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A New Era For Indian Farms- Sponsored By Craig Venter

By GS Roshan

28 May, 2010

May 20th, we are told by the Wall Street Journal, was the beginning of a 'new era'[1]. Scientists in California and Maryland inserted a synthetic genome into a Mycoplasma micoides bacteria cell, 'creating' the first computer-programmed cell capable of replicating itself. 'Insaan Ishvar Ban Gaya', 'Man becomes God' was the blaring headline of Nai Duiniya in Madhya Pradesh. This was one reflection of a similarly naked awe circulated by mass media around the country. Many of these reports in international media, especially in the western media, included token statements of disagreement. Their skeptics and critics were drawn from the usual circles- the religious right, scientists claiming the discovery reflected nothing new, and marginal western policy makers with polite ethical concerns.

The Indian mass media, continuing to deny the realities of the majority of its population, did not even show such token restraint. In what can only be described as open-mouthed worship, the Hindustan Times ran an editorial calling for the immediate need to adopt such new technology into the Indian agricultural sector, before it could even be tested or verified independently.

It claimed a supposed natural history of mankind to 'force hybrids' and 'reshape nature', citing the case of creating wheat from grass from manipulation over generations, to justify why manipulation under this new method would be of particular importance to food production. 'Especially in emerging economies like India's, particularly vulnerable to food shortages, the real issue,' it concludes, is less 'the abstract bioethics' of this breakthough and more 'how quickly [we] can master these techniques'. [2]
This sums up the opinion of the historically advantaged Indian elite that makes up its readership, likely to profit from such technology being implemented. Notably absent from all these discussions was what this 'new era', corporate capital exerting its might through monopolized technology, spells for the majority of the planet's inhabitants.

We've Heard This Story Before

First, we need to understand a few things. The real breakthrough celebrated was not scientific, but economic- a hallmark of the 'new era'. For the last two decades, the science behind this 'discovery' has remained known, but technologically out of reach. What Craig Venter, the creator and funder of the project, discovered, was simply how the process could be made replicable cheaply-that is-how to make synthetic cells commercially viable.

Corporate, not scientific interest, remains the loudest champion for genetic modification and synthesis for commercial use. Venter, a former Financial Times Man of The Year, knows this. His 5 billion dollar fortune has been built on opening the floodgates to new levels of manipulating nature for commercial gain. His process requires more capital and more esoteric knowledge, making it readily patentable, and, therefore, of commercial appeal. Synthetic Genomics, Inc(SGI), Venter's investment vehicle, has already signed deals with ExxonMobil and BP[3], with their stated goal to create hydrocarbon fuels from modified algae.

Everyone Loves Mycoplasma micoides

The most obvious concern with these developments, the continued attack on ecology by blind mercantilism, is not the most significant. What Venter's work indicates clearly is the coming of a new Empire of industrialized biology. The chief outlook is less for life, or science, and more for monopoly profits that can be extracted at every level. Those who already bear the costs of our destructive model of growth will be made to bear a greater burden. The biofuels projects are just one small example.

Corporate monopolies in energy, agriculture, fisheries, and pharmaceuticals are scrambling to consolidate their space in the 'new era'. As the societies of our industrial age approach their breaking points, artificial food scarcity, an unquenchable thirst for energy, and diseases mutated by rapid ecological degradation have proven themselves to be the chief threats to the coming generation. And, as the Bush era of terror proved time and again, there's money to be made in perceived threats. A lot of it. SCI, and many companies like it, are racing to develop commercially viable biology for monopoly sale. New superdiseases and new exclusive super-vaccines, new biofuels and new biodegradation, new manipulations of food and the renewed destruction of life - these are the promises of the 'new' era.

Genetically Modified Masala

In India, the human costs of these developments is likely to be steep and deadly. SGI and its research wing, JCVI already own 20 genetic lines of lentils and several lines of rice. That is, they already own the right to synthesise dal-chaval. Add to these the many patents for foodstock and other gifts of nature, as well as new vaccines already held by other corporate hands, and you can begin to get the basic idea. If the 'new era' goes as planned, everything from the right to eat to the right to live will no longer be questions of rights at all, but of commodities available to the highest bidder.

To date, these technologies have been labelled 'experimental' and defy regulation. Living in a grey area of accounting and legislative regulation, there are no legal upper bounds on the money to be made. Profits can be had by simply claiming to develop and implement the technology, whatever its destructive impact. Studies have still not been able to fully assess the damage of the Green Revolution around the world. Yet new, more untested biotechnology is likely to be not only allowed, but championed, by markets and governments representing the corporate elite. This is why the industry is growing at a breakneck speed.

Already, thanks to the support of governments around the world, global finance has been able to weather a crisis that threatened its existence. Financial surplus is seeking new avenues to multiply. This means more a more forceful charge into the great beyond of biotechnology-beyond regulation, beyond common understanding and profits beyond imagination.

Starve Me, Starve My Children

All of this abstract talk of destruction will have very real human impacts. We have already seen how commercial agriculture brutally impacts small and marginal farmers. They have little choice but to give in to market forces that drive them into debt, suicide or off their land as labour without any rights. Those small farmers who continue resiliently to live by the land are driven increasingly to penury and malnourishment. In recent years, the production of inedible crops from expensive modified seed for sale or export has grown considerably. Simultaneously the production of edible grain, particularly the smaller grains traditionally eaten by farmers, has dropped precipitously. If you looked only at the double digit increases in the production of unsold processed foods for sale in India's cities, subsdised as 'agro industry', you wouldn't even know. The only option, argue the those in power, is to eat Venter's seed.

Neta Knows Best

The IMF, World Bank and Monsanto/Mahyco-trained UPA government has remained one of the most vocal champions of agroindustry in the world. Recent developments read like a script from a dismal play intended for a small, powerful audience. In 2006, India and the US signed a 'Knowledge Sharing Agreement' that put executives from Archer-Daniels-Midland, Monsanto and Wal-Mart on a board to oversee 'a win-win situation for both countries and a trigger [to] benefits in perpetuity'. This cements a highway for the entry of global agribusiness into India's farms[4]. In his recent Budget speech, Pranab Mukherjee outlined 'the expansion of the Green revolution' into India's economically decimated interior. Along with the privatisation of food storage and distribution, and heavy subsidy for food processing, the Budget details further insecurity for the small and marginal farmer and landless farm labour[5]. The landed rural elite, controlling local politics, are smiling big American smiles. Broadening those smiles, the 2009-10 Economic Survey of India describes its vision for an 'enabling government' considering allowing futures trading in food and the dismantling and privatization of the PDS[5]. The sure result of these planned moves will be even more violent fluctuations in food prices than we have seen in recent years. The cycles of shortages and surplus will continue unabated, and the marginalized will continue to suffer an acute crisis of food availability.

Of Baingan and Bio-Empires

In the midst of all these happenings, we had the BT Brinjal issue, and the mass mobilization against it. Minister of Environment Jairam Ramesh agreed to hold public hearings on a proposal to allow the cultivation of the modified vegetable in India, and heard loud protests. From farmers to fair-weather friends of the organic movement, the Minister was treated to large earfuls of what 'the people' truly believe about recent developments in agricultural policy. Almost all hearings also recorded blatant attempts by biotechnology firms to pack the audience with supporters. They organized buses, placards and lunch, but in almost all cases, they failed to gain a majority of the audience.

Whether Ramesh's traveling circus on BT Brinjal was the act of one renegade minister with a conscience, or simply an effort by the government to judge the strength of current resistance to the agroindustrial model, we still cannot tell. What we do know is almost immediately after the BT affair, a bill to ensure such mobilizations never recur was proposed. Outlined in the bill, the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India(BRAI) [6] will be the supreme protector of the future of corporatized agriculture. Among other things, it originally promised jail terms and 2 lakh fines for public resistance to the march of capital into the agricultural sector. It also sets up the structures and legal environment required to help that march go smoothly. The bill is to be tabled soon. In fact, all the developments outlined are likely to be codifed as issues of national security when the promised Food Security Act is passed in coming months.

Where Do We Go From Here?

When these events are seen together, it is more than evident that the future of the Indian marginal farmer is dismal. If proposed designs are allowed to succeed, Mr. Venter's invention will just be one more weapon to be directed against the marginal farmer and the rural poor. Monopoly seed and chemical input prices will be paid by governments and individual farmers into corporate coffers. More rural farmers will driven into debt, suicide or ever-expanding urban slums. Every other model of raising food will be stamped out with a heavy hand, either by regulation or manipulated market forces. And what will be our response? Will we step aside and allow these economic weapons of mass destruction to ravage those who choose to live by the land? Will we stand by and watch while the possibility of an alternative future is bludgeoned before our very eyes? There seems no other option to loud and prolonged resistance. But mere resistance will not be enough.

Shankar Guha Neyogi, a martyr for the rights of the exploited, believed in 'sangarsh aur nirman', resistance coupled with positive creation. We can work together to organise working models that make the 'new era' redundant. The success of positive action can ask far more potent questions than mere empty resistance. This action must necessarily be coupled with, and followed by, a united stand against this proposed future.

If the 'new era' is going to be created in labs, where is the lab of dissent? Where are the experiments that offer alternatives to this vision? Theory has always followed action. Waiting for change is not enough. The time for action is now.

Roshan works on issues affecting rural farmers in Madhya Pradesh. [email protected]

[1]Scientists create first synthetic cell - http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703559004575256470152341984.html
[2]' http://www.hindustantimes.com/A-new-life-for-new-frontiers/Article1-547749.aspx
[3]' http://www.syntheticgenomics.com/index.html , http://www.jcvi.org/
[4]' dare.nic.in/bil_Usa/Work%20Plan-KIA.doc
[5]' http://indiabudget.nic.in/ub2008-09/speech.htm , http://indiabudget.nic.in/es2007-08/chapt2008/chapter.zip
[6]' www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/BRAI-critique.pdf
[7] www.doccentre.net/JVA/His_Work.pdf