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Engineering Crops in a Needy World

By John Biewen
National Public Radio
December 26, 2000

In Europe and the United States, the debate over genetically modified crops has focused on questions about the environment and food safety. But in developing countries…the questions are different and the stakes are higher. For farm families just barely surviving…the possibility that GM crops could make things better…or worse…is a question of life or death.

One fourth of the world's poorest people live in India. Most poor Indians are farmers. Whether those farmers should start planting genetically modified seeds is the subject of an impassioned argument among Indian politicians…scientists…and activists. But the people who will be most affected by the outcome - farmers themselves - are rarely heard. John Biewen of American RadioWorks reports.


Venkat Reddy saw only two terrible choices: to commit suicide…or sell a piece of his body.

Reddy's voice, then interpreter: "He doesn't have any land. He doesn't have any property."

Reddy is 38 - a small man and very thin. Through an interpreter…he explains he used to grow cotton and chilies on four acres of rented land in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. But a year ago he bought worthless seeds from a dishonest salesman. His crop failed.

[His voice], interpreter: "Because of the crops he lost a lot of money, due to which he had to borrow from the money lenders which he could not repay. To clear the loans, he said it's better to actually donate something rather than, you know, kill himself and leave his family. So the brokers came and he agreed to actually sell his kidney rather than, you know, killing himself with insecticide."

Hundreds of destitute Indian farmers have committed suicide in recent years. Reddy was paid a thousand dollars for his kidney. That erased his debts…but the surgery left him too weak to work. Now his wife supports him and their three children.

[he talks] Tr: "She also, she's a laborer, she works on somebody else's land and earns money."

Venkat Reddy's story doesn't seem to have anything to do with genetically modified…or GM…seeds. He's never used them; such crops have not been approved in India. Reddy just got swindled. But he illustrates just how vulnerable the world's poorest farmers can be. And why the debate over GM crops is especially wrenching…and important…in the developing world. In India…seven in ten of the nation's one billion people live or work on farms - mostly tiny farms that generate a marginal living. So for hundreds of millions of Indians…desperation is just one failed crop away.

Manju Sharma: "What of the scenario in India? 200 million people are below the poverty line, even now. 85 million children below five years of age are undernourished…."

Manju Sharma directs the Indian government's Department of Biotechnology. Speaking at a conference in New Delhi…she highlights the potential of genetic engineering to produce crops resistant to pests…disease and drought. She says GM seeds could put more money in the pockets of farmers like Venkat Reddy…and more food on their plates.

As a nation…India has plenty of food today; those who go hungry do so because they're too poor to buy it. At a sprawling market in Bangalore…vendors display a colorful array of fruits and vegetables. There's fish and mutton…and dozens of varieties of lentils and rice.

Shop guy: "In table rice we've got three, four qualities. In Basmati it'll be twenty or twenty-five qualities will be there…."

Biewen: But Sharma points to projections that the world will add several billion people in the next few decades…most of them in poor regions like Africa and South Asia.

Sharma: "The challenge for the agricultural scientist during the next decades is therefore very clear. Double the food production by 2025 and triple it by 2050, on less per capita land, with less water, under increasingly challenging environmental conditions. It has now been recognized world over that biotechnology offers enormous promise for enhancing the agricultural productivity…."

But a lot of people the world over - and in India - passionately oppose genetic engineering. India's debate on the technology sometimes sounds like the one in Europe…or Seattle - where GM seeds are condemned as a symbol of global corporate domination.

It's a bright…sticky September day in Bangalore…the capital of the state of Karnataka. About two thousand farmers rally near the central train station and start a three-mile march through the city streets. Most of the marchers are men; they wear sandals and either trousers or the traditional loincloth…the dhoti. Each has a green cotton shawl draped over one shoulder as a symbol of solidarity.

[guy talks in Kannada (chanting in background)]

Asked what they're protesting…the men offer a range of grievances about government farm policy.

Translator: "He wants to gets good price for his … wheat, and maize, sorghum."

Biewen to translator: "The price is too low."

Some say the group they belong to…the Karnataka State Farmers Association…just gave them a train ticket and asked them to come.

[guy says something and laughs]

Interpreter: "He doesn't know why, or what is going on."

But at the sight of foreign journalists with microphones…rally organizers lead the marchers in chants against the World Trade Organization and multinational corporations. One in particular:

Chanting Guy: "Monsanto!"

Crowd response: "Dhikkara!"

Monsanto…the American chemical and biotech giant…developed an insect-resistant cotton seed - the first GM crop approved for large-scale field trial in India. The government announced the permit just weeks before this rally.

Chanting: "Monsanto!"

Crowd: "Dhikkara!"

Leaders of the protest brought Venkat Reddy to town to make a point. He's the cotton farmer who donated his kidney in desperation. Protesters say if India embraces the new corporate…high-tech seeds…that will cause more kidney sales and suicides by locking more farmers into dependency and debt. They say traditional seed varieties that can be traded or planted for free every year might become hard to find…or could get contaminated by engineered crops in neighboring fields. Then the big multinationals would control the market for seeds - the most basic source of a farmer's livelihood…and his life.

Farmer: "Their purpose only to cheat us, loot us. This is a new colonial phenomena of all these multinationals."

Chant: "Monsanto!" "Dhikkara!"

The farmers' chant - Down with you! Shame on you! - echoes Gandhi's message to British colonizers more than a half-century ago.

Mahade: "Monsanto!"

Crowd: "Dhikkara!"

Mahade: "Globalization!"

Crowd: "Dhikkara!"

Mahade: "Privatization!"

Crowd: "Dhikkara!"

To put this protest by a couple thousand farmers in context: the state of Karnakata alone has many millions of farmers. Most are not engaged in the debate over genetically modified crops. Indian elites dominate that debate…and the broader ideological one that seems to drive it. Now that both the British Empire and the Cold War are history…some Indians want to keep the West at arm's length and hold onto their country's quasi-socialist economy. Others can't wait to climb aboard the global capitalist juggernaut.

[cross-fade to indoors…voices, hubbub, upbeat music on video]

Reassuring voice: "…the latest technology through high quality seeds, so that the farmer and consumer can have the bright future they deserve."

The same day as the march…at one of Bangalore's best hotels…men and women in business suits browse among exhibit booths and renew acquaintances. It's the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Seed Association. The protest by farmers was aimed at this gathering of agricultural business people.

Guy greeting another in Indian accent: "We met long back. And we had a beer!"

At its booth…a company called Nunhems ProAgro displays perfect…shiny vegetables produced through conventional hybrid breeding. Managing Director Arvind Kapur says GM vegetables are coming soon.

Kapur: "Tomato, eggplant, cauliflower and cabbages. And we are now doing experiment in these crops, in cauliflower and cabbages we are doing field trials, limited field trials, for the insect resistance."

Kapur says GM technology simply gives farmers new choices…just like the modern hybrid seeds that some Indian farmers have planted for years. He says those who want to save and plant traditional seed varieties will always have that option. A French conglomerate… Aventis…owns Kapur's company…but he says the protesters across town aren't complaining about him.

Kapur: "All our people are from India. We have not put any person which have no knowledge of Indian operations. I am Managing Director of this company, and my people are from India; we know what we are doing for India."

It's not clear that anti-GM forces would take comfort in knowing that Indians staff the local branches of multinational companies. But the man who runs the Monsanto Research Center in Bangalore thinks it's worth pointing out, too.

[Hubbub goes away…cross to quiet office]

Manjunath: "No doubt Monsanto is an American company, but people who are working in India for Monsanto, we are all Indians here."

T.M. Manjunath is former agricultural entomologist at a Bangalore university. He joined the American company in 1998 when it opened this facility. [walking stairs] The research center is compact but architecturally striking: curved stairways…thick wooden doors with hand-carved Indian motifs. [walking…sounds of machines come and go] And that's before you get to the labs and greenhouse. 75 scientists work here. They're compiling data on the genetic make-up of various crops…and designing GM cotton for the Indian market.

Shantanu: "Yeah, I'm Shantanu and I'm a molecular biologist. Here we have all state-of-the-art technologies, all the facilities, whatever you need to do molecular biology, to do recombinant work. {sound starts} And all kinds of - you can hear the sound of that incubator." [chuckles]

Manjunath: "There used to be a complaint that there has been a brain-drain in India. We have been able to attract the Indian scientists, and they are working in this country. It's a positive aspect and in the long run it is going to benefit our country."

Manjunath argues biotechnology will improve the lives of Indian farmers. He says GM seeds will make for more reliable and profitable crops…reducing tragedies like that of the cotton farmer who sold his kidney. Manjunath's eyes actually well up at this thought: that high-tech seeds could help India not to become dependent on developed countries…but to join them.

Manjunath: "You know, India has a vast agricultural land, and predominantly ours is an agricultural country. And if India really makes efforts, it has all the potential to become a superpower in agriculture."

So…would genetically modified crops - or…as they're sometimes called…'transgenic' crops - would they save India…or enslave it? Most people active in the debate take one extreme position or the other. Suman Sahai is an exception. She's a geneticist and the head of Gene Campaign…a non-profit group based in New Delhi.

Sahai: "Unfortunately, in this debate on transgenics, there has been massive polarization for the 'for' and the 'against' people, both of whom are compromising a little bit with the truth."

Sahai has deep concerns about the possible environmental effects of engineered crops - and the patenting that goes with them. She wants Indian lawmakers to reject the Western notion that intellectual property rights can apply to seeds. At the same time…Sahai says some opponents exaggerate the dangers of genetic engineering…and too quickly dismiss its potential.

Sahai: "Sometimes it seems that this debate is taking place in some ethereal kind of area where real people, real hunger, real starvation, is not visible. If it is a technology that can give me something, and if it is a technology that is safe, there is no earthly reason for me not to accept it."

Sahai argues most commercial GM crops are designed mainly for the benefit of more affluent Western farmers. But plant geneticists are at work in university and government labs around the world…creating GM crops specifically for subsistence farmers… with traits like improved nutrition. The best known is 'golden rice.' Swiss scientists engineered the rice to contain beta-carotene…which the human body turns into Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency causes death and blindness in hundreds of thousands of Asian children every year…half of them in India. With help from a London-based biotech corporation… AstraZeneca…the inventors hope to give golden rice to poor Asian farmers. Another non-corporate scientist - and an outspoken biotech advocate - is C.S. Prakash. He's a Bangalore native based in Alabama.

Prakash: "And so what you're looking at here is a sweet potato tissue, which is just trying to develop into little bit of plants here…."

Prakash is 43…a compact and intense man with a mustache and wire-rim glasses. He holds up a petri dish in his lab at Tuskegee University.

Prakash: "We have completely focused on this crop for the last ten or so years in our research. It's a crop of tremendous importance to developing countries…."

Millions of subsistence farmers in Africa…Southeast Asia and parts of India rely on sweet potatoes as a staple. But for children who eat little else…sweet potatoes don't provide enough protein.

Prakash: "That's one of the reasons why, even when you see a child from Africa, a 15-year-old child will look like an 8-year-old American child, because they simply lack these essential, vital nutrients in their diet."

Prakash borrowed an artificial gene developed by a colleague - one that mimics protein-building genes in other crops like corn. When he introduced it into sweet potatoes… Prakash got a result beyond his expectations: a sweet potato with five times the usual protein content.

Prakash: "And I would say in maybe another three to five years, hopefully, the farmers in countries like Vietnam or Africa would be growing these crops and benefit from it."

Prakash says his GM sweet potatoes could not trap poor farmers in debt or dependency. Potatoes are self-germinating…so a government could give the seeds to farmers once…and they'd never have to buy them again…from a corporation or anyone else. But Prakash says the opposition's blanket condemnation of GM crops may well stop him and other non-corporate scientists from ever getting their seeds to farmers.

Prakash: "It's been a very startling experience to suddenly find ourselves being attacked, you know, as mad scientists run amuck, our scientific research and products have been labeled as Frankenfood and things like that. And I think it's grossly unjust."

TV footage -- Host: "Welcome back, you're watching Crossfire and we're discussing the introduction of genetically modified seeds into India, with Dr. Vandana Shiva and Professor Prakash."

Prakash flew to New Delhi last August for a TV debate with Vandana Shiva. She's a former physics professor…and one of India's most outspoken opponents of GM crops. Here the two argue about how well the environmental safety of such crops has been studied.

Prakash: "Twenty-five thousand field trials have happened, and thousands of plants..."

Shiva: "And who generates the data?"

(a few seconds of chaos, both talking at once)

Shiva: "Dr. Prakash, not one publication is peer-reviewed...."

Prakash: "No, no, no, again that is misinformation. I can give you fifty publications…."

Prakash and Shiva both accuse each other of shilling for powerful foreigners. Shiva points out that Prakash is an adviser to the US Department of Agriculture; he travels the world speaking at US government expense. At her office in New Delhi…Shiva says the pro-biotech camp is using Prakash as a Trojan horse…along with another high-profile crop geneticist…Kenya's Florence Wambugu.

Shiva: "It's a hoax. They themselves admit the first generation of 'miracle crops' they deployed weren't that warmly received by farmers or the consumers. So they've now got this wonderful public relations exercise, hiring people like C.S. Prakash and Florence Wambugu, sending them all over the world. Now these are suddenly brown skins and black skins like us, so they're suddenly supposed to be speaking for the third world."

Shiva says poor Indian farmers don't need genetically modified crops; they could feed themselves and their country using traditional…mixed-crop…chemical-free methods.

Shiva: "When you have an agriculture of that kind, the poorest people, who are rural people, don't go hungry - they're the ones who are most hungry today. They diversity of healthy, nutritious crops for the market."

That argument keeps Shiva busy on the global lecture circuit; she's well known among green…anti-corporate groups in the West. C.S. Prakash says Shiva's fans and financial backers in rich countries owe their abundance to the tools of modern agriculture. They may think they have the luxury to reject those tools...he says…but Indian farmers don't.

Prakash: "It just flies so well in terms of the Western audience with the guilty, with their affluence, when someone from the third world comes and says, 'Hey, no, we want to stay like this. This is, you know, our old way of doing it. We want to be poor, we want to be backward.' And I think it's absurd! And so if you talk to any farmer in India - and go ask them. They are not against any technology."

Ramachar plowing: [plow and footsteps through soil.] "Bah!" … makes squeaking noise with his mouth…

On a fertile plateau an hour east of Bangalore…a barefoot…60-year-old farmer named Ramachar prods a pair of oxen as he plows his one-and-a-quarter-acre field. Under the hot sun he wears blue denim shorts and a white towel over his shoulder. His steel-bottom plow slices through the reddish soil.

Ramachar shouts: "Che!"

Of the thirty farm families who live in the village of Sabenahally…only the three richest have tractors. But farmers here have embraced modern innovations when they could. For example…most no longer save seeds from one crop to plant the next…as their ancestors did for thousands of years.

Ramachar: "Hybrid."

Translator: "Hybrid. He's go for hybrid only."

Ramachar is getting ready to plant carrots. He says he switched to hybrid seeds three years ago. He buys them every year from a seed company.

Ramachar in Kannada…Translator: "Because of it, he is getting good yield."

[light rain, crickets, men's voices]

That evening a much-needed rain starts falling…pleasing the men who stand in the village square talking. About a dozen farmers…most in their twenties and thirties…step under a roof beside a house. I ask them about the demonstration a few days earlier in Bangalore…where some farmers denounced multinational companies and genetically modified seeds. These farmers all shrug and shake their heads…except a young man named Narayanswami.

Guy in Kannada: "news" audible several times.

Translator: "He is only the man know about this because he was seeing this at TV and he was observing."

Farmer: "Monsanto seeds, Monsanto seeds."

Narayansami says he wouldn't hesitate to buy seeds from a foreign multinational…if they're good seeds.

Biewen to the men: "Is there anybody here who does NOT feel that way? Who feels uneasy about using a seed from a big multinational American company…?"

This is definitely not a scientific survey…but it's unanimous. These farmers say they'll buy seeds from anyone if it means better crops and bigger profits. The same goes for seeds containing genes from other organisms.

[Farmers voices].

Translator: "If it is not harmful for the farmers, they doesn't mind anything."

In a park in Bangalore…farmer Venkat Reddy sits in a blue plastic chair and answers questions from a French journalist.

Bruno: "How many kids do they have?"

Translator: "Two boys and one girl."

Reddy tells his story again. How…pressed into debt by a failed crop…he considered suicide…but instead made what he thought was the more responsible decision: he sold his kidney to pay the moneylenders. The cruel irony is that the surgery left Reddy so sick he guesses he'll be dead in a couple of years anyway.

Reddy talks…Trans: "He's saying digestive power has reduced considerably, and his back aches and he feels very weak."

So now India cautiously considers whether to let farmers plant genetically modified seeds. In a country where farmers sometimes kill themselves or sell their internal organs in desperation…and millions of children don't get enough to eat…maybe the question is…which would be more costly…more careless: opening the door to the new high-tech seeds…or rejecting them?

For NPR News and American RadioWorks…I'm John Biewen.