Food occupies a great deal of our attention, day in and day out. It also raises jarring questions: Why do hundreds of millions of people suffer malnutrition while millions of others struggle with obesity? It’s a question I ask myself every time I return to India following a visit home to the United States.

Dr. Suman Sahai is a geneticist based in New Delhi who is keenly interested in the nutrition of India’s poor. As a result, she has courageously taken on Indian agribusiness for its use of chemical herbicides. She is director of the Gene Campaign, a volunteer organization that researches and promotes biodiversity and the traditional practices of India’s indigenous farmers and tribal communities. Sahai recently conducted a study on plant diversity in the northern Indian state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, both economically and socially, but one of its richest in terms of natural resources. A rigid caste system and criminally corrupt politics there have ensured that the state does not benefit from its mineral wealth and its excellent soil and water supplies. Still, thousands of varieties of rice are grown in Bihar, thanks to traditional agricultural practices. The Gene Campaign wants to make sure these varieties are saved from extinction.

While small farms are still the norm throughout India, agribusiness is quickly making significant inroads here. The logic of corporate agribusiness is rooted in free-market enterprise: more is better, bigger is also better, and higher production equals higher profits. High-yielding varieties are the crops of choice, and marketability rather than nutritive value or ecological soundness is the deciding factor. Genetic engineering has made this possible in ways undreamt of even a generation ago. For example, crops can now be modified to make them resistant to the chemical herbicides that large-scale agriculture relies on. It’s a win-win situation for the supplier.

Small farmers see agriculture differently, both as a practice and as a way of life. According to Sahai, some of the weeds that the herbicides destroy are the same ones poor farmers once relied on to supplement their own diets-they are a rich source of iron and other micronutrients-and which they still use as fodder for their animals. Furthermore, in India as in other parts of the less-developed world, farmers “intercrop” their fields. That is, they mix the main crop with other varieties intended for domestic use, or as a backup in case the cash crop fails. The problem is the herbicides attack everything but the cash crop indiscriminately.

Genetic engineering of crops has been proposed and promoted as one of many high-tech solutions to the problem of world hunger. Its advocates claim that new, genetically engineered plant species will provide food security for millions of poor people. Yet according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, most of the world’s hungry live in countries that could produce enough food to provide for their own needs. India is a case in point. But the sad fact is, while millions go hungry, India exports food its own people cannot afford to buy.

Industrial agriculture dictates that farmers must grow crops that will sell on world markets rather than what local people need to eat. Indigenous crops, developed and preserved over centuries for their resistance to disease and their adaptability to local conditions, are slowly being replaced by cash crops like coffee and sugar. In the mountain state of Uttarakhand, for example, millet, once the staple food of most village families, has practically disappeared, replaced by less nutritious but more marketable crops like wheat and rice.

For many families in India, things have gone one step further. Packaged white bread is now becoming more and more a part of the daily diet. Convenience is one factor. So is the fact that white bread is associated with the elite, Westernized class that the poor wish to emulate. But imitating the nutritional decisions of the wealthy is not always sustainable or sensible.

Activists like Sahai insist that technical fixes proposed by large-scale agribusiness will only make the situation worse. Genetic engineering breeds a system of dependence that cannot possibly promote long-term food security or self-reliance. This is clear when one considers that genetically engineered crops do not produce their own seeds. In the future, farmers will have to spend money to buy next year’s seeds from a supplier. Formerly, they simply conserved the seeds from this year’s harvest.

An added value to biodiversity is that a crop grown in one region may vary in subtle yet profound ways from the same crop grown in a neighboring area. As any amateur gardener can attest, you cannot buy a rose plant in one region and expect it to grow the same way in another part of the country. Each region’s soil and weather conditions are distinct, and each plant requires different handling to flourish. Genetic engineering is one more step in the Wal-Marting of the world. One can only wonder why so many people are eager to do away with diversity. The assembly line has its place, and efficiency is not to be scoffed at. But to destroy the wonderful variety of God’s creation, even in the garden, seems like hubris of the worst kind.

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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Published in the 2007-01-12 issue: View Contents
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