Monday 26 November 2012

Part 1: GMOs, Chapter 2: The “Bitter Seeds”

A cotton farmer rides a brand new motorcycle home. His children are thrilled: “Dad, Dad, is it ours?” Their excitement, however, dissipates almost instantaneously. “Will it still be around next year?” they glumly add. The farmer proudly declares: “Next year, it’ll be a car!”

That’s a scene from a real Indian TV ad. To us, motorcycles and automobiles aren't a big deal—they’re everywhere. But things are different in rural India. In that part of the world, they’re luxuries. Which means the farmer in the ad has made it. And he’s confident he’ll make it big time the following year.

If you’re poor and desperate and you see that ad or something similar, chances are you’d want to try whatever the ad’s offering. That’s exactly the outcome—thousands upon thousands of farmers have bought genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds, the subject of the advertisement. In fact, the marketing of GM seeds has been so effective that today, a multinational biotechnology company is said to control 95% of India’s cotton seed market, and more than 80% of the country’s cotton-growing areas are grown with GM cotton. But do the seeds really work?

A bag of cotton seeds
Photo courtesy of Thamizhpparithi Maari

Seeds are seeds. They alone can’t guarantee a good harvest. Other success factors, such as water and soil fertility, are essential. Indeed, the product literature states that the seeds can deliver the desired results only if they are protected by expensive pesticides and watered and fertilized according to precise timetables. But many of the GM seed customers can’t afford to do that. They’re smallholders with rain-fed fields (i.e. no irrigation). Furthermore, GM seeds are non-renewable. They are sterile by design. Which means the farmers must renew their supply every year. An old-timer tells Manjusha Amberwar, the aspiring journalist in the previous chapter: “We saved seeds in our farms. There was never a question of paying for the seeds.”

The reality is this: India’s big, wealthy farms can succeed with GM seeds; the resource-poor majority can’t.

But nobody told the impoverished and illiterate farmers that. They’re only told a dream. They’re not told its true cost. And in the pursuit of their dreams, many smallholders go heavily into debt. And when dreams and reality collide, casualties are inevitable. The farmer-suicide crisis in the previous chapter is a case in point.

Can the farmers return to traditional farming, using non-GM seeds? It’ll be difficult. Because of the predominance of GM seeds, the public and private sectors have mostly withdrawn from the production of non-GM seeds. As a result, there is now a critical shortage of conventional seeds. Today, in communities like Manjusha’s, it’s practically impossible to buy anything but GM seeds.

Is the situation then completely hopeless? No, it isn't. Stay tuned to find out where hope can come from.

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