Sunday, April 25, 2010

U.S. Agribusiness in Indian Agriculture

U.S. Agribusiness in Indian Agriculture: KIA, BRAI, and the “Second Green Revolution”

Analytical Monthly Review Editorial, April 2010.

There are points when long-term trends emerge openly in the present, and a process normally visible only from a distance becomes an unmistakable part of daily life. The displacement (or better dispossession) of rural petty cultivators and producers became noticeable with the adoption of “Green Revolution” expensive technical farming in the 1960s and 1970s, and gathered speed from the time of the neoliberal “reform” regime adopted by the ruling class in 1991. Claims were often made that expanded production for export would create industrial jobs for the masses expelled from the countryside. Such claims were false. Instead vast slum belts surround the cities, and brazen claims of employment gains are falsified by the word “informal” and the misery it denotes. The anguish of this immiserated population echoes with every price rise of foodstuffs, while yet more cultivators are dispossessed.

Yet seventy percent of the population is even now rural, and under ever greater strains. Lakhs of farmer suicides have occurred in the last decade, and the causes are clear to every honest observer. Neoliberal “reforms” subjected farmers’ incomes to the wild swings of world speculative markets, and restricted state subsidised credit to a small minority of cultivators. Usury, suddenly celebrated for its “market” magic, finished the murderous job. Even the small minority worthy of credit from the organised banking sector face a full-scale crisis. Large parts of Punjab and Haryana, epicentre of “Green Revolution” farming with chemicals, high-yield seeds and irrigation, now face desertification in the next decades. A recent report by the Punjab State Council for Science and Technology asserts that the state’s agriculture “has become unsustainable and nonprofitable.” G.S. Kalkat, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, claims that if farmers in Punjab don’t change the way they grow food, a “Dust Bowl” will result. Social manifestation of this crisis is best described by a report from Punjab. “Locals call Train No. 339 by a chilling name — “the cancer train.” It routinely carries at least 60 cancer patients who make the overnight journey with their families to the town of Bikaner for treatment at the government’s regional cancer center. Research by one of the most respected medical institutes in India recently found that farming villages using large amounts of pesticides have significantly higher rates of cancer than villages that use less of the chemicals.”

The oncoming disaster is not now in dispute on any level. In the recent budget, an amount of Rs.900 crore has been allocated (i) to extend the green revolution (!) to the eastern region of the country comprising Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Eastern UP, West Bengal and Orissa; (ii) to organise 60,000 “pulses and oil seed villages” in rain-fed areas during 2010-11 and provide an integrated intervention for water harvesting, watershed management and soil health, to enhance the productivity of the dry land farming areas and (iii) for launching climate resilient agriculture initiative in the green revolution areas to be sustained through conservation farming, which involves concurrent attention to soil health, water conservation and preservation of biodiversity. It is also mentioned that to spur the growth in this sector, the Government intends to follow a four-pronged strategy covering (a) agricultural production; (b) reduction in wastage of produce; (c) credit support to farmers; and (d) a thrust to the food processing sector.

On the face of it, this section of the budget appears deeply inconsistent; implicitly acknowledging the disasters that have ensued from the “green revolution” while pledging to extend it. The cause is that the underlying program of this government could not be mentioned; the massive introduction of patented seed owned by the giants of U.S. agribusiness. Only gradually has this central element—a total subjugation of Indian agriculture to the dominant U.S. agri-monopoly corporations—slowly emerged into the light of day. The positive side of this contradiction is that educated opinion is today so sensitised to the issues that the regime must resort to subterfuge. The negative side is that the extension of the power of U.S. imperialism into our most crucial domestic affairs, agriculture and food security—abetted in every way by the Manmohan Singh government—continues apace.

The process has been going for a long time. It received a boost during the visit of Manmohan Singh to the USA and the Joint Statement with U.S. President George Bush of July 18, 2005 where it was announced that the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agreed to work together for an otherwise undescribed new “India–U.S. Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture Education, Research, Services and Commercial Linkages”. An agreement signed at New Delhi on November 12th, 2005 spelled out the heart of the matter while leaving all crucial details undisclosed—“A key feature of this Initiative will be a public-private partnership where the private sector can help identify research areas that have the potential for rapid commercialization, with a view to develop new and commercially viable technologies for agricultural advancement in both countries”. The nuclear agreement occupied the media when U.S. President George Bush visited India in March, 2006, while the formal signing of the shadowy deal with which we are concerned—the “Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture” (KIA)—went largely unnoticed. The KIA then came into existence, with a Board dominated by representatives of U.S. agribusiness giants Monsanto, Walmart and Archer Daniels Midland. Astoundingly, the full details of the KIA deal were still not made public. A Delhi-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), Gene Campaign, finally managed to obtain some details under the Right to Information Act. The details were shocking; the Indian side is required to prostitute its publicly funded agricultural research to the masters of U.S. agribusiness. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is required to provide free access to its entire network of 47 agricultural laboratories and universities for U.S. companies and research institutes to carry out joint research with ICAR in biotech areas “that have the potential for rapid commercialization”. (Nature Biotechnology 24, 481, 2006)

A study by Kavitha Kuruganti, based on her reading of the minutes of the KIA Board’s meetings, reveals:

“While some amount of joint research work seems to be underway, an analysis of the board meeting minutes so far reveals that a major thrust of the KIA is to change some important regulatory regimes pertaining to agriculture in India.

The KIA is expected to lend a focused impetus to changes sought by private agri-business corporations, including many large American multinational corporations (MNCs) like Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland Co. Given that they are on the KIA board, it is impossible that they will not drive as many changes as possible that would suit their business interests. In more than two board meetings, there were express points made on how the private sector could provide more inputs for the regulatory process – this is ironical given that most regulation in any case is meant to regulate such a private sector and to protect the interests of consumers and producers. There is an inherent conflict of interest in these private players determining the shape and systems of regulation!

Harmonisation of legislation is mentioned in different contexts including in the US-India CEO Forum plans. Going through the developments on the KIA front, it appears that the following regulatory regimes related to Indian farming/food are being sought to be changed through the KIA: (1) regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs); (2) contract farming; (3) seeds regulation; and (4) intellectual property rights (IPRs) in agriculture.” - (Economic & Political Weekly, November 29, 2008)

The true agenda of the KIA—the destruction of the regulatory regime in the interests of U.S. agribusiness and its Indian coconspirators—has emerged step by step. In April 2006, the Indian Ministry of Commerce issued a notification requiring all food import consignments to be certified for their genetically modified (“GM”) status. The United States objected to this in the Technical Barriers to Trade committee in the WTO in May 2006 as discrimination and asked for its suspension. The Manmohan Singh government, hearing its master’s voice, immediately complied in July 2006, and changed its regulation for soyabean-related imports. Soon after, Bush administration undersecretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns boasted of the success of the Bush “drive” on India “culminating in impressive agreements regarding civilian nuclear power, trade, science and agriculture with India’s reformist prime minister, Manmohan Singh.” Burns, in his relatively unguarded comments, salivates at the prospects now open for U.S. capital: “While the civilian nuclear initiative has garnered the most attention, the U.S. and Indian governments have [also] launched joint ventures in agriculture…”; “Our first priority is to continue giving governmental support to the huge growth in business between the Indian and American private sectors”; “…the potential benefits to American interests [are] so substantial…”; “These are heady times for India and the United States.”

The key sector was identified from the first—the global market for seeds. U.S. agribusiness has developed seeds with “terminator genes” so that only one crop can be grown. And even failing such certain means to enslave the world’s farmers, seeds are patented and U.S. global military power stands behind its demand that all nations respect its “intellectual property”. United States multinational corporations already dominate India’s organised seed market, with more than half of all sales. But eighty percent of India’s farmers obtain their seeds by traditional means, and not by purchase. And the Indian regulatory regime, as with every major country in Europe and Asia, placed strict controls on the introduction of GM seeds in view of the immense possible health risks and the no less serious threat of the loss of food sovereignty. On this front the attack would be made.

As with all basic elements of U.S. global imperial policy, the shift from Bush to Obama left unchanged the well-planned assault on regulatory resistance to the spread of patented genetically modified seeds:

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it a point to visit the Indian Agricultural Research … and reiterate her country’s commitment to bringing about policy changes in the Indian farm sector that US agri-business would like to see. Clinton said she favoured a strong intellectual property or patent regime (IPR) to safeguard the ownership of agricultural research, as that would be in ‘everyone’s interest’. A contention rejected by Indian agri-policy analysts who say it would primarily benefit owners of biotechnology research — the MNCs who produce ‘Bt’ seeds, as genetically modified or GM crops have come to be popularly known (patents would ensure that no one else would be allowed to produce or sell these seeds). Her technology advisor, Nina Federoff, is a strong votary of genetically modified crops, to the extent of being regarded as a spokesperson for US seed multinationals like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont. In fact, Federoff triumphantly pointed out to a group of US agri-scientists last year that although Europe and Japan were cautious about GM foods, Africa and India were clamouring for them!

The chosen agent for the assault was genetically modified brinjal seed (“Bt-brinjal”). The careful preparation of the KIA now was brought into play. As noted above, from the first the KIA, its Board dominated by Monsanto, Walmart, and Archer Daniels Midland, was focused on placing the regulatory regime under the control of agribusiness. And it scored an immediate success over the regulatory regime with the approval of Bt-brinjal by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). But a storm of concerned protest erupted, and at last the entire conspiracy came under public scrutiny.

Under immense pressure from organisations of farmers, the scientific community and every species of national-minded public opinion, Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh declared a moratorium on the introduction of Bt-brinjal early in February, 2010. But it quickly developed that he was relatively isolated in the government, as the immensely wealthy Union Agriculture Minister Shawar Pawar organised a campaign to reverse the decision. At the same time a Bt-brinjal propaganda campaign was unleashed in the mass media, more or less openly financed by the agribusiness interests. As a sign that what is here at issue is far more serious than any single such decision, it now appears that the Manmohan Singh regime has prepared legislation to use the police power to crush opposition to agribusiness and to wipe out the existing regulatory regime.

According to a report by K. P. Prabhakaran Nair, an agricultural scientist:

“Now, recently two things are happening quietly— First is the drafting of the draconian Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill (BRAI) which will be tabled in Parliament soon. The second was the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Washington and New Delhi which will make the American presence in the Indian farm sector very strong. The MoU has been quietly approved by the Cabinet, against established protocol, without taking Parliament into confidence. It is titled ‘Agriculture Cooperation and Food Security’ between India and the US. The MoU is primarily intended to enable private American investments in the country. It also seeks to privatise the huge Indian network of agricultural extension. The nutrition security component of the MoU calls for access of Indians to ‘diverse diet and diversified and fortified foods’ — a euphemism for genetically modified (GM) foods. India is a big market and with the draconian Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill in the offing, the US government with the Cabinet’s approval of the MoU will have no problems in dumping GM foods in the Indian market. The food and nutrition security component will give access to India’s great genetic diversity of crop plants for commercialisation to the advantage of the US because of its superior technological skills. The opening up of food security policy dialogue is also a matter of great concern, as it will impose on India the US model of agribusiness and vertical integration of food chain, greatly impacting and consolidating monopolies, because of the extensive and efficient US infrastructure. Indian food sovereignty will simply be lost.” <>

The proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill (BRAI) 2009 criminalises opposition to the agribusiness agenda. Section 63, Chapter 13 of the Bill which deals with various “offences and penalties”, reads “Whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of the organisms and products specified in Part I or Part II or Part III of the Schedule I, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to one year and with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both.” GM products covered under the Schedule I include genetically engineered plants and organisms, DNA vaccines, cellular products, gene therapy products, stem cell products and other such genetically engineered or transgenic products. “Evidence”, “scientific record” and “misleading” are undefined in the bill. As for public knowledge of the activities of the new all-powerful Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India, Section 27 (1) reads “Disclosure of confidential commercial information, such information shall, notwithstanding anything contained in the Right to Information Act, 2005, be retained as confidential by the authority and not be disclosed to any other party.” Thus the details of BRAI’s decisions on the properties and effects of all patented genetically modified materials can neither be obtained by the public, nor legally challenged.

We now see the totalitarian extent of the “strategic alliance” with the United States. Presented as a “second green revolution” under the benevolent guidance of U.S. agri-monopoly corporations—Archer Daniel Midland, Cargill, Monsanto, and Wal-Mart—what we see instead is a further extension of police control over intellectual and political dissidents. The further introduction of expensive agricultural technology (and patented seeds cannot be other than expensive) can only serve to accelerate the dispossession of poor cultivators. The vagaries of weather and world markets will generate price rise, hunger, anger and resistance. Which in turn will be met with new high-technology means of repression courtesy of the same titans of U.S. private enterprise, ever able to profit from each new disaster.

The reality is that Washington and the U.S. agribusiness giants seek by patenting life forms to gain worldwide control of food supply. As Henry Kissinger said in 1970, “control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people”. What is at issue is imperialism. The Manmohan Singh path of subjugation to U.S. capital offers no hope of a way out of the impending agricultural crisis; rather the reverse. Rational agriculture, in which humans are able to sustain themselves and to heal the metabolic rift, is not possible without overthrowing the current system that prizes production for profit above all else. As Karl Marx said (Capital, vol. III, chapter 6, section 2), “The moral of the tale is that the capitalist system runs counter to a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (even if the latter promotes technical developments in agriculture) and needs either small farmers working for themselves or the control of the associated producers”.

No comments: