Tehelka, 9 June 2007

Chairperson of the Planning Commission's Task Force on Agro-biodiversity and Genetically Engineered Organisms and founder of Gene Campaign, Suman Sahai has been advocating for farmers' rights and against the dangers of genetically-modified (GM) crops for more than a decade. One of India's foremost agro-economists, Sahai feels the country should avoid buying expensive GM seeds from global monopolistic corporations when it has the resources to develop indigenous technology. What is required, she told Harsha Baruah and Swati Mongia, is to develop a methodology to solve problems at an affordable cost and increased agricultural research

*Our farmers are in crisis. Do you think it is time we overhaul the current agricultural model?

The current agricultural model is disastrous. The current agricultural research system is a disaster - so is the current level of agricultural scientists, and the way they are required to perform is abysmal. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how terrible the state of our agricultural research system is. And if India is facing one crisis today, it is the crisis of Bharat. You cannot go on weeping that agriculture is 1.4 percent - you need a 4-percent growth to break-even. And nothing is being done about it.SEZs are coming up on agricultural land. Why are they not being set up in urban areas? Why is DDA land not being taken for SEZs?And ultimately, you have to make a fundamental decision - is the progress and development of this country going to happen via 98 percent of India or 2 percent of Bharat?

*But things have started happening, right? Biotech is the latest buzzword”¦

The problem is that it has come very quickly into commercial application. Today, biotechnology has become a very sought-after post, and young people are going in for training offered by lots of private scholarships. But where is the infrastructure? Eventually, we are producing a whole bunch of young people who think they have biotech degrees but are clueless. We talk of Bt Cotton - why is there not a single public sector institution in this country that has come up with an Indian variety? When American farmers wanted Bt Cotton, Monsanto developed it for them. Now it wants to expand its market, so it's come here. But do Indian farmers want Bt Cotton?

*But the counter to this is that our farmers are cynical about adopting such technologies”¦

Wrong. Farmers are never cynical. Farmers are always open and receptive to trying out new technologies and that is part of the problem with importing new technology. Nobody's taught the farmers; nobody's carried out any training programmes or orientation processes, there are no troubleshooting centres where the farmer can go when he is in trouble. There have been reports that in many areas Bt Cotton has failed both in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. This incidentally has been in the state government reports, which have been kept under wraps for long. Why has a review not been done? Today, without any review and analysis, you go and approve 62 varieties of Bt Cotton.

*So you would not encourage farmers to go for Bt Cotton?

No. The way it is being done, it's not worth it. Essentially, the Bt approach to pest-management is in any case a very short-term approach. There's a fundamental thing to understand - no pest remains where it was as it develops resistance. Bt Cotton is also very expensive - Rs 1,850 a pack. A domestic pack comes for Rs 300.

*Are you suggesting that these technologies are meant for Western countries that have the right infrastructure”¦

And also subsidies that can offset the technology costs. There are 25,000 cotton farmers in the US -whether they plant the Bt seed or not, they are going to get a huge package. So, new technology can only be brought into agrarian countries like India. Monsanto wouldn't be bothered about whether the farmers succeed or not. They want to sell seeds and make a profit.

*What dangers do you see from Bt seeds?

To health, to the environment - Bt is after all a toxic gene - a poison-producing gene that you take out from a bacterium. The bacterium has genes like this in order to repel its attackers. You take out this poison-producing gene from the bacteria, and you put it into a bottle - which you are going to put into rice, tomato, potato, brinjal - everything in India is going the Bt way. So human and animal health face a very big danger. The other thing is environment. I totally oppose GM crops. India is the birthplace of rice. No rice is found in forests. If you have foreign genes in genetically-engineered rice, the genes, through pollen, will move into the natural gene pool of rice. This is scary, as it can really spoil your native gene pool. All countries that are centres of origin, like Mexico, for instance, have a ban on GM crops. China has a ban on soya bean, Peru on potato. India is a very strange country - the home of the largest-eaten staple food in the world is experimenting with GM rice.

*What about farmers deaths. How would you handle it?

Nobody gives a damn. Nothing translates on to the ground. What is the pm's scheme when 60 percent of the farmers in Vidharba have mortgaged their land and will not get it back? And in this area you're promoting Bt cotton. Repay their loans - statements will not create solutions. I think the greatest shame for India in the last 60 years is farmer suicides. We as a nation need to hang our heads in shame if even one farmer kills himself, and hundreds have. Yet nothing has changed. Rural credit has been identified as one of the most devastating reasons. Where is the support for the farmer?

*But sometimes stocks are also returned because there is no demand”¦

That's not true. Huge bales of cotton are lying outside Nagpur, because the government has decided to import Chinese cotton. People import cotton because the cotton commission works on an import-export basis. Importing agricultural produce is importing a loss, because you're importing somebody else's product, not your farmers'. In 60 years we've had no agricultural policy - how can Bharat prosper?

*Would you then say that there is no merit in this talk of a second Green Revolution?

I don’t want to use the term Second Green Revolution because corporations are using this term for genetic engineering. The Green Revolution is viewed as a very positive development by the political leadership in this country. It used technology which made India self-reliant and stopped forever our dependence on imports. So the association with the Green Revolution is extremely positive. You won't meet any politician in the country who wouldn't think that it was an instrument which saved political humiliation. Ad gurus have understood the positive association with the Green Revolution and are trying to capitalise on it. The two technologies are like chalk and cheese. The Green Revolution was publicly owned. Research was done in public sector institutions, seeds were owned by the farmer and nobody had any control. There were no intellectual property rights, no patents - nothing. The so-called Second Green Revolution is an entirely privately-owned technology. Every single thing belongs to roughly six corporations. The seed, technology and genes are patented.