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Small farmers and GE giants

LAST year, India announced it would allow US seed giant Monsanto, under the Maharashtra Seeds Company, to undertake large seed trials of genetically engineered cotton. This is likely to lead the way for the introduction of other GE crops.

The move comes in spite of much-publicised protest action by farmers against Monsanto. Two years ago in the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, members of the Karnataka State Farmers union set fire to fields of Monsanto's GE cotton. The union has vowed to continue to oppose the technology.

As India's government leans towards the multinational seed companies, it turns further from the needs of the millions of small farmers. For the multinationals, the challenge is of widening profit margins. But for the small farmer it could be life and death.

Farmers' vulnerability

History shows the precarious situation of small farmers when new crops fail. In 1998-99, there were more than 500 suicides among farmers in the Warrangal district of Andhra Pradesh when their hybrid cotton crops were devoured by insects that had become resistant to the pesticides they were using.

Lured by the promises of grain companies, these farmers had abandoned sustainable methods in favour of the 'white gold' cash crop. They borrowed heavily to purchase pricey chemicals needed to farm the hybrid cotton. When both nature and science failed them, many could see no way out.

Small farmers are often unaware of the risks of commercial farming. With little or no capital, they are extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in market price, poor harvests and debt. The GE companies have control over essential farming inputs - and thus over the sovereignty of the farmers.

Farmers who for centuries have relied on self-sufficient means may find that the rising cost of GE seeds and chemicals leaves them unable to support themselves. If they regret their decision to farm GE crops it may be hard to stop, as the new farming methods can degrade the soil and make it reliant on chemicals.

Bollgard is the GE cotton crop at the centre of the recent legislation. The plants contain a gene, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that enables them to create insecticide that kills the boll worm, a pest that can ravage cotton crops. Although Bt cotton is already growing in the United States and China, environmentalists say this kind of crop could be a biological time bomb. If their fears prove to be warranted and GE crops cause ecological damage, small farmers will bear the brunt.

Save the seeds

The vast majority of India's small farmers remain ignorant of the GE debate and thus at the mercy of the publicity machines of the multinationals. With a few high-profile exceptions, resistance to the GE issue in India remains on the sidelines.

However, in the Tehri Garwhal district of Uttar Pradesh, one small group of farmers is quietly trying to dispel the myths of the new technologies. The Save the Seeds Movement says traditional, ecological farming is far more efficient than anything the GE companies can offer. The group aims to help farmers improve their production through organic, sustainable means.

Up to 12 different cereals and legumes are grown in one field, with each protecting the other from pests and offering security lest another should fail. For generations this system has met dietary requirements and ensured that the land remains fertile. Most importantly, if using their own land and seeds, farmers remain independent.

The group spreads its message throughout the region, collecting samples and feedback on traditional seeds. They stress that yield is not the only important point when choosing a crop. The fodder produced, nutrients in the diet and soil, and how stomach-filling the produce is are all important to small farmers.

This kind of grassroots action is invaluable in educating farmers to look beyond the claims of the GE giants. Across India, people are farming so close to the subsistence margin that any shock induced by GE crops, either on the environment or rising costs of farming, will put them in a destitute situation.

Evidence has shown that farmers using their own seeds, in low-input, sustainable methods can recover more quickly from disaster. If they allow GE to take control of the food chain and their food security, they put their livelihoods and futures in the hands of the multinationals. (Ruth Bennett, Policy and Public Education Unit of Oxfam Hong Kong., 2001)

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