What every Indian should know about agriculture

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Farmers working in the field, Karnataka
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Photograph by Ananth Somaiah

Seed monopoly, patenting and arm-twisting by large transnational corporations in cahoots with government policies are engendering a new colonialism where we are losing our right to food sovereignty. The fact that 6 TNCs are controlling 60 to 80% of seeds, grain processing and trade in food crops is definitely leading to the disempowerment of the farmer as well as the city-dweller.

Several scientists and thinkers today advocate ecological principles of agro-biodiversity, renewing soil fertility and avoiding external inputs of chemicals and GM Crops as the way forward to deal with land degradation, water scarcity and climate change. How do we make our Governments listen?

Haven’t we reached a stage where everyone of us needs to understand the crises in food and agriculture today, and offer solidarity to the farmers who supply us our food

Seed saving is an important part of what we call food sovereignty and food democracy. If you do not have your seed, there is no way you can make a choice about what you want to eat. Especially since patenting and genetic engineering are intimately linked together.

Companies are not doing genetic engineering because they love their profession immensely; they are doing it because otherwise they would not have the possibility to claim patents on plants. It is the door that has allowed them to establish monopolies on seeds. And starting with genetically engineered seeds, they are now taking patents on non-genetically engineered seeds like basmati.

A handful of companies have bought off the largest vegetable seed companies of the world. And they will not stop at selling us the Bt eggplant. They will first sell us the hybrids and then they will sell us the open pollinated varieties, because what they want is a monopoly.

I started Navdanya to save seeds, realizing that we would have to save seeds if we wanted to say “The right to save the seeds is ours!”, else all we’d be left with are genetically engineered seeds.

Take-over by the TNCs

The Trans National Corporations (TNCs) had strategized for control of World Agriculture and Food in the 1970s. They formed groups including an Intellectual Property Committee Worldwide that drew up a law that is now called TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), of the WTO. This law forces countries to have patents on seeds and life forms and has forced India to shift from its ‘process patent’ rating for medicine and pharmaceuticals into a ‘product patented’ monopoly.

A company in Texas called Ricetec made 21 claims on the wonderful Basmati from Dehradun. They claimed they had increased the height of the plant (from 2 ft to 3 ft.), invented the size of the grain, invented the aroma of the grain, invented the elongation (because basmati rice doubles after cooking) and even the method of cooking rice! We had to fight that case for four years and had most of the claims struck down – as a result of which Indians can still trade in Basmati. Otherwise we would not have been able to trade in Basmati, and over time, would not have been able to grow Basmati either.

The Seed Act of 2004 has only one objective: preventing farmers from having their own seed.

A Patent is given for something that is an invention. It gives the patent holder exclusive rights to exclude anyone else from making, using, selling, distributing, or improving the patented product.

In agriculture, it amounts to farmers not having the right to save seed or exchange seeds. That is treated now as a theft. But most of the knowledge of plants exists in the hands of Third World farmers and farmers in India.

What TNCs do is take over this original knowledge, take over the right to seeds from farmers and sell their patented seeds along with their fertilizers and chemicals. This a triple level of piracy. You pirate from nature and then you pirate an economic option, and prevent anyone from using or selling their own produce.

Seed monopoly is already starting to have huge impacts, and farmer suicides are the most important statement of that. Vidarbha is the area with the highest rate of suicides; about 40,000. It is also the area with the highest acreage of Bt Cotton: 4 million acres. And this is treated as the success of Bt! Three years ago I did a seed pilgrimage and kept asking the farmers, ‘Why did you shift?’ And they said, ‘What do we shift to? They took away our seeds.’

Governments deliberately take away old seed through a process called ‘Seed Replacement’. We have a wonderful
Seed Act of 1966, which prevents spurious seeds from being sold. But now there is the Seed Act of 2004 which has only one objective: preventing farmers from having their own seed. This supports the monopoly of the TNCs, and the direct major impact of this monopoly is impoverishment of the farmer and about 2, 00,000 farmers have been driven to suicide since 1995.


I did intensive studies when I was writing ‘The Violence of the Green Revolution’ in the, 80s. The soils were dying. The river conflicts - Kaveri, Sutlej etc., arose because of the Green Revolution. Chemical agriculture requires 10 times the water required for natural agriculture – so when there isn’t enough water, the Tamil farmers fight the Karnataka farmers and the Haryana farmers will fight the Punjab farmers. So, in the seeds of the Green Revolution are the seeds of the water wars.

On the one hand we have this miraculous 8 percent GDP growth, but on the other hand, we now have 250 million hungry Indians. The last time such large scale hunger took place was in 1943, after the Great Bengal Famine. Ironically, these huge numbers of people going hungry in India have also been producers of food.

India emerged as the ‘Hunger Capital’ last year - this has happened because we have shifted our agriculture away from nature’s ecological processes and away from the ecological principles of renewing soil fertility; traditionally we had low input systems, with no external inputs. (We also had bio-diverse agriculture which ensured that there was always something to eat and the farmers did not go hungry).

The Green Revolution on the other hand is based on ‘buying’ chemicals and ‘buying’ seeds. Chemicals are what I call ecological narcotics - the more you use them, the more you need to use them. So there is an increase in the amount of fertilizers used, without a correlated increase in the production of food. So the external inputs which are in the form of chemicals and seeds necessarily create debt.

The Green Revolution was also a monoculture of rice and wheat. This was because those were the only two crops that companies had managed to tamper with, to create dwarf varieties that could take more chemicals. They were not high-‘yielding’ varieties; they were high-‘response’ varieties i.e, which needed high amounts of chemicals and water for a good yield. But these dwarf varieties made our organic matter disappear. Nothing was left to return to the soil or to feed farm animals, the result of which is a crisis of energy and soil fertility.

Principles of Indian Agriculture

Our Indian agriculture has always been based on two very important principles:

1) The integration of animals, trees and annual crops. So if you look at areas where the Green Revolution has not managed to have an impact, they are full of trees. There were more trees in the farms of Uttar Pradesh in the, ‘50s, than there were in the forests of Uttar Pradesh. And if you go to Kerala, you can’t make out the forest from the farm.

2) Diversity: You never grow a crop alone; you always grow it in mixtures. And the normal mixing was cereals along with pulses and oilseeds - which fix nitrogen and give us proteins.

But the Green Revolution could not do that since the external input here was designed only for a single crop. This made chemical farming and the Green Revolution go hand in hand, and in turn caused pulses to be banished.

The tractor has become the most important implement on the farm. In order to use a tractor over a large area comfortably, one has to get rid of the bunds, the hedgerows and the farm trees. Because of this, what we get is miles and miles of barren desertified land, kept green through intensive irrigation.

Control of Seed, Trade and Processing.

In my book ‘Seed Dictatorship and Food Fascism’, the first part covers the issue of how seed is being controlled through a dictatorship. We must remember that this is a 100 years of Gandhi’s Satyagraha - all the more reason for us to find ways to be inventive with the idea of Satyagraha! Gandhi told the British ‘We won’t obey your salt laws as Nature gives it for free and we need it for our survival. We will continue to make salt!” We too need to find ways to say we will continue to grow our seed, and continue to make our food. Around the world the industry continues to expand its control through three means:

  1. Control of Seed
  2. Control of Trade and
  3. Control over Processing

Indian mills are being hounded for hoarding, and they are forced to buy grain monthly from Cargill at a much higher price. Farmers are forced to buy seeds from Monsanto which owns 60% of the seed companies in India. While the middle class pays more for food and the Government tries to subsidise cereals for the poor, the TNCs rake in the profits.

I was right there when the Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae climbed atop a barricade and killed himself in public view at the WTO meeting in Cancun in Mexico. He killed himself as a leader, not because he was fed up. He killed himself because the governments are ignoring the tragedy of the farmers, hoping they’d wake up to what is happening to the farmers of the world. That issue has not really been addressed since Seattle, 10 years ago and even later at the Cancun and Hong Kong meets.

Our Centre repeatedly says it is the fault of the States, who they claim, are not doing enough. When it comes to signing a WTO treaty or an ASEAN Free Trade agreement which will destroy the spice producers of Karnataka, the Centre says ‘Agriculture is our business!’ However when it comes to a food crisis, rising food prices and farmer suicides, the Centre says it is the State’s business.Our Indian mills are being hounded for hoarding. A miller traditionally buys when the wheat harvest comes in, and stocks it for the year’s supply. But now they are not being allowed to do that. If they have extra sacks, it is considered hoarding. So what is actually happening is that they are being forced to buy grain monthly from Cargill, at double the price at which they would have got it from the farmers or the Agriculture Produce Marketing Cooperatives (APMC) and Mandis. So at every step, the government is trying to push the farmers into the hands of Monsanto for seed and into the hands of Cargill and Levers for trade and distribution - both nationally as well as internationally.

Small Scale Farms: The Way Forward

People of this country have yet to rise on two basic issues. First is the issue of farming in agriculture which is our identity. Gandhi called us an ‘India of Villages’. Most Indians are still in the villages.

The Green Revolution produced high yield per acre of single crops only, but in ecological agriculture, there is verifiable data that the value of the total yield of 20 or more crops grown in a farm is much more. But such farming does not lend itself to exploitation by large organisations or centralized distribution. What we and our Governments need to understand is that ecological farms and local food systems are major changes required to deal with the climate crises.

Our small farmers need protection, and that is the reason why I am so passionately involved in building ‘Navdanya’ as a movement to keep a model alive. It is because all our research is showing that a small farm is more productive than a large farm. There is no bigger myth than the one that says: you need bigger farms to produce more food. As the scale of farming increases, the output decreases – because food comes from plants. Plants are living. Living systems do better when they have care. Small farms can give more care; large farms can just spray more poison. So for our food security, we definitely need to defend the small farmers.

The second issue is regarding the Public Distribution System (PDS). In 1991, we had a Universal PDS under which we were spending Rs. 2,500 crores for food. The World Bank said this had go because it was too much expenditure. Now, we supply rations (affordable food) to 10% of India. The cost is Rs.50,000 crores. Rs.50,000 crores is enough to run a universal system! Now the difference between a universal system and a targeted system is that if each one of us could walk into a ration shop, the speculators could not charge what they wanted and we would not have the 17% inflation that we have in food items today. Like the price of Rs 100 per Kilo for dal!

If the IT talent of Bangalore, could just direct itself to these two things: solidarity with farmers and the defense of the food rights of the Indian Citizen, it will go a long way to protect our food and seed sovereignty

The universal public distribution system is not just an access system; it is the only way to prevent complete catastrophe in the marketplace. The ‘Right to Food’ should be a Universal Right and in my view it should be the Universal Right to healthy, safe, balanced and nutritious food. But the Right to Food is being turned into a fig leaf that is protecting a system that denies people the right to good food. And that is why we have to build broad base movements.

Climate Change and Agriculture

No matter what problem you look at - non-sustainability of farming, climate change, overuse of water, all of it eventually comes down to the use of oil. As an African saying goes “We are now eating oil”. If one looks at the virtual oil in food, there is more oil than food. Forty percent of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions today are coming from a system of globalised agriculture as shown below:

? From Chemical agriculture
using Nitrogen fertilizers : 14%

? From deforestation &
change of land use : 18%

(for planting Soya
and rearing livestock)

? From transportation of food, refrigerants, retailing etc. : 8%

Chemical agriculture releases Nitrogen dioxide, which is 300 times more lethal than carbon dioxide, and methane which is 24 times worse than CO2.

The soya lobby today has spread from the US to Brazil and cut down huge tracts of the Amazon. In Argentina, there is nothing but soya, and a small farmer cannot grow a thing because they kill anything green. It is a serious issue and a deep threat to our future. And that is why we must start reclaiming our food sovereignty.

What we can do

There are several things that we in the cities can do – educate ourselves and our children about good, safe foods, support the organic food movement and join the fight against GM foods.

At Navdanya we have started the Good Food Campaign. We do not just spread awareness, we ask people to get involved, run a chef’s programme. We distribute seeds so that they can be the custodians of seeds. We call these, the Seeds of Freedom.

In 1994-1995, the obesity rates in the Delhi Schools were seven percent. In 2005, they had jumped to 20 percent and in 2009 it has jumped to 25 percent. Obesity is linked to adult onset diabetes. Kids of seven are getting diabetes; children of ten are having heart attacks. How can we do this to our future generation?

We need to educate children on eating good, safe foods and also help them understand how food can be grown without polluting our land and waters.

We encourage schools to start an edible school yard. It is such good education- you learn biology, geology, hydrology! It is also tremendous because, for the students and young people, the sensitivity to food can begin with their own garden.

Another equally important issue is building relationships between farmers and consumers, and we need to increase this on a very large scale. I think if the IT talent of Bangalore, which gained so much from this country, could just re-direct itself to these two things: solidarity with farmers and the defense of the food rights of the Indian Citizen with their brilliant use of new technologies, we could mobilize millions of people for the cause of good, safe food in India.

Now all the crises: the climate crisis, the agrarian crisis, the food crisis can all be solved by ecological agriculture and more direct distribution. All our calculations show that tomorrow we can solve 40 percent of the climate crisis - globally and nationally - if we shed chemicals and start doing ecological farming which sequesters carbon 200 percent more, on the basis of our trials, when we compared organic farms to chemical farms.

The agrarian crisis would end tomorrow if the farmers were not getting into debt. Ecological agriculture is the solution to the food crisis; both, for those who do not have food to eat as well as the lower and middle classes spending too much on junk and fake food. We need to move from fake food to real food, for surely, that is the most fundamental freedom that anybody has.