Protests Mount in India Against GE Cotton

Protests Mount in India Against GE Cotton

Farmers in India Are Fighting to Ban Monsanto's GM Cotton

Srinand Jha is a New Delhi-based journalist.
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As Americans continue to consume large quantities of genetically modified
foods, farmers across the globe are rising up to block biotech corporations
like Monsanto from pushing engineered crops into their countries.
After some setbacks fueled by public resistance in Europe and elsewhere,
Monsanto and other biotech groups are fast setting up shop in developing
nations. In India, the company is scrambling to persuade farmers that
genetically modified (GM) seeds, like Monsanto's Bt cotton, are better and
more profitable.

The company began Bt cotton field trials in India three years ago. Monsanto
says the cotton seeds provide a defense against pests. The seed relies on a
toxic bacteria gene to protect cotton crops from insects. In theory, the
seeds reduce farmers' costs by eliminating the need for pesticides. Monsanto
also says the seeds increase crop yield and have no adverse ecological

Indian farmers and environmental groups are not convinced. In recent months,
farmers have taken to the streets, waving signs and shouting anti-Monsanto
slogans. They staged protests at Monsanto experimental field sites and in
some cases burned trial crops. Farmers have also protested outside the
Indian Parliament and other government offices, and in front of the New
Delhi home of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Meanwhile, Monsanto is waiting for the go-ahead from the Indian government.
In the last two years, in an effort to woo customers, Monsanto has sponsored
dozens of "farmer awareness programs," meetings to educate farmers about the
Bt cotton seed. The company has tried to involve local non-governmental
groups and has also floated the idea that loans may be available to Indian
farmers who want to try the seeds, once they are available commercially.
New Delhi-based economist Durganand Jha says that Monsanto's aggressive
push into countries like Bangladesh and India is linked to the "failing fortunes"
of the biotech industry in the United States and Europe.

Planting of genetically modified cotton and soy have shown recent modest
gains in the U.S., but planting of genetically engineered corn has dropped
20 percent, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

In Europe, public resistance has forced the mandatory labeling of all GM
foods. Meanwhile, in Brazil this year, farmers invaded and ransacked a local
Monsanto facility, uprooting corn and soybean plants. Monsanto abruptly
discontinued experiments with transgenic Bt cotton in Australia a few years
ago because of mass protests by farmer groups.

In Monsanto's search for new markets, India certainly has appeal. In the
past decade, Indian farmers have suffered devastating losses from government
dismantling of agricultural trade restrictions. Nationwide, thousands of
farmers have committed suicide because of crop failure and mounting debts,
according to numerous press reports. The Hindu, a prominent English-language
daily, reported last year that some farmers had sold their kidneys to pay
off debts. With so many farmers despairing, the ground is fertile for
Monsanto to move in with its "magical seeds," say members of Indian NGOs.
Nevertheless, Monsanto is meeting resistance.

Indian activists say there are economic and cultural factors -- as well as
scientific arguments -- for their opposition. Though Monsanto claims that
genetically engineered seeds would bring down cultivation costs, farmers
fear the opposite is true. A study by the New Delhi-based Research
Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), bolsters farmers'
concerns. The study says farmers' expenses would rise by as much as nine
times if they switched from traditional seeds to Bt cotton seeds. This
includes an $80 technology fee per 2.6 acres charged by Monsanto. The
fee alone is prohibitive in a country like India with an average annual per
capita income of $450.

Genetically modified seeds -- unlike most cotton seeds -- can only be used
once. Not only does this force farmers to return each year to buy new seeds,
but the non-renewable concept does not sit well with the cultural ethos of
Indian farmers. A majority of the country's farmers are Hindus who believe
in the reincarnation of all living beings, including plants and animals. In
general, Indians have a deep and abiding faith in the "laws of nature."
"God willed it that I have seven sons, so I have them. There is a cyclic law
of nature that is at work everywhere. And we can tinker with this law only
at our own peril," says Biswanath Das, a small farmer from the eastern state
of Orissa. Das says he thinks no good can come from playing with the genetic
make-up of seeds or food.

"[Westerners] may have achieved some material progress, but they lack
'samskaras.' What they are doing now can only spell doom," he says.
Samskaras is a Sanskrit term for cultural/religious traditions or breeding.
Ashok Panigrahi, head of the Jaiv Panchayat, a grassroots organization
representing some 15 village groups in Orissa, agrees. "Seeds are not seeds
if they cannot regenerate. What Monsanto is peddling is an anti-nature
material -- things of destruction and death," he says.

Many farmer and environmentalist groups accuse Monsanto of attempting
to monopolize and colonize farming in the Third World. They worry that the
entry of trans-national corporations into India will lead to the monopolization
of the seed industry to the detriment of small Indian farmers. Already, about
10 companies worldwide hold 30 percent of the annual $23 billion commercial
seed trade, and genetically modified crops are virtually controlled by only four
companies: Monsanto, Switzerland's Syngenta, France's Aventis and the U.S.'s
DuPont, according to Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.

"If present trends are to continue, only a handful of companies will come to
possess control over the entire agricultural foundation of every society
within the next few years," says Afsar H. Jafri, of RFSTE.

Physicist and environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva is one of the leaders of
the burgeoning movement against genetically engineered crops in India.
Shiva, founder of RFSTE, has worked tirelessly to block Monsanto's biotech
expansion into India. She has traveled continuously around India's
countryside to build national awareness against the "scientific imperialism"
of agrochemical corporations. Last January, she and more than 100 farmer
groups sent a letter of protest to Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, warning
of the dangers of letting agrochemical giants into India.

Shiva has a suit pending in India's Supreme Court challenging the legality
of Monsanto's Bt cotton field trials and seeking to ban the seed. The suit
alleges that Monsanto violated the terms and timing of its field trial
permit. Shiva says, the sole governmental agency able to rule in bio-safety
matters -- the Indian Environment and Forest Ministry's Genetic Engineering
Approval Committee (GEAC) -- was bypassed in the process of granting
Monsanto clearance. The GEAC did grant permission for the Monsanto trials
eventually -- but with "retrospective effect" two years later in July 2000.
Monsanto's India director, Ranjana Smetacek, did not respond to specific
concerns raised by activists saying only, "The 25-fold increase in the area
of cultivation of biotech crops -- from 4.2 million acres in 1996 to 109.2
million acres in 2000 -- in 13 countries across six continents speaks for
itself." Responding to questions about the controversy in India, Smetacek
denies wrongdoing.

India's seeds business holds considerable commercial potential. That is what
makes the country so attractive, Shiva says.

"It is the promise held out by the lucrative Indian market, therefore, that
appears to be inspiring trans-national gene giants to make a beeline for
India," she says.

But if Shiva and thousands of Indian farmers have their way, the
multinational gene-giants may soon be forced out.

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