India Cheers While Monsanto
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
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
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.