Full transcript of the interview
Fred de Sam Lazaro, TPT: One of the things we continuously hear is that India has had this green revolution, which has allowed it to be a food producer, surplus, exporter, everything else. But that’s seen as not sustainable and hence the need to develop new methods including genetically modified foods. What’s your long view on the whole issue of feeding India’s population?
Nanjundaswamy: Well, we have to first clearly understand the reasons behind, well, whatever India is claiming as food self-reliance after it became free. Food shortages before freedom was mainly because the land was used for non-food crops by the colonialists, crops which were necessary to supply raw materials to the industries. And after freedom the land policy changed mainly because of the abolishing of zamindary (feudal land ownership) and the introduction of land reforms. That was the main reasons for the food self-reliance of India – not so-called miracle seeds introduced by the green revolution technology. Maybe it contributed a little but that was not the major reason. So now we know that the first green revolution technology has become stagnant and it’s failed. That makes us look for alternatives. And an alternative, which is fundamentally different than the first green revolution technology – a technology which will not repeat the same things which have resulted in the stagnation in production. Production in most of the cases has been coming down for the past 5 or 6 years. A kind of technology which will not damage soil fertility, a kind of technology which will not increase plant diseases, a kind of technology which will not damage biodiversity and introduce monocultures. This can be an alternative.
FdSL: Are you saying that the whole “green revolution” was not really a boon for India, that that wasn’t the secret to India’s success? Because frequently we talk to people who say that they remember vividly in the late 50’s and early mid-60’s, even late 60’s the tremendous food shortages in this country.
Nanjundaswamy: Well, very few go into these facts that green revolution technology was introduced, say, in 1965 and at that time not even 10% of the total cultivated land was irrigated. And the contribution made by 90% rain-fed farmers was the most significant contribution in achieving self-reliance. Even today that is the truth. But what happens is that whatever production figures that come out of these river water irrigated areas, which have become so-called green revolution areas get publicity. And the contribution made by rain-fed farmers doesn’t get the same kind of publicity. Not even now, even today, more than 60% of food contribution is from rain-fed areas. Even today 80% of the land in India is rain-fed. And in most of the areas it is traditional farming methods with traditional seeds. And there we have to search for alternatives, not technologies which will repeat monocultures, not technologies which are chemically intensive.
FdSL: So you think that the contribution of such things as dwarf crops, dwarf rice, and these abundant yielding strains that were developed, the whole Borlaug/Swaminathan revolution as it’s called are inflated in your mind?
Nanjundaswamy: Definitely yes, because we have cases where even with natural farming, farmers have taken better yields than the green revolution varieties, the so-called high-yielding varieties.
FdSL: So the droughts and things that were happening in the 60’s were because of weather problems as opposed to anything -?
Nanjundaswamy: No, definitely not. The famines in India were not because of drought.
FdSL: I’m talking about post-independence not pre-independence.
Nanjundaswamy: Yes, post-independence maybe some natural vagaries.
FdSL: So the picture has been distorted in your mind and made too sunshiny about India’s surpluses and what was responsible for them?
Nanjundaswamy: Surpluses, where do we have surpluses? They say we have a surplus by keeping 50% of the population below the poverty line. That is the surplus. We are not a surplus country as far food production is concerned.
FdSL: So this country should not be exporting food?
Nanjundaswamy: Definitely not.
FdSL: Because it cannot adequately feed its own population?
Nanjundaswamy: Its own population, yes.
FdSL: So, moving forward a few years – we’re in an age now where you have multinational companies who have come in with seed that are purported to be the salvation for stagnant production. What’s your general reaction to that? Because the model that we’re presented are the abundant fields that one sees in the west. These can be replicated here with the same seeds.
Nanjundaswamy: Well, you can as well go to the trial fields that have been there for the past 3 years – at least in my state, Karnataka. And know about the experience of these farmers who tried these so-called new seeds of the second green revolution technology, genetically modified varieties. BT cotton, for example, is tried, is being tried in Karnataka for the past 3 years. And we don’t see any of the claims in the trial fields, claims made by these so-called seed companies. Even the growth of the plants is not even 50% as good as the traditional varieties. And the pest resistance claim by BT technology is not to be seen at all. And the heavy use of other pesticides is very much there.
FdSL: Even in the BT cotton?
Nanjundaswamy: Yes, I’m talking of only BT cotton. That’s the only variety that is being tried in Karnataka just now officially. Surreptitiously, I don’t know how many varieties have been introduced.
FdSL: I heard a statistic yesterday that cotton accounts for about 5% of the land in this country that is used among agricultural lands but it accounts for 52% of all the fertilizer that is put into.
Nanjundaswamy: Yes that’s it. That’s it.
FdSL: So, the context of that comment was we should develop new strains that do not utilize this. And the secret is in the kind of crop that Monsanto has been trial-producing for example.
Nanjundaswamy: Definitely yes. Well, we should try to rely more on the traditional varieties, the indigenous varieties, which have adapted themselves to the local climatic conditions for centuries. And they cannot be replaced by a kind of monoculture globally; the BT cotton that is being tried in say Mississippi cannot be tried in Karnataka. There have been crop failures. Even you find pests, which are supposed to be eliminated by this BT toxin. They was very much there. And our information is that boll worm is becoming the biggest pest in the United States also because it has developed resistance very soon.
FdSL: Do you think India can feed itself the way trends are going, to the extent that it does even now?
Nanjundaswamy: Well, definitely yes. With the kind of the extent of agricultural land we have it all depends on how we use that land. Growing food instead of growing nonfood crops – the so-called commercial crops.
FdSL: Let me ask you to list the consequences of the green revolution in terms of feeding, in terms of the environmental consequences once again. What has the green revolution cost Indian society in India as a whole?
Nanjundaswamy: Well, it has damaged Indian agriculture to quite an extent. In the sense if you work out the economics properly, economics of soil degradation, economics of increasing plant diseases, loss of biodiversity – well, it becomes very clear that it’s a losing proposition.
FdSL: It’s not sustainable?
Nanjundaswamy: It’s definitely not sustainable. It’s finished. The first green revolution era is over. The dream is over. You have to stop using the so-called first green revolution varieties because it’s useless.
FdSL: Given the fact that this may be a lesser-of-two-evils situation by the logic that you’re talking about. Are we not looking now with soils degraded as a requirement that new strains be developed that would be disease resistant? And is it not worthwhile looking into the field of genetic modification to develop new kinds of chick peas, new kinds of peanuts and other staples so that — in other words, is India not inexorably committed to depending on high technology because it started with step one, the green revolution?
Nanjundaswamy: Yes, while we have committed a blunder once it doesn’t mean that we should continue with the second blunder. While we are to look for , uh…
FdSL: If I could rephrase the question, sir? Is there a mechanism outside of genetic modification and new kinds of plant species or new disease-resistant strains, is there an alternative to that to repairing some of the damage that you say has happened from the first green revolution?
Nanjundaswamy: Well that is what is necessary now. Our scientists should understand what these traditional varieties were. The traditional varieties, or the indigenous varieties, which were handed over to us by our forefathers were not only disease-resistant but drought-resistant also. That’s why I say that they had adjusted themselves to the respective agri-climatic conditions in such a way that there was no crop failure at all. And we have to do some more research into that. And that kind of research has not gone on. For example in India agricultural research for the past 40 years has been only towards green revolution varieties. And no research has been done on the rain-fed varieties that’s grown on 80% of the land even now. That’s what has to be done. And of course there have been efforts by environmentalists and organic farmers collecting research by themselves and finding out solutions, which we call lighthouses. There have been — the lighthouses are increasing now.
FdSL: Do you think that the traditional methods, which may have worked well in centuries past can feed a billion people? Can it have yields that would feed a billion people?
Nanjundaswamy: Definitely yes. Definitely yes. We have cases to show you that the yields are much higher than the so-called high-yielding varieties. You need not have any doubts about our capacity to feed them through traditional agricultural methods.
FdSL: Do you see that as being a political reality in current day India, which is striding toward globalization and all of those essential market forces that we’re talking about globally? Is what you’re proposing feasible in a realistic sense?
Nanjundaswamy: Well, particularly in agriculture, globalization as it has been formulated by the World Trade Organization will spell a disaster to the third world agriculture. There’s no doubt about it. That’s why we have been saying do whatever you want with other things. Let us see. It doesn’t matter. But in the matter of food and agriculture keep away from it. Take agriculture and food out of the World Trade Organization as it used to be before 1994.
FdSL: Is that why you’re so agitated about the advent of certain companies into this country?
Nanjundaswamy: Definitely, because these companies destroy the food security and the food sovereignty of all these third world countries.
FdSL: Expand on that if you would, please, on how that works?
Nanjundaswamy: Sure by establishing seed monopoly first.
FdSL: You have to buy their seeds?
Nanjundaswamy: Yes, seed monopoly, when they start controlling the seed, they control the farmer. And gradually they control the food grain trade. And once multinational companies control food grain trade it means they control the nation.
FdSL: If one looks at the American precedent, such as it might be from maybe a century ago, there’s been a lot written about the big grain merchants who developed almost monopolies on certain aspects of agriculture. I’m talking about Cargill and other companies like it, ADM. They’re still very huge. They’re still very influential. But in the larger scheme of things do you think the American economy; the American society has been harmed by them?
Nanjundaswamy: Well, definitely. How many farmers have been left in the United States? Now, my information is that 1% of the population is farmers in the United States. So what did the American policy do to the rest of the farmers who were farming? What happened to those farm families?
FdSL: Well, I can answer that in part although I’m not a scholar on it. But typically – I live in a farming area in the United States, for example. One generation hurt. The next generation went into newer fields of the economy whether in computerization, transportation, mostly urban based. So what you developed were much fewer, much larger farmers.
Nanjundaswamy: Okay, fine. Can you do the same thing in countries like India?
FdSL: Consider that a question that I’m asking you.
Nanjundaswamy: What do you do with 75% of the population who are in farming? Are your other sectors capable of absorbing them? Where do you send them? Well, of course you displace them, uproot them from their farms. Where do you send them? The other sectors are as rickety as you can imagine. And they cannot be absorbed in any other sector. So that’s why I say globalization as formulated by the WTO particularly the agreement on agriculture will result in genocide in India.
FdSL: That’s a very strong word.
Nanjundaswamy: See, you can’t think of any other word other than that when you… when the program starts killing people by millions gradually.
FdSL: And are you seeing in your crystal ball, are you seeing as a precursor what you were just reading about from Mandara is an image, a foretaste -?
Nanjundaswamy: Definitely. Now you read reports of suicides of farmers in hundreds. But maybe there’ll be no suicides in such big numbers but gradually hunger and gradual death. Since 1992 when liberalization policies were introduced in India, the government survey itself says that rural consumption has reduced by 20% from ‘92 to ‘96. Can you imagine what it means?
FdSL: Rural food consumption —
Nanjundaswamy: Rural food consumption has been reduced by 40%. And it is much more after the food subsidies have been removed from the public distribution system. What is it then? Is it genocide?
FdSL: This is not a one-generation transition in your mind?
Nanjundaswamy: Definitely not. The same trend continues. Because the kind of discussion you see going on in the World Trade Organization, the trend is not going to change.
FdSL: Tell us what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis? You were involved in an agitation at the Monsanto facility…
Nanjundaswamy: We have been trying to educate farmers to boycott seed companies like Monsanto. And we have been giving notice to retail seed traders also not to sell these varieties. And that we will direct action if they try to sell these varieties. Now it’s educating the farmers basically about biotechnology, about transgenic seeds, the surreptitious introduction of terminator seeds also. We have information that terminator seeds are being introduced in third world countries since 1990, surreptitiously.
FdSL: Tell us about terminator seeds.
Nanjundaswamy: Well, this is a kind of technology that some of these seed companies have obtained starting from Delton Pine from the United States. And now, well, Seneca has it. Monsanto has it. They’ve not stopped it. Even though they made a public statement saying that they have stopped research on terminator technology, they have not stopped it. They’re continuing with it and our information is that they have been introducing these varieties in third world countries for the past ten years.
FdSL: And what do these terminator seeds do exactly, sir?
Nanjundaswamy: Well, I don’t know — well, they say they call — it’s a technology, which produces sterile seeds. The very expression is so funny. A seed cannot be sterile. But that’s what this technology produces a seed which doesn’t germinate for the second time. That’s just to make seed dependence on the part of third world farmers.
FdSL: So that you have to buy new ones every year?
Nanjundaswamy: Every year.
FdSL: I see. So this burning, was it the BT crop at Monsanto that was burned?
Nanjundaswamy: Yes, it was only BT cotton crop because that’s the only variety that’s being tested.
FdSL: So you led the agitation that led to the burning of that field?
Nanjundaswamy: Well, our organization, yes.
FdSL: And the statement you wanted to make with that agitation was what?
Nanjundaswamy: Well, kick out Monsanto from the country.
FdSL: And every other multinational?
Nanjundaswamy: And every other multinational who tries to introduce this so-called bio-pollution technology. That’s what we have been calling biotechnology. Biotechnology is nothing other than bio-pollution technology. It can damage the biodiversity of our country.
FdSL: How strong is the feeling among farmers in this country towards this? Is there a greater awareness?
Nanjundaswamy: Well, there were 40 trial fields this year. And 39 are disappointed. And only one, which has been, well, I would say, bought over by Monsanto, has been giving statements that the yield is very good, that there were no pests, etc. etc. But 39, which means 99% of the farmers are unhappy with the new varieties. It’s a good thing.
FdSL: That’s a lot of citizens of India – are they agitated a lot?
Nanjundaswamy: Well, farmers particularly have started realizing that this new technology is very dangerous for them. I don’t know about the other citizens. I’m not very hopeful of the Indian intelligentsia, the so-called elite, which I’ve been calling as the resident non-Indians. That’s who is responsible.
FdSL: Because they don’t realize the consequences to the farmer?
Nanjundaswamy: No, they’re not bothered about these things. They’re not even bothered about genetically modified food. They’re not bothered about what they’re eating in spite of the fact that genetically modified food has already entered India through Orissa.
FdSL: Let me cite an example. We visited an agriculture college in this city, which is well regarded throughout the world. They’re developing, as an example, a variety of melon injected with — that will basically contain an anti-rabies vaccine, for example. They’re developing a peanut variety that is more disease resistant, for example. This is research being done by Indians for this country. Nobody doubts their patriotism. Is that something that you have any problem with so long as there is no multinational? Is this an indigenous enterprise?Nanjundaswamy: No, bad science is bad science whether it’s done by your own scientists or a scientist from abroad. Bad science is still bad science. I don’t know whether these agricultural scientists in my city know what happens if the human beings eat that melon. They’re not going to that kind of research. They say it’s anti-rabies — okay, fine. What happens to the human system, the human physiology, when human beings start eating this kind of melon?
FdSL: Theoretically they will determine that through scientific trials — phase one on mice, phase two on dogs.
Nanjundaswamy: Well, complete that research totally. Don’t try to bring those things to the farmers’ fields having scientific uncertainties. This is what, this is the discussion that’s going on everywhere. This is what I said when I went to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. I told them, do whatever you want inside your laboratories. But come to my field only when you don’t have any scientific uncertainties. Because more than 300 scientists from nearly 40 countries appealed to the United Nations to put a moratorium on these so-called genetically modified organisms. And that’s the reason why most of the countries have put a moratorium on environmental tests of these genetically modified varieties. And I’m happy to tell you that last week, Thailand government has put a stop to GMO trials in Thailand.
FdSL: But if these two gentlemen with whom we spoke, eminent scientists were to come to you 10 years from now and show you research that showed benefits from, say, this melon or from this peanut, taken from enclosed facilities, would you be amenable to their widespread use?
Nanjundaswamy: Oh yes, we are not opposed to science.
FdSL: So your argument is with the process by which it is being accelerated into the marketplace?
Nanjundaswamy: Well, yes, science as such. We are not opposed to science but we are opposed to bad science.
FdSL: So your definition of bad in this case is not bad in theory; it’s bad in application because of market pressures?
Nanjundaswamy: No, see when because — not market. I’m talking as a scientist. I’m also bothered about what implications it will have on the health of the consumer, on the health of the human beings, the health of the livestock. And researchers have been going on all over the world about the effect of genetically modified food on human and animal health. And they have been finding that it is quite dangerous.