One of the biggest issues facing governments around the world is ensuring there is enough food for every person on this planet. When compared to the many advances made in almost every field, the production and distribution of food in the third world and developing nations has remained very poor. Technology has made now it possible to clone and mutate existing plants so that they can be relocated to almost any area of the world to be harvested. With population statistics showing an adding on average of 78 million people every year, by the year 2050 there will be between 7.3 and 10.7 billions people (United Nations Population Estimates, www)
The great challenge of the 21st Century will be how to provide people around the world with sufficient quantities of nutritious food, while limiting the environmental impact caused by added agricultural production. Biotechnology will not be the only solution to this challenge, but it can be an important part of the solution. This visionary statement by the Council for Biotechnology Information, founded by influential biotechnological giants DuPont, Aventis, Novartis, BASF, and Monsanto, clearly presents their belief that the decrease of world poverty and the overall improvement of quality of life standards lies in the integration of biotechnology into agriculture. Convenient cultivation, easier food processes and the ability to grow plants with minimal care in areas previously unsuitable have made these multinational corporations confident in arguing for genetically modified crops and seeds as the recipe for feeding the world and solving the problem of too many mouths to feed that has cropped up in third world countries. The goal to wipe out starvation and poverty covers the fact that the gene revolution, especially the trading of transgenetic crops and seeds, is more a profit driven science, rather than based on the necessity of true social and environmental sustainability and the urge for human needs. By focusing on how the American and European GM companies currently introduce their products into the developing world of the Asia Pacific, particularly India, and illustrating the negative consequences that are already occurring I will argue that the road these biotechnological companies are following leads to a direction which is more likely to worsen current situations. The use of moral promises and the public popularity of concepts such as sustainable development allow these massive corporations to open up new economic sources, increasing their own growth and power. Rather than fixing they worsen existing problems caused by earlier technologies and aggravate dependencies of developing countries by the further encouragement of monocultures and most importantly the patenting of genetic information. Presuming the increase in the amount of food is going to eliminate starvation and poverty is misleading. Hunger is the result not of insufficient food being grown, but of people being excluded from the access to that food. (Nottingham, 1998: 157). By large monocultural production of transgenetic plants these outputs will again exclusively been grown for exports into already food overloaded countries. The Asia Pacific region is of particular interest in regard to cultivating these transgenetic seeds. Fertile grounds and ideal climates account for around 90.7% of the world s genetic resources. (Juma, 1989: 23) The conservation of agricultural biodiversity is crucial in terms of keeping used grounds fertile and productive. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that we have already lost 75% of the genetic diversity that we had in agriculture at the beginning of this century. (Jany, 1998: 8) The loss was mainly driven by mass monocultural production methods. The UN FAQ determined that food output must increase by 60 per cent over the next 25 years to keep up with demand. This figure is the driving force for MNC s counting on the success of biotechnology. Another following figure also makes the independence of the rise of food-quantities and poverty clear. The worlds food production increased by one per cent per year in the last decades, but starvation still spreads and the western countries are more and more overfed. (Nottingham, 1998: 157 ff)
India is one of those countries in the Asia Pacific that suffers significantly from poverty and starvation. Almost one-third of the population lives in poverty and over 50% of the children are undernourished. Strangely, the country does not lack agricultural output, but most products are grown for export purposes and access for local consumption is rare or unaffordable. The paradox being that workers are dependent on the sale of these products for income, but at the end of the day cannot afford to buy these products for themselves.
India became of high interest to biotechnological companies because its main trading products are rice, soybeans and cotton; belong to the outriders of genetic modified products. In the early stages, when the first trials were started, biotechnological firms located themselves far away from their own countries, the lax regulations and relative lack of knowledge in the developing countries proved attractive. This tentative gesture to dedicate this development to the troubled countries pleased governments on all sides and so the details were perhaps not scrutinized as thoroughly as they should have been. This has allowed these large multinationals to claim rights over most plantations and the control of export prices. The use of genetic engineering in agriculture goes hand in hand with the globalization of monoculture farming practices and increased use of pesticides and fertilizer, which has been a major factor in the erosion of species and organism diversity. It is known that biodiversity is commonly understood to be the very basis of food security. The more genetic diversity there is within an agricultural system, the more that system is able to accommodate challenges from pests, disease, or climate conditions which tend only to affect certain varieties. Vegetation and animal diversity have always been in danger by giant monocultures since the beginning of the green revolution . With the gene revolution these will not only be decreased but will also be claimed as property of the live-industry -companies which hold patents on genetic information. New genetic material now enters strange gene pools and effects soil, water and other surrounding plants and organisms by its gene-flow. Old genetic diversity existed over thousands of generations and these organisms became adaptive to the local condition. Transgenetic plants are not integrated in this complete ecosystem and can not only cause new irritations and imbalances, but are also vehicles for new pests or unwanted resistances. Monsanto India replies to these arguments by describing their products as aimed at helping farmers produce improved crops. Crops that yield more and better food while at the same time limiting the resource consumption and strains on the environment that accompany traditional agricultural production methods. (Monsanto, 2000, www) Monsanto dismisses alternative solutions for the conservation of intact and balanced genetic ecosystems and is still counting on mass production methods, which are a required reliance for biotechnological agriculture, but undermine common methods such as crop rotation or polycultures. (Altieri, 1999:www) However, alternative ways do exist and are already monitored and recognized by Greenpeace and other locally concerned institutions. Even the Indian government is in this case supportive as shown later in the text. There are villages in north-east India, which grow up to 70 different varieties of rice and in West Bengal, 124 ‘weed’ species collected from rice fields have economic importance for farmers. (Lange, 1997: 14) This successful mixed agriculture fits into the local peoples diet and provides most of the needed nutrition, which is not given by monocultures. The key point here for the discussion of the gene revolution and multinational s interests is, that small-scale agriculture might be the better solution for local well being, but due to its self-sufficient character, they have no relevant economical outcome for exporting purposes. Due to its unrelated role for any outgoing trade, it is a thorn in the side of Western multinationals and will therefore not be supported by them or by any other economic or political body with similar financial interests. Indian farmers are the first victims affected by the policies and new laws pushed by the live industry . Patents on genetically modified organisms equip these large firms with exclusive production and sales rights. Consequently, farmers and smaller agricultural companies are not allowed to use those seeds for later cultivation. Conventional agriculture used to collect seeds from one harvest to replant them in the following season. This tradition not only saved money from having to buy new seeds every year, but also provided a stable genetic diversity and the security that the plant is integrated in its environment. Now, by using genetically modified and patented seeds and crops, farmers are made to buy them new after each harvest. Higher percentages of the profit made therefore flow back in seed investment. Specific herbicides and care-products additionally have to be purchased from the specific seed-selling company, because the use of other chemicals does not apply to the plants any longer or can cause unwanted effects on environment and health. It is predicted that the gene revolution will further contribute to an increase of fertilizer and pesticides use. (Altieri, 1999,www)
The use of patents places natural resources and genetic information in the hands of a few, who will hand out this technology, upon payment, to people who have never experienced the concept of property before. By introducing market forces to developing countries already starved of crops can lead to market domination, meaning farmers will fall into deeper dependency. This development could even have a Genetic Native Title claim as consequence. Farmers will always cultivate plants, which are linked to restrictions and obligations because of this genetic information, meaning that previously open land now comes under ownership.
American and European rice companies entered the Indian market with their special seed variety, promising improvements in cultivation methods and plant handling and due to their enormous size and financial power they overran traditional businesses and farmers. In September 1997, the US company Ricetec, Inc. was granted a patent on Basmati rice. The patent is for a variety achieved by the crossing of Indian Basmati with semi-dwarf varieties, and it covers Basmati grown anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Ricetec can also put its brand on any breeding crosses involving 22 farmer-bred Basmati varieties from Pakistan and, according to RAFI, on any blending of Pakistani or Indian Basmati strains with the company’s other proprietary seeds. (RAFI, 2000, www) Ricetec also claims the right to use the Basmati name. The Indian government has challenged Ricetec’s claim, arguing that the patent jeopardises India’s annual Basmati export market of around US$277 million, and threatens the livelihood of thousands of farmers that cultivate rice the traditional way. (Spinney, 1998: www) The company is also marketing another proprietary rice called Jasmati, which is a crossing from a variety called Della, developed in the US. BIOTHAI (Thai Network on Community Rights & Biodiversity) is concerned that by giving this variety a name that implies a cross between Jasmine rice and Basmati rice, the company is threatening not only the livelihoods of Indian Basmati farmers but also five million poor farmers in the northeast of Thailand. The Indian government fortunately intervened to protect farmers’ rights and the Agriculture Ministry made a new legislation which allows farmers to use and exchange traditional varieties. The Indian Supreme Court states the law will recognize the farmer as breeder first, before foreign commercial or research interests. (Spinney, 1998: www) Another example for the introduction of transgenetic products and its failing effects on Indian economic and social networks is cotton. Monsanto planted cotton of the brand Bollgard in India at the beginning of 1998, which should be resistant to insects and therefore easier to cultivate This first experiment should prepare the arranged retail of the insect resistant cotton variety in India. Only 4 months later in May, they bought shares, and invested in the biggest seed-producing company, Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company). The joint venture now controls the Indian cotton market. Cotton is India s most important export article and especially little farmers entered the cotton market since the cotton boom in the 80 s. A campaign lead by farmer unions and grass root organizations, appealed, in the way of the Gandhi-tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, to force Monsanto to leave the country. In November 1998, numerous of Bollgard -cotton fields were set on fire by local farmers to express their economical and political defenselessness. The message to leave the country was also sent to the rest of the biotechnological firms like Novartis and Pioneer. The farmers union requested the complete prohibition of importing transgenetic crops and the retirement of all field trials within the following 5 years. Most plantations were illegally established, without any permission by regional governments or communal councils. Monsanto was experimenting with new transgenetic cotton on open fields of farmers, in some Indian states the farmers did not know what was growing on their own land. (Sprengler, 1998: 22)
In conclusion, the idea of growth without destroying resources for future generations is not truly picked up by the introduction of the gene revolution. Biotechnology is used to fix those problems that have been caused by previous technologies (as pest resistance, cost of pesticides, pollution, etc.) that were promoted by the same companies now pushing the gene revolution. It does not only worsen economical dependencies of local farmers, but is damaging agricultural biodiversity in its very elementary roots and therefore is not truly a step against social problems as poverty and starvation as it consequently mostly benefits the initiators and not the countries it is practiced in. India in this case is just one typical example. Genetically modified cash cropping is first and foremost a new invention to benefit companies economically. Until this technology is placed in the hands of governments or with firms who aren t seeing a profit, then this can be placed on the shelf marked Capitalism At It s Worst .
United Nations Department of Economic & Social Affairs (www.popin.org)
Grain, 2000, International Transfer of GMO s. The need for a Biosafty Protocol. At