Protecting Seeds: Safeguarding Humanity
Interview by Thomas John, Companionship Facilitator, India
Full transcript of the extended interview with Kavitha Kuruganti
“But ultimately war will be won only if the last farmer holds on to seed” - Kavitha Kuruganti
Today, the Indian peasantry, the largest body of surviving small farmers in the world, faces a crisis of extinction. India lives mostly in its villages. Land and agriculture continues to be the backbone of various means of livelihood for about 65% of Indian population. India is faced with acute rural distress characterized by abysmally poor agricultural growth (2%), declining employment especially in agriculture and allied sectors, displacement from agriculture, and migration in large numbers from villages, negative net returns to a vast majority of farmers, growing debt and farmers’ suicides. Corporate monopolies in seeds, other farm inputs and agribusinesses pose serious threats to the livelihood security of these populations.
For a number of years, Chethana, the Joining Hands network in India has been organizing poor farmers in south India to protect their traditional seeds as a way of resisting to the seeds monopolies, and to protect their food heritage. Chethana collaborates with Kavitha Kuruganti, one of the conveners of a large informal national network of more than 400 organizations across India called ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture). She has been passionately concerned about the fate of Indian farmers and committed to sustainable agriculture. She has been at the forefront of several campaigns in India against hazardous agri-technologies like pesticides and GMOs and has also been involved in the development of sustainable alternatives related to seeds, crop diversity and pest management. I decided to interview her.
Q: How did you become drawn into this movement for sustainable and holistic farming and where are you now in terms of your commitment and perspective?
When I was 22 and doing my Masters in Communication, in my third semester I got exposed to the work of a rural development organization in one district of Andhra Pradesh. It is a semi-arid belt, with very little water and rainfall. And I got to interact with many women farmers in that area. Coming from a background where no one in the family was practicing any kind of agriculture, experiencing these women and their knowledge about complex systems of agriculture was just fantastic. And I was so fascinated with the kind of knowledge that they had as well as the kind of zeal that they had about what has traditionally been their culture and wisdom. Five days after my final exams I just packed my bags and landed in that village. I stayed on for 6 years. I worked with these women farmers to revive millet-based farming in this area and to conserve traditional seed varieties. That's what I did.
Q: You have been in this field for some time now. What has been the trajectory of this development for sustainable and holistic agriculture?
Well there used to be a time 20 years ago when the very notion of sustainable agriculture would be scoffed at. There wasn't any recognition related to why we need to think about sustainability and resource use, how it might impact livelihoods if you were promoting wrong technologies in agriculture and you were treading the wrong paths so to speak in farming. Today we've moved quite a bit in terms of at least an express recognition being there in various circles that if you are not careful about what you are doing in farming you might be calling upon yourself a huge disaster. There are at least three reasons why one should be concerned about what’s happening in agriculture in terms of what kind of farming models we are adopting.
For one thing, most land on this planet is under farming. If you go wrong there, it means that you're going very wrong in a magnitude of a huge scale.
Two, in a country like India, most people live off agriculture. We're talking about millions of livelihoods being intricately and closely connected with agriculture. If you go wrong there, once again, you're really talking about lots of lives and livelihoods directly impacted.
And one-third reason, which should concern all of us, is the fact that the very food that we eat, to survive, to stay healthy, to stay alive, comes from farming. If that food becomes toxic or goes wrong in other ways – let's say we have more and more non-nutritious food being produced in farming – it impacts each one of us as food consumers. Every human being is affected.
So at least for these three reasons, all of us should be concerned. And today, the ill effects of a particular model of farming that's been adopted 40, 45 years ago, are showing up. They're showing up quite starkly. Today we have a state in India, Punjab, which in terms of its size is very small, just 1.5% of the country’s agricultural land is held by this one state. But today it's being called the cancer capital of India. And the incidents of a lot of chronic health problems are being correlated to toxic agriculture technologies that were adopted by Punjab, previously known as the breadbasket of India. In its effort to supply food to the rest of the country, farmers there were pumping in more and more chemicals. Today, you find that it's not only environment and health problems in the state but water has depleted. The remaining water in that state is all contaminated with poisons. Land is terribly degraded. Punjab's farmers are the most indebted farmers in this country. After all of the high levels of production that they achieved, they still have very little income to show for the kind of disaster that they have brought upon themselves.
There is an expressed recognition today that things have gone wrong, but the problem is that the corrective measures are not being taken in any fundamental ways. So we've moved some way ahead in people recognizing that we have to think ahead with forethought in farming, but what is being done to address the real issues is too small, and in many cases, too late.
Q: As a campaigner, what are some of the success stories? What have been the hurdles on the way?
One of the things that some of us very strongly advocate for is a shift towards sustainable farming practices. It not only has environmental and health benefits, but it also means that farmers can cultivate with very little cost. They don't have to buy things from outside. If they have to buy things from outside, they don't have to borrow at high interest from exploitative money-lending systems. On the front of promoting sustainable agriculture, there have been some very significant successes that one has seen in the recent past. One big glaring example is from the southern state called Andhra Pradesh where nearly 15% of the land under cultivation has been brought under what is called as NPM– Non-Pesticidal Management of crops where farmers are not using even a drop of chemical pesticides in managing their crops and making sure that there are no losses because of pests and diseases. And they do so by learning from nature and understanding that nature has its own principles of controlling the complex web of life and emulating it within crop ecosystems. And today the success is the fact that one and half million farmers live on something like three and a half million acres of land, cutting across crops, cutting across various provinces and districts in the state are all adopting this kind of approach to their farming, with state support.
In all these years we've seen farmers doing it on their own- attempting to shift to sustainable farming and practices, but here is an example, being dubbed as the world's largest state-supported ecological farming project, where the government is realizing that agriculture is not just about yields and producing more, it's about livelihoods. It's about rural India having to stay alive. But there's still a huge hurdle, in terms of scaling it up further, taking it to other states and so on. There's this huge mindset that exists with agricultural experts to start with and there's this huge lobby of agriculture corporations, who have a huge stake in wanting to keep their markets intact where they sell poisonous materials in the name of modern agriculture and they want to keep those markets alive. So there's a major hurdle. But still there are successes in front of us which convincingly show that alternatives are there, they are possible, it only takes political will, it takes people's movements, to put pressure on governments, it asks for consumers to put in a demand, a loud demand, saying that we want safe food, we want poison-free food, we want our farmers to be safe. Things will change.
Q: When we deal with the question of seeds, we hear mostly about Monsanto. Why? Who are the other players? In the 90s, we heard a lot about Cargill. Where are they now? What should be the nature of campaign against corporate seed monopolies?
Seed is one of the most critical inputs in agriculture. Without seed you can't do farming. And here is a country, India, where there was such a tremendous diversity of seed across different crops as well as within a crop like rice. There were literally hundreds of thousands of varieties that were developed by farmers. They were given by nature. Farmers using their ingenuity and skills had evolved hundreds of varieties of seeds. And farmers used to save seeds from their crops and re-sow them. But today seed is not just one critical input, seed is a whole baggage that comes in the form of “wrong seed”, if you like. If you bring in a particular kind of seed, you can be sure that it's been bred to respond to other particular sets of inputs that you have to provide. It includes agrichemicals mostly. And seed is also being created in ways that farmers cannot save the seed from that crop. It is being created through technologies like hybrid seeds, technologies like genetic modification where they even use technologies like terminator technology (which has not been introduced yet, essentially because of civil society resistance), but these have been technologies which allow external players, external to farming. When I say external I mean that they are not farmers themselves, but here are people who want to make money out of farming, profit is their bottom line. They are using such technologies to make sure that farmers come back to them again, and again, season after season. You can’t imagine what kind of wealth and money exists in an input like seed. Especially if you get legal protection claiming that it is patented.
Well, big corporations want to ensure that they have exclusive markets if possible for all time to come, for after all farming is a perennial, perpetual activity, they are claiming certain legal rights over a life form called seed by saying that “I have created this. I own this. I invented this. And therefore, nobody else has rights to use it without my permission, without paying up to me. I will decide what the royalty will be and what the licensing fee will be and you can use it only after you've taken my permission and paid me money.” And this has enormous potential as far as corporations are concerned, this kind of legal protection in the form of patents. Just to give you an example – If Bill Gates can be the richest man in the world just by selling copyrighted software- how many of us own computers, how many of us buy software, how often do we buy software packages and pay up royalties. They still earn so much money on it. If you could bring that system of ownership over something like seed, and claim that royalty over every dinner plate, every meal that every human being ever eats, imagine what sort of money could be made. And that's the kind of plan that big corporations have cracked and with their lobbying power they have entire governments supporting them.
Right now in the USA, there's a farmer from Indiana who is fighting a case out in the Supreme Court trying to contest this notion of patents. And here in India, we have big corporations, some of which are not Indian (multinational corporations like Monsanto and so on) who try to impose such systems of technological barriers to farmers having their own seeds, certain legal barriers (though India still does not allow patents due to people's resistance) and by simple corporate maneuvers in the market.
You were asking me, one heard about Cargill in the 90s, what happened to them? Monsanto ate them up! There's this constant game in the market space where big corporations are eating up smaller ones, they're all legally permitted of course, You know mergers, acquisitions, all sorts of deals and arrangements. But by doing all of this you essentially wipe out market competition. You essentially ensure that you control the entire thing, and when people have no other choices, and you have to do farming, there's no other way. Where do Indian farmers go? They're illiterate. They don't have any other skills. This is something they've inherited from generations, you know, this skill of farming. When there's no other choice, you're forced to fall back on these companies and whatever prices they charge you.
Q: How will you respond to the prevailing notion that small farms are not profitable; farming can be made sustainable and profitable only by reducing the number of people involved in this sector and by making farming a business enterprise?
There's an imported vision of development that believes that we will attain development only once most people live in cities and are taken off agriculture. So there's a clear kind of imperative that governments are pursuing in India and elsewhere, which create a situation so difficult and challenging for farmers, especially smallholders that they have to give up agriculture and go looking elsewhere. Incidentally in India, when the frustration levels become too unbearable and high, the way out that hundreds and thousands of farmers are opting for is suicide. And here comes this development vision of displacing farmers that we will continue with farming but with a small set of farmers, and they would hold large land under each one of them, and they can feed the rest of us. But very clearly in India, in the past 15 years or so, we've seen that other sectors have grown very impressively economically but they have no employment potential. They just cannot absorb people. And more importantly, the kind of skills that millions of people have in rural India, it's actually our strength that we make good use of them within farming. And it's completely untrue, there's much evidence to show that smallholdings are actually more viable, more efficient in terms of their resource use, and more likely to preserve environmental resources for future generations, as well as to keep the current generation alive in a dignified manner. Not big holdings.
And incidentally, organic farming and smallholdings more or less have a symbiotic relationship. Organic farming requires mixed cropping, diversity-based cropping, which does not allow easy shifts towards farm mechanization and so on. When you have multiple crops as have traditionally been grown in India, such as sorghum or maize plant, you also have lentil creeper growing and so on, that is something that's required for organic farming, a multiplicity of crops and varieties, and that does not easily fit itself into a sort of larger holder requirement of bringing in machines. If you are a large farmer and most people have been displaced out of agriculture, as has happened in the US and in Europe, then you don't have enough farmhands. You are forced to bring in machines. When you bring in machines you can't do sustainable farming based on diversity-based cropping.
On the other hand, just as organic farming needs small holders, smallholdings need organic farming because it costs down their costs. It costs down their other costs like healthcare and so on by eating healthy food, by ensuring that pesticides do not poison you and not ending up ill with chronic diseases. So organic farming suits the needs of smallholders and smallholdings and diversity-based cropping suits promotion of organic farming. So we really need to ensure that our smallholder farmers remain in agriculture and while they are there we need to ensure that they have dignified lives and livelihoods.
Q: What would be your advice to faith communities in the US and how do you think that they can join in our struggle, particularly on the question of patenting of life forms and GM seeds and foods?
Well I'd like to think that faith communities are naturally given to debating issues, ethical and social issues, all around because there is a particular kind of framework that's driving your life. And in the context of agriculture, and certain corporations claiming that they own things that have evolved in nature, and thereby restraining the dignity that can accrue to some livelihoods, I think that vigilance and greater debate is required around whether we will allow such movements to control over life. There's much debate possible within faith communities, particularly in the US, because some of the corporations that are driving a particular paradigm with their money power are based in the US. And we find that wherever there are informed debates, decisions have always led to wisdom prevailing. Decisions have always been in the context of every citizen's voice counting. And we need to ensure that we are all alive and awake to what's happening around us, especially in terms of newer technologies like genetically modified seeds, where there's such tinkering that's happening with nature without understanding that nature has its complex laws, nature has its own ways of regulating that have evolved from time immemorial, from eternity if you like, and if human beings start thinking that they have discovered it all, and that they have invented it all, and that something now belongs to them, and that they can tinker with things without worrying about consequences for each one of us as well as other living organisms, it's completely unethical, it's irresponsible, it's unaccountable, and the only way that we can actually ensure that there's responsible decision making is by discussing this further and ensuring that corporations like Monsanto are defeated not by the nearly non-existent money power on our side, because they have huge money power on that side, but by the strength of our numbers, by us exercising our citizenship.
Right now in the US, New Jersey is going to walk in to a labeling bill that's being debated on whether genetically modified foods should be labeled as such. There was a similar attempt to move to labeling by the California citizens moving an initiative called Proposition 37 but all of that got defeated essentially by corporations putting out huge amounts of advertisements on TV channels and so on. It's time that each of us sifted through all the kind of propaganda that is out there, and figure out what is out there, and find out what is truth, and stand on the side of truth and the side of sustainability.
The only way that you know farm livelihoods in countries like India can survive is somehow to push back these corporate seed monopolies and ensure that seed and knowledge of seed is back in the hands of farmers. There's of course a lot of campaigning that's possible in terms of policy analysis -- sometimes adopting legal strategies. You know, lobbying with your elected leaders and creating a debate, making sure that there's a wider debate through media, picking up some of these issues. But ultimately war will be won only if farmers, the last farmer, actually holds on to seed because she or he realizes that this is something too critical and too sovereign to be handed over to anyone else. If we can reach a stage by dialoging with all farmers in this country and around the world by creating grassroots level alternatives where seed is physically back in our farms, in the hands of women, in each farm household, (and we are talking about 100s of varieties of seeds, not just 1 or 2 seeds), if we can do that then we will have effectively defied any other strategy that corporations can bring in. After all you can't sue and jail millions of farmers. That's the only way, and that is Gandhi's way. If you like civil disobedience, that's the way that American civil leaders have also adopted. That's what we need to have on the ground, in the villages of India to bring back seed into everybody's hands.