In Norwich earlier this year, a group of campaigners hosted a debate on GMOs, 'Feeding or Fooling the World?'. Attended by some 400 people, it was offered as an alternative to an international conference organised by the John Innes Centre, one of the world's leading centres for GM crop research, which is based in the city.
Whilst all those involved in 'Feeding or Fooling the World?' were concerned about the direct threat of GM crops in Britain, the aim was to raise awareness of wider global issues. To this end, speakers were welcomed from across the world, both the North and the South. Those who organised the debate believe that local responsibility and involvement in the future of agriculture is vital. It must address the needs of both farmers and consumers in a way which creates sustainable social, economic and environmental well-being, and does not compromise the ability of future generations in any land to meet those needs.
One Man's Struggle Against A Corporate Giant
Many thousands of miles from Norwich, a Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser, has been growing canola or oilseed rape for most of his farming life. In a case which hit the headlines in March 2000, he was taken to court by Monsanto when genes from their Roundup Ready canola, a genetically modified variety, contaminated his crop. After a court battle lasting two and a half weeks, he lost his case. Percy is 70 years old, and admits he would much rather be spending his free time fishing with his grandchildren.
The final ruling by the court was to support Monsanto's claim that because they had inserted a gene into their modified canola variety, they were responsible for inventing it, and therefore it was their property. It did not matter how the genetically modified material had entered Percy's field: Monsanto owned it, and Percy was breaking the law by allowing it to grow. Monsanto assumed full control over Percy's canola seed, which he had been saving and developing for almost forty years, and can now no longer use. They sued him for a total of $400,000 cdn, in a test case which has frightening implications for the future of farming right across the globe.
In Canada, there has been so much cross-pollination and gene contamination by GM canola that the export market to both North America and Europe has collapsed. Canadian seed companies can no longer guarantee that their seed is GM free, and cannot even use it for the domestic market without paying a 'technology fee' to Monsanto. They must now sign forms allowing representatives from Monsanto onto their land, and give them the right to take crop samples for analysis to see if they have been contaminated by GMOs.
Such representatives have gained a reputation as Monsanto's 'police force' and they are making frequent forays onto privately owned farmland without the permission or knowledge of landowners. Monsanto has also placed advertisements in its brochures inviting farmers to 'squeal' on neighbours who might inadvertently be growing Roundup Ready canola. Spray bombs of Roundup have even been dropped onto unsuspecting farmers' fields from aeroplanes and helicopters, with inspectors returning a week later to see whether or not the crop has died. If it has not, this is taken as a clear indication that somewhere along the line the crop has absorbed modified genes, or become mixed with Roundup Ready canola, and a fine can then be extracted. The farmer will most probably know nothing of the invasion until he or she receives a letter from Monsanto demanding payment. Millions of dollars worth of letters have been sent out in this way, with one farmer being ordered to pay as much as $28,000.
No Going Back
For Canadian farmers, unlike the farmers in India, for instance, there is no going back, since genetically modified canola can lie dormant in the soil for between 6-10 years. Last year literally thousands of farmers who hadn't planted GM crops were found to have Roundup Ready canola somewhere on their land. They now have to get rid of it – and Monsanto stands to make still more financial gains.
Percy Schmeiser says that he has lost both his freedom and his rights. Yet despite this, he is seeking funds to continue his battle with one of the world's largest corporate giants, and will be taking his case back to the courts on appeal in the autumn of this year.
Betrayal In India
Nowhere is the future of agriculture more critical than in India, where the very existence of millions of small farmers depends directly on the crops they grow and the land they manage. In the Indian countryside, hungry people as well as the environment have been the ones to pay the price of the new, industrial-ised agriculture, with its unsustainable demands on ecosystems and scarce natural resources, such as water.
New Gene Revolution
The voice of Indian farmers has a special poignancy, because they represent a nation which was betrayed by the so-called 'green revolution' of the 1960s and '70s. This had the effect of concentrating wealth, land and power in the hands of the few who could afford the expensive new seeds and agrochemicals, and contributed to the migration of millions of disenfranchised farmers to the cities, where they have become the new urban poor. It is a tragic reflection on the state of Indian agriculture that during the last three years over 10,000 farmers have committed suicide.
Millions of people in India are still starving today, despite the fact that the granaries of the nation are full to bursting. In 2001, it is estimated that there will be some 50 million tonnes of food surplus, although most of this will go into animal feed. Access to food is being denied to the people who need it the most because they cannot afford it, and there are inadequate systems of distribution. It is a sad reality that with fair distribution, every single person in the country could have access to food.
Many of the so-called experts who pushed the 'green revolution' are now pushing the 'gene revolution'. The potential outcomes are equally devastating, and the movement in India against GM crops is one of the most active in the world. Entire fields of GM crops have been ripped up and burned, and many small farmers are making a proactive stand in different ways against the multinationals. They believe that the kind of techno-logy being offered cannot possibly make food cheaper, and will simply make things worse.
One Women's Vision
Lakshmi Umnapur is one such farmer. According to tradition and birth, she is a 'dalit' or untouchable – one of the lowest castes in society. As a single mother, who supports a young daughter and both her mother and father from her work on the land, she might be labelled by western society as 'socially marginalised'. However, she is playing an important role in the empowerment of India's small farmers.
Lakshmi is a seed keeper, and one of 5,000 women farmers involved in a scheme co-ordinated by the Deccan Development Society (DDS) in the Medak region of Andhra Pradesh in Southern India. As the owner of just 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of land, she is the guardian of 85 different crop species, including sorghum, pigeon and chick pea, barley, lentils, mung bean, oil seeds, and her own favourite, millet, of which she has seven different varieties. She speaks enthusiastically about the nutritional and health giving properties of the wild green leafy vegetables which grow amongst her crops, and which would have been destroyed by an agrochemical based system years ago. Not surprisingly, she is entirely self-sufficient.
Soil fertility and stabilisation are important concerns for farmers in the region, which receives an average of just 800mm (31Hin) of rain a year. Most of this falls in downpours during the monsoon season and is wasted, since it cannot be absorbed by the parched soil. Lakshmi lives in an area ravaged by soil erosion, yet by using an elaborate system of multi-cropping, nitrogen fixers, manure and living green mulch plants, she has created soil with an unrivalled richness and fertility. Her attunement to the seasons and weather is natural and instinctive, and plays an integral part in her understanding of the earth and its processes.
Outside help is only called in for a few days of the year. For one day, she will draw on the support of 30 people from the village to do the weeding. She says that this only needs to be done once, since the weeds all have their place within the system. The only other time labour is called in is to help with harvesting the pigeonpeas, which involves some 15 people over several days. These helpers are all paid in kind, not cash.
Selling Out The Future
Six to seven years ago, many small farmers in Lakshmi's village were influenced by the marketing ploys of government policy makers and multinational companies, and started to use new, supposedly 'improved' but sterile hybrid seed varieties. The seed produced a good harvest, but villagers were afflicted by previously unknown allergies when they ate the produce grown from it. They were able to sell their crops on and were left with a small amount of cash – but more critically, they had no seeds and nothing to eat. Now caught up within the global marketing system, they were forced to buy both food and next season's seed, instead of using their own carefully saved varieties, developed over generations in the tradition which had sustained their families for centuries.
This disaster could, as in so many other regions, have driven the people from their land and villages to become just another statistic in the often-quoted millions of starving, disenfranchised urban poor. Fortunately, two farmers in the village had refused to plant hybrids, and still held the traditional varieties of seed. Supported by the Deccan Development Society, villagers have been encouraged to take the responsibility for food production back into their own hands and now use a combination of permaculture and traditional methods of mixed cropping, rotation, pest control and fertilisation.
As a seed keeper, Lakshmi has taken six years to gather her 85 varieties of food plants, and now shares the seed with other farmers. The money she makes from any sales of seed goes to develop further conservation and distribution, and with encouragement from the Deccan Development Society, she is participating in a 'sangam', or community seed bank programme.
Buying Life Itself
But the multinational companies now have a new wonder product to bestow upon the farmers of India. Their representatives have been visiting rural areas looking for interesting varieties and species of plant life, and buying up 'Intellectual Property Rights' – as if life itself was a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. They are now returning to the farmers bearing free gifts of 'new' genetically modified seeds, often developed by changing a single gene in traditional varieties developed by the farmers themselves.
Lakshmi sees the shadow of control and disenfran-chisement looming yet again, as it did in the disastrous days when her village was offered hybrid seed. She says, "First you take my seed. Then you take my land", and is suspicious of anyone who offers seed. But this time her village has the support of people such as Salome Yesudas of the DDS, who is working with women farmers like Lakshmi in some 80 villages across the region. They are being offered practical education and skills training (Lakshmi is now also a film maker), and have set up several alternative schools offering practical craft and rural skills to young people. They are finding a voice, and becoming equipped to stand up for what they believe in.
Farmers like Lakshmi and Percy are facing the challenge of GM head on. They are demonstrating that multi-national companies and the rulings of governments across the globe cannot be allowed to force individuals into subservience, poverty and disenfranchisement or to despoil their heritage. Whilst they come from very different cultures, their battle is the same. It is the unifying struggle for human rights, quality of life, and the ultimate future of our planet
Charlotte Philcox is a founder member of Aylsham Permaculture Group.