Supporters of biotechnology have long claimed that GM food can be justified by the solutions it will provide for the world s poor and, crucially, for the 790 million people on earth who go hungry every day. But seldom are the people they claim to be helping consulted about the new technologies. This is why the development charity ActionAid set up the Farmers Foresight project. Organised by University of East London academic Dr Tom Wakeford during his sabbatical at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, it has built on the experience he gained when running a similar project in the UK two years ago. While the UK project was asking consumers what they wanted - and they decisively declared that what they wanted was not genetically engineered food - this time he was working much closer to the ground. These were the farmers whose very livelihoods depended on the success of what they grew.
The farmers consulted for this experimental project ranged across the social spectrum. Some were illiterate, some were land-less and some were relatively wealthy. They were all from Karnataka State in southern India, and they farmed in the area surrounding the village of Bommagondakere (known as BG Kere) in Chitradurga province.
Also attending the trial were two farmers from the UK. These were Edward Cross, the only farmer represented on the Advisory Committee for Releases to the Environment (ACRE), and Archie Montgomery, chair of the National Farmers Union s Biotechnology Working Group. They had been invited as observers, to see that fair play was done. Though they were not witnesses for the jury, they were able to give an insight into the GE debate from a very different perspective.
The system worked very like a real trial with the farmers as the jury. Over three and a half days they listened to the evidence presented and then further questioned the seven witnesses before retiring to consider their verdict. The witnesses came from all sides of the debate. There was the research director of Monsanto India; a representative from the Government s Department of Biotechnology and members of development and environmental groups opposed to genetic engineering.
The arguments from both sides were eloquent and persuasive, and for some time the observers were not sure which way the verdict would go. But it soon became apparent that the farmers were not going to be fobbed off with simple assurances - or unjustified scare-stories. And while most of them started with very little idea about genetic engineering, they proved that, within a short period of time they had grasped many of the issues at stake. "Even the poorest and most illiterate farmers on the jury showed a sophisticated understanding of the potential risks and benefits of new agricultural technologies," explained Tom Wakeford.
What was so remarkable about the jury was the way in which they cut through a great deal of the rhetoric that so frequently surrounds the debate. They were open to change - and in many ways were looking for methods to improve the success of their agriculture. But they were sceptical of the promises made by the proponents of the technology. This scepticism was based on the reality of their lives. Many had been seduced by the easy gains promised of the green revolution - and many had suffered.
Repeatedly, the witnesses proposing a genetic future were asked why traditional knowledge was being abandoned in favour of an imported regime. And even though some of these farmers were very poor, there was a powerful belief in the power of traditional systems providing a solution where technology had already been proven wanting. Even the Karnataka State Agriculture Minister, Mr Jayachandra, speaking before the jury began, admitted that, "Without biotechnology we can last another 20 years. Biotechnology is the last resort for us." He indicated that the state s and the country s ability to feed itself lay with better governance of the existing resources, in particular the management of watersheds.
Perhaps the greatest test of faith for the jury was when Dr Munjunath, the Research and Development Director of Monsanto India, told them that genetically engineered seeds were being developed with the small farmer in mind, "Transgenic technology is coming to the rescue," he exclaimed.
There were some interesting admissions by Dr PK Ghosh of the National Government s Department of Biotechnology. First he alarmed the coconut-growing members of the jury by informing them that there were Canadian scientists working on creating a mustard seed that generates coconut oil. And then he indicated that the introduction of GE in India would have been much easier if it had started with food crops ? not cotton as is the case now.
The most powerful presentation came from P.V. Satheesh, of the Deccan Development Society, an NGO that works with the most disenfranchised people in India, the untouchables. He drew the link between India s bloody struggle to keep possession of the barren wasteland along the border with Pakistan while at the same time, without debate, handing over the most fertile land in the country to the transnational corporations. "This is the start of the new colonialism," he said. "It is an issue of control and national sovereignty. To achieve this the TNCs want to ensure that the people are de-skilled ? and that the great body of agricultural knowledge and skill, that has been built up over millennia, is lost."
The effect of the process on the two farmers from the UK was obvious. Both were impressed with the depth of questioning that took place. "Such a complex amalgam of issues being addressed here," said Archie Montgomery. Edward Cross saw the potential of the process. "This could be taken anywhere in the world. People can work through the issues and form conclusions suitable to their own areas."
And with nine farmers voting against the introduction of genetic seeds and only four in favour (there was one invalid ballot paper), the decision seemed certain. "While Mr Blair and his advisors still maintain that we need to develop this technology to help the poor and hungry," concluded Tom Wakeford, "it is an illustration of the arrogance with which they habitually view the world that they have failed to ask the people who really matter. We have started a process that needs to be repeated globally so that the western political and scientific elite can no longer misrepresent their needs."
Coverage of the Farmers Foresight project is available at www.actionaid.org.uk
Hugh Warwick is a freelance journalist and edits Splice, the magazine of The Genetics Forum.
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Last Updated on 1/8/01