09 The Farmer: M Laxman

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10 PEOPLE OBAMA SHOULD MEET

M Laxman

42, Mattu, Karnataka

Photo: Umesh Poojary

FOR M LAXMAN, Mattu, a tiny village in Udupi district of coastal Karnataka, is more than home. Today, it has become a fierce battleground for him and several other farmers to challenge an American corporation. The reason can be traced to a variety of brinjal grown here that is so incredibly rich in taste and quality that it has been chosen for genetic modification. Monsanto, the American biotech corporation, in collaboration with Mahyco, wants Mattu Gulla to be turned into Bt-brinjal.

Laxman, a third-generation farmer, has been growing Mattu Gulla for the past 15 years on two acres of his ancestral land. It earns him Rs. 1.25 lakh per year. He came to know about Bt-brinjal three years ago through a newspaper article. Initial dismay quickly turned to anxiety. “The idea of mixing genes of our gulla with that of a scorpion is sheer horror,” he says. When local scientists warned Mattu farmers about the consequences of genetic modification, Laxman remembers that most of the villagers laughed it off. Only aFTer a lot of awareness campaigns did the mobilisation against Bt-brinjal start a year ago. The fight has been formidable. “We are going to get our Mattu Gulla patented. Let them dare come for it,” he says.

“India’s agricultural policies have been sold out to multinational corporations. Who knows Monsanto might just usurp Mattu and drive us all out,” he says anxiously. He would hope Obama’s visit would change things. A little perhaps.

G Vishnu


AGRICULTURE

No Scarecrow Will Chase the US Away

Without constant vigilance, we will soon be utterly dependent on America for our food

By Bhaskar Goswami

Agriculture and Trade Policy Expert

Illustration: Samia Singh

FOR A planet with a population of just over six billion, we produce food that can feed almost double the number. Yet, there are 1.02 billion food insecure people while every third hungry individual is an Indian. If the control over what is grown, how much is produced, what price it will be sold at, and to whom, rests with few MNCs and rich nations, what can be the implications? A short trailer of this plot was run during 2007-08 when, despite adequate food reserves, around 25 developing countries witnessed food riots. Even in a rich country like the US, 37 million citizens (up 46 percent over 2006 levels) sought food assistance in 2009. In India, runaway food inflation is steadily worsening the hunger index.

So, who decides who’d live and who’d starve in this food surplus world? A small bunch of corporations today exercise vast control over something as fundamental as food. Based on both sides of the Atlantic, these entities run the politics over food.

The evidence is overwhelming. Two US corporations — Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill — control three-quarters of the global trade in foodgrain. Along with Monsanto, four more MNCs — Advanta, DuPont, Syngenta and Bayer — make up two-thirds of the world pesticide market, besides controlling a quarter of the world seed market. Add a few big-box retailers and you have roughly 10 corporations who control bulk of the food production, supply and distribution chains across the world. It is these corporations that decide who lives and who starves.

The blueprint to assume control over food was conceived during the Cold War era. It began with aligning Indian agriculture policies with that of the US. This was followed by implanting an unsound model of industrial agriculture to bolster food production — the Green Revolution — an American prescription lavishly funded through its not-for-profit foundations flush with oil and automobile riches.

While our farmers grapple with the fallout of the Green Revolution in the form of stagnant yields and degraded natural resource base, Monsanto is stitching MOUs with state governments to push its patented seeds to farmers through government channels. US-based pesticide manufacturers are selling toxic chemicals that are banned back home; some have been caught bribing Indian regulators. The reach of these corporations in Indian agriculture runs deep. Meanwhile, the planet has jumpstarted to liberalise trade in agriculture by way of negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Through the WTO, the US and EU have legitimised billions of dollars of subsidies in agriculture that they dole out annually to their corporate farmers. WTO rules necessitate developing countries to reduce import duties on agri-commodities. These factors enable the US and EU to sell their produce at a price lower than the cost of production.

When subsidised food hits local markets, domestic farmers are unable to compete. As countries become dependent on food imports, any crunch in supplies from food corporations hits them hard. This is why widespread food riots happened when many developing countries discovered that speculators have spiked prices in international markets and corporations were holding on to their stocks in anticipation of a windfall. Importing food is importing poverty, a lesson developing countries are learning the hard way thanks to the skewed rules of global agritrade and corporate concentration over food.

Unable to compete against the narrow range of around 15-odd commodities heavily subsidised by the US and EU, developing countries turn to other commodities. As a result, a coffee planter in Karnataka ends up competing against a planter in Vietnam or Columbia. This is how farmers of developing countries are being pitted against each other while Big-Ag in Big Apple continues its march.

The stranglehold over farming is also being achieved through commercialisation of germplasm. Over years, the US systematically worked to access plant materials across the world. After building up what is perhaps the largest gene bank in the world, it made it accessible to US seed corporations to develop and patent new varieties, and refused to share benefits with countries of origin of the germplasm. Isn’t it ironical while world navies are deployed against pirates on sea, bio-piracy and generobbery is deemed legitimate because the world’s most powerful nation so desires?

Even micro-organisms have not been spared from the ambit of Intellectual Property Rights. Select seed corporations exercise a virtual monopoly over genetically modified seeds and genes of micro-organisms used to develop them. The US government along with GM seed corporations also help developing countries to develop biosafety protocols. These are aimed at framing legislations that allow release of inadequately tested GM seeds and foods. The best example of this is India, which is fast turning into a dumping ground for such untested products.

Roughly 10 corporations control bulk of the food production, supply and distribution chains across the world. They decide who lives and who starves

Another area where the US’ influence is increasing is agriculture research. Termed as the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture (KIA), for a period of three years since 2006, and at an Indian taxpayer’s expense of around Rs. 1,548 crore, select scientists from premier Indian agriculture universities and research institutions were indoctrinated through fellowship grants to US universities on how the Big-Ag model, which stands for corporate agriculture, is to be replicated in India. A number of training workshops and exchange of faculty were carried out.

That 60 percent of funds under the KIA are earmarked for “emerging technologies” gives the game away; it is meant largely for research and development of GM crops. A proposal for developing better agri-processing technologies is meant to reinforce big-box retail, besides providing a thrust to bio-fuels. The US expertise in curriculum revision for agriculture universities is being liberally used to change the way the subject is to be taught and reorient agri-research towards PPPs that is market- driven. While the KIA calls for support to an “Evergreen Revolution”, Indian farmers are still waiting for a white paper on lessons learnt from the Green Revolution. This is not surprising as the KIA does not even mention the farmer!

The KIA has Monsanto, ADM and WalMart among others on its board. If they have their way, laws are to be tweaked and the outcome of research and development at public sector institutions using taxpayer’s money will be licensed out to the private sector instead of transferring the knowhow to farmers.

The complete domination over the farm-to-fork model can never be achieved unless the marketing aspect is also monopolised by pushing big-box retail in agri-commodities. At present, Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand retail is prohibited. Representatives of lead retail corporations like WalMart, Carrefour, etc. are lobbying in New Delhi for opening up the $400-billion retail sector despite apprehensions of large-scale job and livelihood loss among small-scale neighbourhood stores.

It’s a no-brainer that everything in this world is done ostensibly to benefit the poor, yet ends up benefiting corporations. Around 2,00,000 farmers have been driven to suicide across the country since 1997. Control of farming is almost completely passing out of the hands of farmers to corporations. It is becoming clear that in the coming days, the country’s food sovereignty will be challenged. For a country with billion-plus mouths to feed, there can be no political sovereignty in the absence of food sovereignty.

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