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India Cheers While Monsanto Burns

Monsanto says it wants to help India's poor. But millions of them want it gone.

The Ecologist, February 1999

One of the most morally dubious claims made in Monsanto's recent newspaper advertising blitz was the assertion that the widespread use of food biotechnology is the only way to feed the world's poor. The corporation's argument went like this: millions of people currently go hungry in developing countries. In the future, as global population increases, this problem is set to worsen. Only high-yield agriculture can possibly produce enough food to meet this increased demand. Therefore, quite obviously, only "biotechnology can feed the world."

Monsanto's strategy was to try to portray its genetically modified (GM) crops as the solution to the hunger and poverty problems of the Third World. The company even tried to round up a group of 'respected voices' from developing countries to endorse an advert entitled 'Let The Harvest Begin', which praised biotechnology as "the seed of the future", which will "feed the world in the next century." Monsanto was playing a clever game: it was trying to portray opponents of food biotechnology as selfish and insular. What right, asked the corporation, do well-fed Western environmentalists have to deny the poor farmers of the Third World access to this wonderful new technology, which could feed their families and improve their living standards dramatically in years to come?

But this tactic is beginning to backfire spectacularly. In trying to use developing countries as pawns in its game as it plays for dominance of the world's food markets, it is alienating the very people it claimed to be supporting: the poor. In India, where millions of peasant farmers still live a life of small-scale, subsistence agriculture, the corporation is facing nothing less than a crisis. Its trademark evasion, deception and subterfuge has enraged farmers all over the country. And if it won't go voluntarily, they are prepared to chase it out, by any means necessary.

At 1.30 in the afternoon on 28th November 1998, in Sindhanoor, in the Indian state of Karnataka, the leader of the Karnataka State Farmers Association (KRRS), a movement which claims a membership of ten million, arrived at one of India's first Monsanto test sites. The owner of the field, Basanna Hunsole, came out to greet him. With the help of Basanna's neighbours, a number of KRRS members, other local grassroots organisations representing 'untouchables' and landless farmers, they proceeded to tear up every one of the genetically modified cotton plants growing there. They stacked them in a heap in the middle of the field, and set them on fire. In minutes, Monsanto's test crop was reduced to ashes.

This was the first strike in a grassroots campaign that is spreading rapidly across India: 'Operation Cremate Monsanto'. Professor Nanjundaswamy, a committed Gandhian and leader of the KRRS. issued a statement to the press as the field burned. "We denounce the ignorance. incompetence and irresponsibility of the Union government to gamble with the future of Indian agriculture." said the Professor. He went on to demand that all tests of genetically modified crops in India be stopped, that the country's Patent Act be amended to stop the patenting of basic crop varieties, and that Monsanto be banned from the country. Otherwise, he said, Indian farmers would continue to take the situation into their own hands.

Since that first action. at least three more Monsanto test sites have been burned, in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and more cremations are promised. The tactic has spread from the KRRS to other grassroots organisations. In December 1998, following actions by local farmers and concern about illegal growing of GM crops, the government of Andhra Pradesh ordered Monsanto to stop the seven trials it was operating in the state. The first shots have been fired by Indian farmers in what is increasingly looking like a war against the giant corporation.

Monsanto has been operating in India since 1949, and is a market leader in agricultural chemicals. In recent years it has spent much time and money trying to win over Indian politicians and officials to the cause of GM crops. on which it has staked its future. It operates three Indian subsidiaries: Monsanto India, Monsanto Enterprises and Monsanto Chemicals, and early in 1998, Monsanto quietly acquired a 26 per cent stake in the Indian seed company Mahyco.

Mahyco-Monsanto is the organization through which Monsanto is attempting to push its GM crops onto the Indian people. The company is already claiming patent rights over thirty 'new' crop varieties including corn, rice, tomatoes and potatoes, which it has genetically altered to be resistant to its own herbicides. But Mahyco-Monsanto's biggest effort in India at present is going into the testing of GM cotton. Cotton is grown widely in India, and Monsanto hopes that its GM variety, known as 'bollgard' cotton can corner this market. The cotton is modified to be resistant to the boll weevil, a major cotton pest.

Of course, Monsanto wouldn't be Monsanto without a bit of subterfuge, and this is where the tale gets murkier. Monsanto apparently doesn't trust Indian farmers to swallow its propaganda as easily as it would like. So, in order to avoid having to persuade farmers of the case for GM crops, it has tried a different tack: growing GM crops on the farmers' land without te1ling them.

This is what happened to Basanna Hunsole, on whose land the first cremation took place. According to the farmer, he was approached in July 1998 by officials from Mahyco-Monsanto, who offered him the chance to grow - free of charge - a new variety of cotton, which they claimed would give him wonderful results. They omitted to tell him that the cotton was genetically modified, or that it had not been approved for testing by the government. In other words, Monsanto tricked Basanna Hunsole into unknowingly growing illegal crops on his land. Moreover, Basanna was unimpressed by what he saw. Despite Monsanto's claims, he said that the GM 'bollgard' cotton grew "miserably", and reached less than half the height of the traditional strains he was growing in nearby fields. Worst of all, they were heavily infested with boll weevils.

These illegal tests on Basanna Hunsole's land were carried out with no safeguards in place. There was no 'buffer zone' around the field, and none of the farmer's neighbours was notified of the potentially hazardous crops that were growing near their fields. Basanna only discovered the truth about what was growing on his land when Karnataka's Minister of Agriculture publicly announced, in November, the locations of Monsanto's test sites in the state.

Monsanto had obviously calculated that Indian farmers were easily fooled and too ignorant to bother informing about what was really happening on their own land. It is this corporate arrogance that has enraged farmers' groups all over India, and seen support for 'Operation Cremate Monsanto' spread rapidly since its inception. After the truth about Basanna Hunsole's field was discovered, Monsanto belatedly signed a statement in which they admitted their deception, and promised to behave themselves in the future. But when, a few weeks later, the government of Andhra Pradesh announced it was stopping all Monsanto trials in the state, it cited similar deceptions as the reasons for its decision.

So, what future for Monsanto in India? None at all, if another group of campaigners - the 'Monsanto Quit India' campaign - has its way. 'Monsanto Quit India' is a coalition of NGOs opposed to GM crops, and to Monsanto's attempts to monopolise Indian agriculture. It was launched on 9th August 1998 - the anniversary of the day when Gandhi famously told the British to 'Quit India'. Now, say the coalition, the same message is being sent to Monsanto's headquarters in Illinois. The Monsanto Quit India campaign has already distributed thousands of 'Quit India' postcards to NGOs, community groups and farmers across the country. So far, just four months after the campaign began, over 10,000 people have signed these postcards and sent them to Monsanto's headquarters.

Resistance to Monsanto, and to their vision of a future where farmers everywhere will be dependent on global corporations for their livelihoods, and where consumers have no choice about the food they eat, is growing fast in India. The recent decision by the Indian government to allow the mass import of American soya beans is beginning to alert the Indian public to the potential hazards of GM foods. Campaigners say that, due to the lack of labelling, there is no way of telling whether or not the beans from America are genetically modified.

The Monsanto Quit India campaign already claims tens of thousands of supporters, as do the various organisations and local efforts concentrating on burning Monsanto's crops until the corporation begins to listen to those who have worked the land for generations. Perhaps in future, before Monsanto claims that its supercrops are the only way to save the people in developing countries from a future of penury and hunger, they might care to ask those people themselves. In India, at least, they will find themselves increasingly unwelcome.