A sudden pest attack has ruined cotton crops in large parts of Punjab, bringing biotech, or BT Cotton back into focus. Farmers who used bio-fertilisers in the Malwa region of the state are said to be safe from this latest pestilence. But those growing BT cotton have lost everything. There are reports of farmer suicides. Dr Vandana Shiva, scientist and longtime activist against genetically modified BT seeds, talks about why BT has a devastating fallout, and the growing pressure from the seeds industry on Prime Minister Modi to change IPR laws in India. Edited excerpts of an email interview with Pragya Singh:
There has been a massive Whitefly attack on BT Cotton farms in Punjab. The farmers say they were in fact using more pesticides than ever before, with hopes of preventing exactly such an attack. Do you think that you have now been proved right in warning against BT seeds and chemical-led farming?
We scientists working on bio-safety and ecological assessment of BT technology had predicted that it is a crime technology. It is a technology which ignores evolutionary pressures on pests, both on target pests like Pink Bollworm, which is now resistant to BT (and that is why Monsanto has introduced Bollgard) as well as insects, which were not cotton pests before the introduction of Genetically Modified BT technology.
The farmers who used non-BT seeds were able to protect their yield while those who used BT Cotton face complete loss. Could you explain how BT Cotton can be resistant to Bollworm but not Whitefly, the pest in this case?
Transgenic BT on the one hand kills beneficial insects such as pollinators and soil micro-organisms. On the other hand it creates new pests. Instead of being a pest control technology it has become a pest creating technology. It has failed as a technology. It is time for the government to draw lessons from this failure and stop the push for GMOs. It needs to take the advice of the Technical Expert committee to the Supreme Court
What is the logic behind growing a crop by using a seed that can resist one type of pest but not another?
In fact, as explained above, now even the Pink Bollworm is resistant to BT. [Which means that BT Cotton claimed to be designed to resist Pink Bollworm, but it no longer does even that]. And, every season, we see new pests such as Aphids, Jerseys, Army Worm and Mealy Bug [also] growing resistant. Genetically Modified BT crops are more vulnerable to pests because of the violence of this technology, which introduces a gene that does not belong to the organism. This disrupts its physiology, its metabolism and the self-regulatory process through which a plant defends itself from pests. Native varieties do not have their genome compromised and are therefore more resilient to pest attacks.
There have been so many other instances of this kind. Why, then, do seed companies have a campaign against you (and others) who protest against GM crops or chemical-led farming? Whose interests are being served here?
Monsanto has emerged as the world’s largest GM seed company. Its super profits are based on extracting royalties through genetic engineering, and then claiming that they have invented a seed. This is false at every level, and I have been challenging their false claims since 1987. I have contributed to shaping the UN laws on bio-safety and worked with our government and Parliament to ensure that their false claims to invention were not allowed to enter our national patent laws. The pressure of the US on Prime Minister Modi in Intellectual Property Rights is a pressure from Monsanto and the pharmaceutical giants.
Monsanto mobilises its armies of PR professionals to attack me because I know the field of GMOs, bio-safety and IPRs. I work for the interests of our farmers and our country, I have sued them for their illegal, unethical actions. Since their interest is only to turn India into a market for their toxic GMO seeds and failed GMO technology in order to collect royalties from our farmers, trapping farmers into debt and pushing them to suicide, they see my research and my work with farmers as coming in the way of their Bio Imperialism.
Punjab's political leaders, including the Badal family, are agriculturists. Yet Punjab's agriculture has been declining with ruinous social and health effects of chemical intensive farming. What can quell the growing disconnect between our agriculturist political leaders and farmers?
When violence erupted in Punjab in 1984, I was working with the United Nations University, and did research on the roots of the violence. It was related to the Green Revolution, which I analysed in my book The Violence of the Green Revolution.
The way out of the agrarian crisis in Punjab and elsewhere is to go organic and have your own seeds. No organic farmer has committed suicide, including in the cotton belt. Our members in Vidarbha are spending less and earning more through organic methods. Organic [farming] also helps deal with droughts and climate change. And it produces more food and fibre with no purchased inputs. The agrarian crisis is a direct result of the agrochemical industry, which is also the GMO seed industry. [This industry is] extracting super-profits from farmers by making them dependent on purchased inputs and trapping them in debt. Corporations are bleeding rural India and killing our farmers. We can break free from their inputs through organic farming [which will also] heal the soil, heal the farmers, heal our health.
Is bio-fertilizer a better option for our farmers? Is there an inherent problem on our farms, now that we have veered away from traditional agriculture?
The best pest control strategy is intensification of diversity and [crop] mixtures. In a mono-culture, where there is only one crop, one species has a feast and becomes a pest. We need ecological balance not silver bullets, which gives silver to the corporations, and the bullet to the farmer.
What are the future plans of the seed industry? Where is the next danger zone emerging?
Since 1987, when I first heard the agrochemical industry talking about owning seeds through patents on GMOs, the industry has been aiming for total, monopolistic control on seeds. They have not achieved it because we built movements, saved seeds, and created Seed Sovereignty (Bija Swaraj) for our farmers. In 2004, they tried to make seed-saving by farmers illegal. I had to mobilise farmers through a Seed Satyagraha, giving PM Manmohan Singh 1,00,000 signatures of Satyagraha commitment to defend our seed freedom.
The new threats are the following:
- Biopiracy through seeking patents on climate-resilient varieties that our farmers have evolved.
- Using the climate crisis for deeper control over farming, and selling data to small farmers, creating more debt, more dependence. Monsanto has bought up the world’s biggest climate data and soil data corporations with this in mind. Increasing talk of "climate smart" agriculture is linked to this strategy.
- Privatisation of our national and international gene banks.
- Trying to undo our Intellectual Property Rights safeguards by putting pressure on the Prime Minister, as well as pushing India to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which removes all ethical, scientific and public interest safeguards in national IPR laws.
The interesting thing is that while pushing so hard, manipulating so much, Monsanto’s GM technologies are failing, and the corporation itself could fail like Enron did, because of its greed and corruption.