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Agro-imperialism: From the Green Revolution to biotechnology

(Tuesday, July 6, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Md Nazrul Islam writing in The Daily Star, July 2 2004:
Is the Green Revolution (GR) a curse or blessing for us? Four decades after the introduction of the GR, the time has now come to evaluate its overall impact.

It seemed that political imperialism bade farewell to the third world countries, but in reality it exists in different forms. Agro-technology is such a form that has invaded the developing countries in the name of development. Under the guise of technology transfer, the neo-colonialists have entered into the developing countries, capturing their economy, culture, and society.

The technological transformation in agriculture is termed as the GR. It was introduced in our country in the 1960s. 'Miracle Seeds' are central to the GR. Nobel Laureate agriculture scientist Norman Borlaug invented 'miracle seeds' through bringing out dwarf hybrid wheat seeds in 1954.

It is necessary to understand the geo-political and social condition of the 1950s to understand agro-imperialism. In the middle of the 20th century, colonial powers started withdrawing from their colonies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, giving independence to various countries including India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Resentment was brewing among the peasant societies in these newborn countries for land and agri-reforms. The Communist Party of China, which came to state power at that time, extended its support to the peasant societies of these countries. The direct patronisation of the Communist Party of China to the peasant bodies became a serious concern for the US and its western allies. The US, which was looking for new strategy to exert its influence on these countries, used this miracle seed of Norman Borlaug as a magic medicine to thwart China.

The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, which played a pioneering role in establishing the International Wheat Research Institute in Mexico, now came forward to transfer the hybrid seeds in Asia through setting up the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1960.

In the meantime, under the financial assistance of these two organisations, agriculture scholars from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines went to the USA for higher studies and training in US-agriculture.

After having been brainwashed in technological agriculture production, they returned back home and became desperate to dismantle the thousand years old traditional agriculture system, ignoring the people, soil, climate, land ownership system, nature and bio-diversity of their own countries, and terming the traditional system as 'outdated'. There was no dearth of money as USAID, the World Bank and other US-controlled organisations were ready to finance their ventures. The brainwashed scientists gave plans, and the politicians, already perplexed as to how to maintain political stability, grasped their ideas.

The dwarf hybrid rice seeds from IRRI came to the market in 1966. Under the direct patronisation of the government, the seeds quickly spread all over the country with an ambitious pledge to uproot hunger, poverty and conflict from society. The crop production process engendered by this dwarf hybrid seed is termed as the Green Revolution.

The hybrid seeds, which were termed as High Yielding Variety or HYV, are in the real sense not high yielding. We could, more accurately, call them 'High Responsive Variety' as these seeds have the capacity to withstand high doses of chemical fertilizer, pesticide, and water. Not only do they withstand high doses, without application of high doses of inputs, not a single grain will come from hybrid seeds. On the other hand, the traditional seeds cannot withstand high doses of these inputs. As a result, the western countries arranged all means to give with one hand and take away with other. They sold fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation appliances, etc. We had to set up fertilizer factories, but the machinery, technology, and technologists were theirs. That's not the end, fuel being used in irrigation is imported from foreign countries. We have to use our precious natural gas for producing fertilizer and electricity. A sizable quantity of electricity is being used for irrigation purpose. The power plant machinery was also imported from their countries. If you calculate the multiplier effects of all these inputs being used in cultivating HYV, you would find that the benefit is zero.

What has the GR given to us? Has prosperity and peace resulted? Has poverty reduced? Has per capita income in real terms increased? Has per head food and nutrition intake increased? Statistics shows that there were no significant changes of these indexes. Rather, during the last four decades the marginal farmers have slowly been added to the number of the landless. Per capita income in real terms has not increased, the number of poor people not decreased, the gap between rich and poor widened, social inequality increased, and conflict, crime, and social instability multiplied.

The GR presented our farmers dependency instead of making them self-sufficient. Our farmers had never been dependent on others for agri-inputs like seeds, fertilizer, and irrigation water. The found these in nature. The seeds of traditional indigenous varieties were under the full control of the farmers. The housewives used to preserve the seeds for the next season braving all odds. If somebody did not have, they easily got those from neighbours. But the hybrid seeds are no longer under the control of the farmers. Seeds have now turned into consumer items. They are produced in specialised farms. Farmers, irrespective of their size, are at the mercy of the seed producing agencies. They have to pay huge sums of money for seeds. As a result, there is massive corruption before every sowing season. The black-marketers, profit-mongering traders, and corrupt government officials control the supply and availability of seeds.

The worst impact of the GR is that hundreds of thousands of crop varieties disappeared after the introduction of the monoculture system. Its hybrid seeds destroyed our rich genetic bio-diversity and natural and ecological balance.

Not only that -- the over extraction of surface and ground water caused reduction in the water level. Most of the water bodies, including rivers, hoars, and beels, were silted up, turning them into arable land. As a result, water conservation capacity of our water bodies severely declined. Those, which hold a small quantity of water, have become unfit human use due to excessive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticide in the crop fields. On the other hand, although production of paddy increased to some extent, production of straw severely decreased. Paddy straw is one of the main fodders in our country. The straw produced from hybrid seeds is not palatable for the cattle heads due to use of chemical fertilizer and pesticide. The impact is easily visible. The country has become cattle-less. Insects, earthworms, and frogs disappeared, resulting in decrease in poultry bird production. In a nutshell, the GR has totally destroyed our rich bio-diversity.

Was there any alternative to the GR? How would 140 million people of this small country be fed? The alternative can be found in nature. Nothing can be derived from nature by making it hostile. The exotic varieties failed to yield any benefit for our millions of marginal farmers. We have to go back to our roots. The success lies in the improvement of our indigenous varieties, development of cropping patterns, and proper use of resources.

But it's matter of great regret that our agricultural scientists do not do research with our own subjects, the teachers do not teach domestic issues. The agricultural institutions totally depend on western technology and books. The scientists-teachers run after lucrative scholarship offers in the west and having completed their courses, they come back brainwashed. They praise western agriculture and want to introduce western agriculture in our country in toto. But, they forget the basic difference between the society, land ownership pattern, and farmers of the west, and ours. The American and European agriculture is farm-based. Their farmers (it's better to call them agri-industrialists) produce crops for industries. Most of our farmers produce crops for their own consumption. Our agriculture is labour-intensive, theirs mechanised. Think, what would happen if our total agriculture was mechanised? Millions of agri-laborers would become jobless. And it's happening. The rich farmers in northern Bangladesh are introducing tractors and other mechanical appliances in their farming, making thousands of day labourers jobless. They are moving towards towns and cities in search of work, swelling the slums there.

The agro-imperialism is not limited to the GR. With the passage of time, farmers of many third world countries are realising the hollowness of the GR. Farmers of many countries, including India and Southeast Asia, are returning back to the pre-GR traditional farming system. Organic farming is getting popularity fast. Now, the western multi-national companies (MNC) have started propaganda, saying that the hybrid seeds failed to cope with the growing demand of food. It is the time to replace it with 'Genetically Engineered' or Biotechnology seeds. Our agricultural scientists have already swallowed the bait of the MNCs like Monsanto, Novartis, Dupont, Ciba Giegy, etc.

Our agriculture scientists are heading towards another technological disaster. Biotechnology seeds are even more dangerous than the GR hybrid seeds. The farmers have no control over hybrid seeds, but at least government agencies have some control. In contrast, control over biotechnology seeds will entirely be in the hands of MNCs. The list of the bad effects of GM food is long. Without mentioning them here, I only raise the issue of the risk to our farmers. Once the biotechnology seeds capture the market, the remaining genetic diversity will be quickly destroyed. Millions of marginal farmers of our country will then become pawns of the MNCs. They have to use seeds, fertilizer, and pesticide of a particular company. There would be no scope for bargaining as the government would have no control over those. But who will make our scientists understand? They have already sold themselves to the MNCs. The roots of agro-imperialism run deep.

Creating awareness is now the only means to avert the disaster. We have to make our farmers conscious; we have to build a social movement. In India, such a movement has already been started with the initiative of environmentalists and the media. Our sensible agricultural scientists and environmentalists should also come forward to combat the impending threat, otherwise a dark curtain will fall on our agriculture system and farmers.

Md. Nazrul Islam is a graduate of Bangladesh Agricultural University, journalist, and environmentalist

Source: http://www.thedailystar.net/2004/07/02/d407021501100.htm