That threat took form from the early 1960s, and one of its results was to lead a generation of crop scientists, agricultural administrators and State and Central Governments to accept ‘high yielding’ and ‘productivity’ and ‘hybrids’ as the only dimensions of the relationship between staple crops and the provision of food to Bharat’s people. These views were successfully marketed, thanks to sustained and continuous support by the Government machinery, to the consuming public, and even found place in school textbooks in all major languages. In this way, the idea that a ‘scientific’ approach to new ways of growing our staple crops was projected to our society as being the only modern way.
When this happened, for over a generation of younger citizens who became adults in the early 2000s, the idea that agriculture is equal to well-applied doses of science was one that went largely unquestioned. Meanwhile, the role of the kisan was deliberately diminished. By the end of the active stage of the ‘Green Revolution’, the result of the long campaign had been to take away from Bharat’s farmers their legitimate claims to being scientists, innovators, natural resource stewards, seed savers and hybridisation experts. Instead, they were reduced to becoming recipients of technical fixes and consumers of the poisonous products of a growing agricultural inputs industry.
It is against such a background – which is a chapter of the overall transformation of the cultivation of food in Bharat – that the opposition to genetically-modified crops and food is to be viewed. The steadfast opposition to this technology is grounded in the recognition that our country’s immense biodiversity of seeds, plants and life forms is our collective heritage, which has evolved through the cumulative innovations, adaptations and selections of many generations of indigenous farming communities, for whom these seeds and life forms are sacred.
When this position is understood, then the reason why genetically modified organisms – uncontrollable and irreversible when let into the agro-ecological environment – and their produce is so despised, becomes plain. It is not a matter of science alone, as the geneticists and their financiers claim, but has as much, if not more, to do with culture, independence and self-reliance. These are essential aspects of the GM discussion which the proponents and advocates cannot employ, because none of these aspects favours their position.
Articles such as ‘GM crops debate can do without Swadeshi paranoia’ (by Surajit Dasgupta in Niticentral, 30 July 2014) follow a pattern of advocacy. They treat technology of GM as being by itself the silver bullet that can solve all crop problems, they elevate GM scientists over all other science related to the practice of agriculture, they denigrate shamefully and belittle the farmer and her knowledge, they cast slurs on all those who are critical of GM and seek to discredit them by citing academic papers and other material that advocates GM. This is the pattern that we are seeing not only in Bharat, but wherever there is opposition to GM and to the policies that the technology depends on to enter a country.
The growing of our crop staples, of vegetables and fruit has to do with a great deal more than the adoption of a particular technology. On everything other than the need (always framed as urgent) to accept GM, the proponents and advocates of this technology can join no discussion, for that is the limit of their argument. For a generation, farmers’ groups and unions have been protesting the neglect that farm livelihoods have been subjected to. They have protested (and continue to) policy impacts that have caused the displacement of farmers in huge numbers because smallholder farming earns them nothing, or because their farms are swallowed up by racing urbanisation; they have been demanding a minimum living income as a guarantee to all farm households, which must be their due as food growers.
Who are they and what do they have? They have 85 per cent of the total holdings in Bharat (117.60 million marginal and small holdings of the total of 138.34 million) which account for 44.5 per cent of the land area under agriculture (71.15 million hectares of the total of 159.59 million hectares). It is this large section of our people, the providers of Bharat’s food on that 85 per cent of all farm holdings, whom we are accustomed to call ‘annadaata‘, that is represented by organisations like the Bhartiya Kisan Union, the largest farmers’ union in the country, which has opposed GM crops (and field trials) from the outset. “We are concerned about farm community’s and nation’s seed and food sovereignty which will certainly be eroded when GMOs are pursued as a technology,” was the BKU statement, which powerfully shows us why GM is a socio-economic, ecological and cultural question, none of which are subordinated to science.
This is what worries the growers of Bharat’s food. Technological and market fixes have not shortened this list of worries but have done the opposite. The subject for us is the growing of crop staples, or crop choice, the methods used to cultivate, the support that the ‘kisan’ finds, and the environmental and cultural links between crop grower and food consumer. When considering this multi-dimensional nature of food and farming, it is important to note (which the GM advocates and proponents omit) that conventional crop breeding continues to meet important challenges like improving drought tolerance, improving nitrogen fertiliser efficiency, and increasing yields according to the contexts of the different agro-ecological regions in our country. When we reached self-sufficiency in food staples, we did so by relying on crop breeding together with providing support (erratic as it was, prone to politically manipulation) to our ‘kisans’. Where then is the place for GM?
There is none. That is why proponents have resorted to quoting papers that are designed by institutions outside Bharat which have a great interest in facilitating the grabbing of Bharat’s genetic commons and bio-cultural heritage to be privatised and monopolised. The Bharat Beej Swaraj Manch had stated their opposition to GM most forcefully in a statement (released in New Delhi earlier this year): “We assert our sovereign rights to freely plant, use, reproduce, select, improve, adapt, save, share, exchange or sell our seeds – without restriction or hindrance – as we have done for past millennia.” GM has no place in this assertion, by a countrywide seed savers’ network, of the rights of kisans.
There is no place for GM under any of the scenarios presented by the proponents (climate change in particular). As an indication of our enormous agro-diversity, the National Gene Bank of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources has said that its base collections total 402,894 accessions of 1,586 crop species. These include 159,569 cereals, 57,523 millets, 58,756 pulses or grain legumes, 58,477 oilseeds, 25,330 vegetables, 6,872 medicinal and aromatic plants, and 3,847 spices and condiments. There is in this astonishing collection (and the kisans’ own collections) all that our country needs to find staples that will deal, as Surajit Dasgupta has mentioned, with “increasing temperatures, decreased water availability in some places and flooding in others, rising salinity, and changing pathogen and insect threats”.
The methods to deal with these have been practiced by the cultivating households (of which there are many within our 167 million rural households) in the 20 agro-ecological regions of Bharat and their 60 sub-regions over which are roughly apportioned the diversities of soil, climate, physiography, the availability periods of conducive moisture (which determines the length of growing seasons). They had perfected crop rotations (largely abandoned by industrial agriculture) and which can increase yields by even 20 per cent, the water holding capacity of soils (woefully under-studied) had been improved, they lowered susceptibility to drought by planting cover crops that increase soil organic matter, they had saved themselves from water pollution by nitrogen and the need for pesticides.
This is a small glimpse of the wider context in which the GM advocates and proponents work, but they do so outside the dimension of cognitive justice that ties us together – acknowledging the right for different knowledge systems to exist with their associated practices, livelihoods, ways of being, and ecologies to coexist. It is organisations like Anchalika Krushak Sanghatan of Odisha, Bhu Adhikar Abhiyan of Madhya Pradesh, Ekta Parishad, Gujarat Khedut Samaj, Bharat Swabhimaan Andolan Lucknow, Shetkari Sanghatan of Maharastra that are rearticulating this wider context in which GM and the techno-capital domination is represents. These are a few amongst the many organisations that have created diverse spaces which democratise food, its research and its provision, and whose hundreds of thousands of members practice bio-diverse ecological agriculture free from the narrow issues of technology and its overlords.
Authored jointly by Rahul Goswami and Viva Kermani
First appeared in Niti Central