To eat GM food, or not to eat: that is the question in China after the Ministry of Agriculture allowed field trials with genetically modified rice seeds. The experts' world is divided.
GM seed supporters argue the world's hungry cannot be fed if agriculture doesn't change its traditional ways (read: if farmers do not use GM seeds). They say if the opponents can accept Bt cotton and genetically engineered medicine, why cannot they accept GM rice.
Let's take China and India, where Bt cotton is grown widely, as examples. GM seeds were introduced in these countries as high-yielding varieties. Very few, if any, farmers were told at the outset that they would have no choice but to keep paying exponentially more to buy them season after season. The Western world, which claims to have gifted the magic seed to the poor, is obsessed with democracy. But after using GM seeds does a farmer have the democracy of choice to revert to conventional seeds? To be honest, he has - but the soil, contaminated by GM seeds, would at best yield a poor harvest.
Thousands of farmers have committed suicide in India because their GM crops failed. They could not repay the loans they had taken from banks and/or moneylenders to buy GM seeds. The lure of GM seeds is still pushing hundreds of thousands of others under insurmountable debts. But they are not part of the West's democracy program.
Earlier this month came a confession from Monsanto, the world's biggest GM seed-maker, that pink bollworms insects had developed resistance to its Bt cotton crop in India's western province of Gujarat.
So what do the farmers do? Monsanto advocates they graduate to using its second-generation product called "Bollgard II which has greater ability (and costs more) to delay resistance". In other words, it is admitting the failure of Bt technology. So democracy means continuing to buy "higher quality" products from the same company and paying more year after year.
Suppose the farmers do buy Bollgard II, is there any guarantee that it would not fail in another few years?
But still the champions of GM seeds want to introduce Bt eggplants in India because it will increase the yield of the vegetable. They have had to back off for now because of public protests, but given India's democratic record they could always return successfully, and one cannot say whether secret trials have already been held with Bt eggplant seeds.
That brings us back to the trial of GM rice seeds in China. It's true that China was the first to grow hybrid varieties of rice. It's also true that hybrid seeds raised output and helped feed millions of more people. India used it, too, with the same results. But hybrid seeds are not, as they are touted to be, the same as GM seeds that multinationals are trying to push down farmers' throats today.
It is surprising that the main targets of GM seed companies are developing countries. Is it because people in the Western world, which engendered GM seeds, are also its greatest opponents? Why do GM seed companies find few takers in the developed world? Why is the European Union still skeptical about GM food? Why do GM companies respect democracy of choice in the developed world and not in developing countries?
Why doesn't an independent study on the harmful effects of GM seeds in China or India carry the same weight as that done by America's Pesticide Action Network (PAN)? Recently, PAN joined hundreds of farmers in Ankeny, Iowa, to "testify to the devastating effects of corporate control over food and agriculture".
PAN presented evidence "from the most comprehensive analysis of global agriculture to date, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology", which said GM seeds and industrial-scale farming are unlikely to feed the world; GM technologies have consistently benefited corporations, not the world's hungry; and sustainable agriculture that works for people and the planet requires breaking up corporate monopolies in agriculture.
Let's accept it. GM seeds, in the control of multinational companies, are not science but pure commerce. They are not being promoted to feed the world's hungry, but to make money. These companies have spent billions of dollars to genetically modify the seeds. Now, they are forcing poor farmers to pay them back with a very high rate of interest. Whither democracy?
(China Daily 03/19/2010 page8)