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When Western Activism is Misguided

By P. Chengal Reddy, President of the Federation of Farmers Associations
Andhra Pradesh, India
October 31, 2000

There is nothing so admirable as an energized and active youth involved in the issues of their day. But from the perspective of a developing country that desperately seeks to benefit from advances in biotechnology, today's young Western activists are a cause for concern.

Certain well-known activist organizations in developed countries have been attacking the general concept of agricultural biotechnology - perhaps as the result of living in an affluent society, where choices abound and hunger and malnutrition are far removed from daily existence. These organizations and their leaders do so, however, with glaring disregard for the needs of the developing world. I would like to put forth some hard facts about Asia's poor and their problems and ask that that activists look at the issues of environment protection and biotechnology from a different angle.

In poor countries people eat only about 30 percent of what is consumed in the West. In Europe and the USA, per capita consumption of meat is 70 kilos and 200 eggs per year, whereas an Indian consumes 1700 grams of meat and 28 eggs per year. India has 350 million people below the poverty line, and many earn less than one dollar per a day.

Seventy percent of the agricultural lands in India are dependent on monsoons for water. Every year we loose billions of dollars worth of crops because of drought, floods, pests and diseases. Millions of hectares cannot be cultivated due to high-salinity. Our productivity levels in most of crops is less than 50 percent of what is produced in the West.

In India, about 700 million people are dependent on agriculture. Over 500 million are small and marginal farmers with holdings of less than one hectare. These farmers do not have access to credit facilities, extension services or quality inputs of seed, fertilizer or pesticides and have no irrigation facility for their land. The electricity supply is irregular and very costly. Farmers are forced to spend billions of rupees on crop protection management. The net result is that farmers are in permanent indebtedness. Neither God nor the Government is helping them. Every year, thousands of farmers commit suicide.

Indian agricultural lands are highly divergent in nature. Thousands of Indian villages are situated on high-salinity, rocky or rainfed lands that are not suitable for regular cultivation. In the past 50 years the Indian government has been unable to find any solutions to these problems.

Biotechnology has great potential to help solve the problems of malnutrition, drought, floods, pest control, salinity, etc. that affect poor nations. Furthermore, biotechnology has the capability to convert a simple carbohydrate rice into a value-added variety containing vitamins and proteins. Yet even as biotechnology offers the possibility of developing drought-resistant, flood-resistant, pest-resistant and salinity-resistant seeds, the question remains: will environmentalists allow us to utilize this technology for agricultural development?

Biotechnology is frontier research, and requires huge investment, hundreds of scientists and many years to develop and test new seed varieties. Already, our farmers personally benefit from genetically modified tomato seeds. They are now producing 15-20 tonnes of tomatoes, against 3-5 tonnes produced by local varieties. The preservation quality is excellent and we have had no complaints about any environmental effects from our neighbors, nor from consumers.

Between 1995 and 2000, thousands of cotton producers in India committed suicide because of cotton crop failures due to boll-worm. We have heard and read that BollGard seed produced by Monsanto has helped million of farmers in the USA, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and especially China to assure their cotton crop, by using bollworm resistant seeds. We read that farmers' use of pesticides was reduced and that they produced more and earned a higher income from their cotton crop. Understandably, Indian farmers who want to produce more want to be able to choose improved seeds like these over poorer-quality, local varieties. Yet environmentalists seem to want Indian farmers to do just the opposite, regardless of the obvious benefits to our livelihoods and well-being.

Americans have been consuming foods produced through biotechnology for the last 4-5 years. Yet how many farmers have filed complaints of environment pollution? How many consumers have filed cases of side effects from eating biotech food?

We are saddened that environmentalists in the USA do not appreciate the difficulties faced by poor people in developing nations. The young, idealistic activists of today seem so much at odds with previous generations, who were primarily motivated to serve and help the poor, and who came and worked in our villages as service-oriented young Americans did in the 1960s during John F. Kennedy's time. Thousands of our farmers fondly remember the wonderful advice and guidance provided by Peace Cops volunteers in crop management, animal husbandry, education, hygiene and sanitation.

If activists are sincere about helping the poor in India or in any developing nations, they should help farmers adopt the latest agricultural technologies, information technologies and modern management practices to increase productivity levels, market produce profitably and provide skills to farmers' organizations and leaders so that they can articulate and address problems by themselves.

It is the very height of callous disregard to deny modern agricultural technologies to the world's most needy, simply at the urging of misguided youth. Rather, the West should permit farmers to test new scientific innovations and allow them to make their own decision whether to reject or adopt those innovations. Leave the choice of selecting modern agricultural technologies to the wisdom of Indian farmers.


Mr. P. Chengal Reddy is President of the Federation of Farmers Associations, Andhra Pradesh, India. He can be reached via e-mail at indian_farmers_federation@yahoo.com.