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A bargain-basement knowledge 'mandi'

By Rahul Goswami

The new US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture will re-examine and overhaul existing curricula in agricultural education institutions in India. It will also leave Indian agriculture open to the interests of the world's largest food and agri-business corporations, says Rahul Goswami

The draft Indian proposal for the US-India 'Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture' is authored by the department of agricultural research and education, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). Its opening paragraph stands out as an example of the swooning laudation of American agri-science by the Indian agricultural establishment. It reads: "The contribution of US Land Grant Universities during 1960s (sic) in transforming India's National Agricultural Research System has been well recognised as it greatly helped in ushering the green revolution in the country. The collaboration has also enriched American Institutions with international insights and networks. The process of technology-led agricultural growth continued in the subsequent decades which enabled India to move towards white, yellow and blue revolutions, thus ensuring self-reliance in food security."

Evidence of the hold the country's food mandarins have over the agricultural practice, planning, educational and research streams is amply provided in the document. "With the plateau in productivity of principal food crops and declining factor productivity, India aims at second Green Revolution," is one such statement. "Agricultural education with new look should also link with various stakeholders either depending on agriculture as a means of livelihood or pursuing economic activities dependent on agriculture. In the changed scenario, quality of agricultural education has to develop for global competitiveness," is another statement.

The India-US Agreement on Agriculture and Science and Technology emerged from a joint statement by US President George Bush and Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh on July 18, 2005. This short but far-reaching bilateral pronouncement is the genesis of the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture, whose board has decided to pursue four "priority areas". These are: human resource and institutional capacity-building; agri-processing and marketing; emerging technologies; natural resource management. These will be complemented by four themes -- education, learning resources, curriculum development and training; food processing, use of by-products and bio-fuels; biotechnology; water management.

From February 2006, the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture has been working on a three-year plan whose objective is to put in place an Evergreen Revolution that, it claims, is "based upon environmentally sustainable, market-oriented agriculture".

Representing India on the board is Dr M S Swaminathan as honorary adviser, with Dr Mangala Rai (secretary, department of agricultural research and education and director general, ICAR) as co-chair. The government representatives are Dr S Jai Shankar (joint secretary [America], Ministry of External Affairs) and S L Bhat (joint secretary -- crops, seeds and TMOP, department of agriculture and cooperation). There are three representatives from state agricultural universities/ICAR institutions, and two from the private sector -- Firoze Masani of Nashik, Maharashtra, and S Sivakumar, chief executive of ITC's agri-business division.

Representing the US is Dr Norman Borlaug as honorary adviser, with Ellen Terpstra, administrator of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as co-chair. US universities are represented on the board by Mortimer Neufville of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, Bobby Moser of the College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Ohio State University, and Surendra P Singh, professor of agri-business at Tennessee State University. One American 'NGO' has been co-opted -- the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. Finally, American agri-business is represented by officials from Monsanto, Wal-Mart and Archer Daniels Midland.

The US-based Monsanto deals in genetically-modified (GM) crops, agro-chemicals, seeds and bovine growth hormones. The company has plants and operations in 52 countries and is the largest seller of GM crops in the world. Several estimates point to how dominant the company is in this sector -- over three-quarters of the world's farmlands that are planted with GM crops are seeded with Monsanto products. Archer Daniels Midland is a US grain purchaser and trader and is, with Cargill, one of the companies that maintains oligopolistic control of the American food-manufacturing and food-processing markets, through a powerful network of controlled transport networks, farm input suppliers and international purchasers. Wal-Mart is not just the world's largest retailer, it is the world's largest company and is bigger than Exxon Mobil, General Motors and General Electric. Wal-Mart's net sales for the six months ended July 31, 2006, was $ 163.359 billion.

India is spending Rs 350 crore over three years on the US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture. Of this sum, Rs 65 crore is for Theme 1 (human resource development), Rs 45 crore for Theme 2 (agro-processing, by-product utilisation and bio-fuels), Rs 25 crore for Theme 4 (water management), and the bulk, Rs 214 crore, is for Theme 3 (biotechnology). The need for this expense is sought to be provided by bald pronouncements like "with the plateau in productivity of principal food crops and declining factor productivity, India aims at second Green Revolution".

The use of such contemporary symbolism is dangerous. It is the ideology of the Green Revolution that has perverted much of India's traditional farming knowledge systems, and that perversion has directly caused a dissociation of the practice and dharma of agriculture from the societies it feeds. The western framework of knowledge that dominates the world today is in crisis across all disciplines, with the sciences being the worst afflicted, agricultural science among them. Reliable knowledge is being drowned out by relentless propaganda and a concerted disinformation campaign aimed at promoting the commercial products of knowledge, while critical information on the dangers involved is summarily dismissed and suppressed. Worse still, knowledge is being privatised and contained as the 'intellectual property' of corporations, giving corporations unprecedented control not just over knowledge of nature, but over life and the necessities of life. The assault comes from powerful technology-only pro-GM advocates who have infiltrated civil society, from international aid agencies to governments and academia. Monsanto and other biotech corporations have been funding university scientists to do their research cheaply, but also to carry out propaganda, to defame concerned scientists and to spread falsehoods.

Hence, the human resources dimension of the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture programme is wide and deep, with profound implications for our country's institutionalised crop science infrastructure. The ideology of global competitiveness in agricultural sciences and education, accompanied by increased commercialisation of agricultural research and development, will be cemented in place by the raft of linkages and US-India programmes planned. Over the initiative's three-year lifespan, over 500 faculty members and scientists are expected to get trained in what the ICAR calls "emerging/niche areas"; a number of new, commercially-oriented academic courses will be developed and brought on-stream in our agricultural colleges and universities, supported by over 200 joint projects and academic programmes.

On the shortlist of Indian agricultural education institutions that will be linked to US universities are the Anand, Assam, Achryan N G Ranga, Birsa, Central, Kerala, Punjab, Rajendra and Tamil Nadu agricultural universities, the Central Institute of Fisheries Education, Chandra Shekar Azad University of Agriculture and Technology, Govind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Jawarharlal Nehru Krishi Viswavidyalaya, Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth, Karnataka Veterinary and Fishery Science University, Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth, National Academy of Agricultural Research Management, National Dairy Research Institute, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore. Existing curricula in these and other institutions will be examined and overhauled where required under the direction of the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture programme, which is itself steered by the USDA. This is nothing less than an attempt to re-cast India's agricultural education sector into a critical input factor for agri-business.

Under the programme's hefty biotechnology section, genetic engineering processes find much favour. Among the key research subjects considered for the development of agri-science capacity are 'Genomics in Crops, Animals and Fishes', 'Molecular Breeding in Crops and Animals', 'Development of Transgenics in Crops, Animals and Fishes', which includes the use of embryonic stem cell technology, cloning and gene-targeting strategies, and transgenic fish ("for enhancing growth and N-3 fatty acids in selected commercially important fish"), and 'Molecular Approaches for Plant and Animal Health Protection'.

This is extremely insidious. Living processes, genes and organisms are nature's inventions and belong to no one. Granting patents on them was a departure in the history of protecting human inventions. Organisms are, after all, responsible for the living processes that enable us to reproduce, that provide us with food, shelter and all the other necessities of life.

Symptomatic of the growing knowledge crisis, all the traditional accepted standards of good science are being compromised and eroded as corporations take over academia and influence our government. In the United States, allegations of faked scientific findings increased 50% between 2003 and 2004. Now, the basic role of the agricultural university and institution in a democratic society is at risk. Among social institutions, the university's mission is the unqualified pursuit and public dissemination of truth and knowledge. The university serves the broad public interest, to the extent that it treasures informed analysis, critical inquiry and uncompromising standards of intellectual integrity.

In India today (as a counterpoint to the braggadocio of the country's new economic might) it has been a general decline in public funding that has driven universities to seek support from corporations. Corporate funding and influence has since infiltrated every discipline. Today, nihilistic constructs like "wealth creation" and "the knowledge economy" resound in the halls of higher learning and in politicians' speeches. The same clichAcs of "competitiveness of enterprise", "knowledge society" and "knowledge exploitation for economic growth" are the guiding principles of such knowledge initiatives.

Our obsession with technology fixes is running out of control; it is working against the public good and against nature, not just because it has been completely co-opted by "wealth creation", or that science is in bed with big business. Most of all, it is because western science is rooted in seeing nature as a hostile machine, separate from us, to be disassembled, tamed and tortured, to be twisted to satisfy our every manipulated need.

Chief amongst the manipulators are the global agri-business/food sector corporations and their compradors. In the OECD economies, agri-business is the second most profitable industry, after pharmaceuticals. Contributing to its profitability are the supposedly breathtaking strides in biotechnology that are shadowed by the growing concentration of ownership and control by food's largest corporations. Everything, from decisions on which foods are produced to how they are processed, distributed and marketed is, remarkably, dictated by a select few global giants wielding terrifying power. More and more farmers are forced to adopt new technologies and strategies, with potentially harmful consequences to the environment, our health, and the quality of our lives. The role played by trade institutions like the World Trade Organisation serves only to make matters worse. Through it all, the paradox of capitalist agriculture persists: ever-greater numbers remain hungry and malnourished despite an increase in world food supplies and the perpetuation of food overproduction.

"The Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement between the US and India establishes intellectual property protocols of research, bypassing consultation with Indian scientists and the Indian public which has been resisting IPR regimes that force countries to patent life, and create monopolies on seeds, medicine and software," wrote Vandana Shiva, physicist, ecologist and activist. "For us, these agreements are instruments of corporate dictatorship; they are not instruments of democracy. And as dictatorship, they will fuel more anger, more discontent, more frustration."

To develop the GM crops (also fish and livestock) that will dominate the collaborative research, the US bio-science corporations involved want access to the rich biodiversity in Indian gene banks, research stations and university collections. The global bio-sciences industry is well aware that high-quality local varieties are vital for the success of GM varieties. Why should India provide the US with access to its genetic resources? Will the requirements of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) -- which the US has not ratified -- be met? If not, we cannot allow US corporations (through the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture or any such programme) access to our genetic wealth. Furthermore, American failure to meet the CBD provisions would leave India in default of its own convention commitments and violate the provisions of its national law, the Biological Diversity Act.

The new initiative's board has also discussed rights to products that the planned research programmes will develop. There are justifiable fears that India's Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act -- called "the only law in the world granting legal rights specifically to farmers" -- could face threats under US pressure. Along with multinationals such as Monsanto, the US has been lobbying for a change in India's intellectual property laws, to introduce patents on seeds and genes and dilute the provisions protecting farmers' rights.

The last four decades have amply demonstrated that hybrids and high-yielding varieties of food crops, brought in by the Green Revolution model, have failed to yield significantly more per unit area than traditional varieties, especially when these are grown under their own management conditions by small and marginal farmers. Meanwhile, the traumatic changes they have brought to the economic, political and ecological landscape of the country are fraught with disastrous consequences. If these consequences spread to dryland agriculture, the country will have to pay a heavy social, economic and ecological price. Already, in dryland areas, various millets have disappeared from cultivation and a major ecological effect of this change is that more and more land is being left fallow, to degrade and hence fuel migration and a gathering socially deadening urbanisation.

(Rahul Goswami is an independent journalist and researcher based in Goa)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2006