties, bring stability to production and ultimately help increase the farmers income. Aren't these far-fetched claims? And as far as my understanding of the biotechnology industry goes, biotechnology is also part of the 'misguided policies'. It proliferates because bureaucrats are keen to push it (howsoever we may blame them for other things). Look at the United States. Haven't the bureaucrats in the FDA tried to ensure that the scientists concern about the technology are kept under wraps? Haven't the FDA and USDA used its diplomatic skills, funding mechanisms and even bullying tactics to push the technology onto the developing countries?
[C.S.P.] Much of the problem you quote about farmers have to do with the increased government dependency and those 'institutional safety nets' you call for are disguised attempts to increase such dependency of our farmers on the state to would only exacerbate this situation.
[D.S.] Please tell me where in the world are farmers not 'dependent' upon the State? In the US, farmers have been paid US $ 22 billion in the past two years, bulk of it as direct payments. In the OECD countries, agriculture subsidies amount to US $ 360 billion. I know of farmers in UK, who get a subsidy of one million pounds a year, and that for NOT growing anything.
It is only in the developing countries that farmers are left at the mercy of the 'market forces'. The 'institutional safety nets' that you have rightly mentioned have helped countries like India achieve food self-sufficiency. Dismantling it, would be catastrophic.
If we are really serious about ressurecting world agriculture, let us first remove all farm subsidies in the developed countries. You will agree that charity always begins at home. Why don't you and your colleagues 'advise' the USDA to do away with all kinds of hidden and not-so-hidden subsidies? Why must we have the US, Canada, European Union, Japan, Austraila and New Zealand produce farm products by indulging in 'highly unsustainable' agriculture farming systems and that too at such a prohibitive cost, and then dump the produce onto developing countries? Can FAO or the CGIAR 'advise' these governments not to encourage further increases in production through what many used to call as "efficient" and now the proponents of biotechnology call as "precision" technology? Why do we need these surpluses in the west when resource-poor farmers in the developing countries can do it much cheaply and effectively? And that too by following more sustainable farming systems.
[C.S.P.] At least because of the success of green revolution you have these overflowing warehouses but is this a far worser situation than massive starvation?
[D.S.] Yes, green revolution is responsible for overflowing warehouses. And green revolution succeeded only because of the 'institutional' support in the form of procurement prices and assured markets (through State's intervention). Discarding these 'institutional' mechanisms will push the country back into a 'ship-to-mouth' existence. I am sure you do not want India to be in that desperate a situation?
In any case, the overflowing stocks are there because people cannot buy foodgrains. If in India, for instance, we were to distribute food at the minimum calorie intake of 2500 cal a day, we would need another 50 million tonnes besides the 45 million tonnes surplus that we have today. In reality, therefore, the present surplus is what I call as a 'hunger surplus'. Can biotechnology in any way help solve this crisis? Biotechnology will only worsen the situation.
[C.S.P.] At least increased use of technology and more open trade would help these farmers to be more independent, productive, competitive and ultimately prosperous.
There is no such thing as free trade. At a time when massive subsidies are being doled out to farmers on either side of the Atlantic, any talk of open trade is futile and fraught with dangers. In the west, for instance, a cow receives more subsidy than what a farm family earns in a year in India How can we be competitive in such a distorted situation?
Biotechnology will only make farmers DEPENDENT on a comparatively unproductive technology, whose entire aim would be to garner more profits (terminator and traitor technologies?). It will push a large number of farmers out of agriculture to join the growing number of labourers thronging to the cities. Since we have no provisions to give them alternate employment, what will we do with this mass?
In India, for instance, the average land holding size per farm family is less than two hectares. With the farmers number presently exceeding 550 million, the task before the nation is on how to make agriculture remunerative and attractive enough to restore the farmers' confidence. But instead of providing these, the Indian government is busy dismantling the 'institutional mechanism' leaving the farmers with no option but to face the flood of cheap imports (under WTO). In turn, biotechnology (which is a part of the globalised system) will only exacerbate the crisis that confronts contemporary agriculture. It has already been estimated that the number of people migrating from the villages of India to the cities (by the year 2010) will exceed twice the combined population of Germany, France and UK. My fear is that with biotechnology being forced onto us together with the WTO monster, the migration rate will be five time more than what has been predicted.
Let us all make efforts to see that this does not happen. Such a socio-economic chaos in India will have global repercussions.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) is visibly excited. After all, the mapping of the rice genome announced by multinationals Syngenta AG and Myriad Genetics Inc. appears to be a vital tool for boosting yields and relieving world hunger. And for an international organisation, which is officially committed to elevating hunger and malnutrition, this is obviously a cause for cheer. FAO officials have been quoted as saying that the technological breakthrough "will provide us an additional tool to increase food production in the next 20 years as the population rises," adding, "food could become more affordable to the poor people who consume it." Laudable thoughts, indeed.And if wishes were horses, the FAO would certainly provide millions of hungry and acutely malnourished an easy ride. For an organisation, which has been using pop concerts and spends more time in strengthening the information technology highway for the poor and the needy, the Herculean task of ending world hunger certainly needs a magic bullet. At the 1996 World Food Summit at Rome, FAO had very conveniently deferred the monumental task of eradicating hunger, and that too by half, to the year 2015. In November 2001, when the food experts meet again for the "Rome plus Five" conference, I wouldn't be surprised if the FAO further pushes the deadline for adequately feeding half the growing number of the hungry, to the year 2025 ! FAO says that the world's rice-eating population is growing faster than rice output and that investment is urgently needed to teach poor families to boost rice yields. The growth rate of rice yields dropped to one per cent a year in the 1990s from around 2.5 per cent a year in the 1970s and 1980s. Before Syngenta's announcement, FAO had forecast that rice yields would grow by just one per cent a year over the next 20 years. These statistics, however, reveal less than what it conceals. There is certainly no cause for alarm. And by creating a false alarm, FAO is merely trying to seek more public investment, which in turn will ensure food security for its staffers. FAO has repeatedly told us that there are about 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night. A third of these acutely malnourished and hungry, an estimated 250 million, live in India. And if India alone were to launch an all-out attack to remove hunger much of the world's hunger problem would be resolved. On the other hand, in the South Asia region, the hunger situation is even worse than sub-Saharan Africa. Together, the seven nations of the South Asia region are inhabited by more than half the world's hungry population. It also remains a fact that the rice yields in the South Asian countries, including India, are amongst the lowest in the world. In India, for instance, if we were to exclude the rice productivity in Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the yields would hover around one tonne a hectare. In any case, even by including the higher yields in the green revolution belt, the rice productivity averages at about two tonnes. This is pathetically lower than the high rate of productivity, exceeding six to seven tonnes a hectare, in neighbouring China. So even without incorporating the 'cutting-edge' technology, as genetic engineering is profoundly called, there exists tremendous scope to multiply production (at least by three times) by simply improving the management of the crop farming systems. But can FAO tell us why should the farmers be asked to produce more? At the height of the paddy harvesting season last year, hundreds of thousands of farmers in the frontline agricultural states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, in northwest India, had waited for three weeks before the government agencies were forced to purchase the excess stocks. For three weeks, farmers sat patiently over heaps of paddy in the grain markets. At least 25 farmers, unable to bear the economic burden that comes with crop cultivation, preferred to commit suicide by drinking pesticides. In Andhra Pradesh, in south India, there were no buyers for the five million tonnes paddy surplus. Even in the poverty-stricken belt of Bihar and Orissa, in north-central India, farmers waited endlessly for the buyers. Paddy procurement in India hardly got off the ground. Farmers' suicide is perhaps a reflection on the breakdown of institutional safety nets, which in the past have cushioned the impact of agrarian crisis. Farmers can no longer turn to banks and credit societies for loans and procurement support; the public distribution system no longer offers food supplies at substantially subsidised prices; and market intervention is only partial - a combination of frustrating circumstances. Andhra Pradesh has publicly asked farmers not to produce more paddy. In Punjab, the citadel of green revolution, farmers are being asked to shift from staple foods like wheat and paddy to cash crops. And yet, FAO wants farmers to produce more food. Isn't [there] something terribly wrong with the way the FAO blindly supports biotechnological breakthroughs, and in turn eagerly pushes farmers into a suicide trap? It was during the peak of the paddy harvesting season in India that I had visited Indonesia to understand the rice farming systems in relation to food security. What shocked me was to learn that Indonesia too was faced with a similar crisis. While rice farmers waited for their produce to be bought, Indonesia was comfortablewith the import of still cheaper rice from Vietnam. The paradox of plenty is thus not only confined to India. Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Indonesia are overflowing with foodgrains. In fact, Bangladesh, a chronically food-deficit country, had announced embargo on rice imports a couple of years back. All these countries are, however, waiting for another impending disaster -- what will happen to the very survival of the farming communities when cheaper foodgrain imports under the WTO have to be allowed ? Rice genome mapping cannot address the real issues of access and distribution that results in hunger. Genetic engineering, and more through cosmetic pills of Vitamin A-enriched rice and herbicide-tolerant plants, will in reality exacerbate the existing crisis confronting the agrarian sector in the rice-eating countries. FAO cannot continue to hide behind the pronouncements of the genetic engineering industry. It has to embark upon a fact-finding mission to bring out the stark realities that continue to impede agricultural development and growth. But then, it may be too much of an expectation considering that the monolithic organisation is buried under the weight of a highly inefficient army of country heads and managers.
(Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst)
Mailing address: 96-A, Gautam Nagar, New Delhi-110 049 (Tel: 656 2326)
FEEDING THE WORLD?