Knowledge initiative on Agriculture bad for farmers

Published: Friday 30 November 2007

-- While the country is actively engaged in discussing the nuclear deal, there is little dialogue on another Indo- us deal, which is being quietly implemented. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had signed the Indo- us Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (kia) in 2005. Singh had called the pact the "harbinger of second green revolution". In that case, it should have been debated widely and in depth, at least in the agriculture research establishment, but that did not happen.

Considering the deal will affect each one of us as producers and/or as consumers of food, the question that needs to be asked is how did its existing framework come about? Critics ask, with the socio-economic conditions of farming in the two countries being so different, what is there to learn from the us.

It is evident (through the five board meetings held so far) that us's commercial interests--represented on the kia board by Monsanto, Wal-Mart and Archer Daniels Midland--are seeking to make changes in regulatory regimes that govern Indian farming in the fields of genetically modified organisms, contract farming, food retail sector etc.

The deal
Down to Earth The first phase of kia focuses on recasting agricultural research and education; food processing, use of byproducts and biofuels; biotechnology, including transgenics; and water management.

The thrust in capacity-building in agricultural research and education is to shift Indian agricultural research to basic and strategic research from applied research. Such a shift could push scientists further into laboratories and away from farmers and link research only to commercial interests while ignoring socio-cultural and ecological concerns. There are several critiques available on mono-disciplinary, reductionist, top-down and undemocratic agricultural research models. The deal will only empower those.

The other theme is agro-processing--often described as a sunshine industry. While farmers are considering quitting agriculture given a chance, the industry sees a great opportunity in stepping in through this route. The technologies that will be taught to Indians will only benefit big players and not farmers anyway. In any case, farmers do not get much of the retail prices provided by consumers on many products. Even from a consumer's perspective, it is not clear if such processes make for safer consumption. Ecologically, the energy equation from such consumption is yet to be worked out.

The push for biofuel plantations has implications on land-use patterns, food production and food prices competing with fuel prices. In fact, the approach to biofuels taken by k ia is in contrast with the one taken by the planning commission in its eleventh plan approach paper where it is recommended that there is a need to "check bio-diesel planting".

Why transgenic?
While marker-assisted selection is apparently a safer and more efficient breeding technology, it is not clear why the k ia has chosen to engage itself with transgenic crops. There has been much controversy over transgenic crops in India. The Supreme Court of India is still looking at the biosafety regime and regulation of transgenics in the country. Bt Cotton has already shattered many myths about transgenic crops. Further research on transgenics is therefore perplexing and brings back questions on policy formulation. Is it an indication of u s stubbornness and a strategy for somehow bringing in g m food into the country?
W hat is also very important and left mostly untouched is clarity on the intellectual property rights (ipr) regime that will govern research and subsequent commercialization on transgenics. Experiences like that of ua s-D harwar (university) in Karnataka on Bt cotton show the public sector will lose out in deals on transgenics. Even biopiracy may acquiring legitimacy through kia.

Water management in this context only stresses techno-centric approaches, rather than socio-political ones. It is also clear that droughts and climate variability created through climate change cannot be addressed in a localized fashion, as an end-of-the-pipe solution. Prima facie, the deal is also violating many guidelines of the Biological Diversity Act governing collaborative research.

Overall, the deal raises serious concerns about its implications on Indian farmers.It is a sorry state of affairs that the government is not being held accountable by anyone on this deal.

Kavitha Kuruganti is with the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad

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