By Sakshi Jain:
The recent controversy around the sedition charges being against the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union President has taken up a lot of space in all media publications and broadcasts. While the issue is gaining momentum with each passing day, it appears to have been used as a tool to divert attention away from other significant developments that took place simultaneously.
The recent agreement between the Maharashtra government and Monsanto, which is interested in setting up a seed hub in Vidarbha region, its biggest in the country, during the Make In India Week is an issue that needs serious attention.
Monsanto is an American multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation that aims to deliver agricultural products that support farmers all around the world. It initially produced food additives, later diversifying into industrial chemicals and now focusses on biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) crops after the major success in 1983.
However, Monsanto has been criticised throughout the world and has become the face of ‘corporate evil’. The company and its genetically modified organisms (GMO) have become the subject of global protests and criticism from environmentalists. Documentaries such as Forks Over Knives and GMO OMG also condemn their activities.
According to a report by Friends of Earth, around 90% of GM traits used in the world are supported by Monsanto. The company aims at expanding its base and penetrating new markets which could possibly make developing countries more susceptible to environmental, economic and social problems.
In its attempt to promote the shift from conventional to GM seeds, it is believed that Monsanto, instead of benefitting the farmers, deprives them of their basic choice and availability of alternatives to what it (Monsanto) has prioritised.
The Friends of Earth report also points out that Monsanto has been severely criticised for its assault on regulatory and policy regimes. The report suggests that the corporation has resorted to bribery to create a foothold in the world market. It states that, “an investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that over US$700,000 was paid in bribe to at least 140 current and former Indonesian government officials and their family members between 1997 and 2002, financed through the improper accounting of Monsanto’s pesticides sales in Indonesia.”
The report talks about several other criticisms of the company. In most countries, Monsanto has had the tendency of spreading contamination first and then legalising it. In India in 2002, contamination in the commercially released of Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) cotton was detected. The commercial release had taken place without authorisation and was approved after a few months. They have also been accused of “unethical and irresponsible” advertising to gain the confidence of farmers. In India, products were marketed through local newspapers, television advertisements etc. and were endorsed by famous actors such as Nana Patekar, who was the brand ambassador of Monsanto. This, according to the report, has been criticised as a form of “aggressive advertisement” by the National Commission of Indian Farmers.
The tough collection regime for royalties of GM products challenges the farmers’ right of seed saving as the royalty is collected in the form of ‘technology fee’ paid at the time when the seed is purchased. Farmers are made to sign an agreement which states that they can’t save any GM seed from their harvest for replanting.
Profound environmental impact has also been reported in countries like Argentina where an increase in soy production led to a decline in soil fertility and soil erosion. It has been predicted that the soil will become infertile in fifty years if this were to continue.
In a country like India, known to be primarily an agricultural economy, with a large number of farmers who are largely poor and uneducated, the entry of Monsanto changed the business market for cotton farmers in India. Contrary to the rosy promises made my Monsanto in the beginning, the consequences have been outrageous. The farmers have suffered a lot since the expensive seeds did not reap great harvests and led to indebtedness.
Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist and eco-feminist, explains how companies like Monsanto have turned farmers’ self-reliance regarding seeds into a dependency on purchasing seeds. Initially, the farmers are lured by the scientific advice of ‘seed replacement’ given by Monsanto who are even paid for giving up their seeds. However, the farmers ultimately fall into the trap of depending only on the seeds offered by Monsanto since there are no other alternatives since all other farmers in the neighbourhood are trapped in the same situation as well.
Apart from these, use of chemical pesticides, which weren’t required earlier, is also a problem now. Moreover, unfair U.S. subsidies for American cotton farmers further affect global prices. Local money lenders often cheat farmers for their own profit and free-market policies affect the cost of production regularly because of volatile global prices.
Having observed the historical impacts of Monsanto in India, the recent deal seems a threat to the future of farmers and the country. Large corporate interests may lead to the patenting, genetic engineering and mass marketing of all essential products in our country. The exercise of influence by Monsanto and other biotechnical companies has been so immense that they lead to the ushering in of poorly tested and potentially hazardous products through weak approval processes.
The issue of the loss of traditional methods of farming is of concern since most Indian farmers are poor and uneducated. Initially, there were incidents of farmers being unaware of the extra water requirement of GM seeds, which was much higher than that for traditional seeds. It devastated their harvest. Such issues need to be addressed before expanding the base of GM seeds in India. Moreover, in a country like ours where agriculture still largely depends on rainfall, rather than irrigation, and other traditional methods, the real question is: Are we ready for such a deal or has corporate power influenced our decision so much that, despite the scandalous history, the deal is being made?