Against the Grain : Multinational Corporations Peddling Patented Seeds and Chemical Pesticides Are Poised to Revolutionize India’s Ancient Agricultural System. But at What Cost?

<i> Sandy Tolan, based in Gloucester, Mass., writes on trade and the environment. He is executive producer of "Searching for Solutions," a documentary series on population and sustainable development to be broadcast on National Public Radio</i>

The raid was planned well in advance, the target selected with precision, the goal immense. The farmers would wear green scarves and loose fitting khadi--traditional homespun cotton--that evoked the spinning wheel Gandhi had chosen as the symbol of India’s self-reliance. Like Gandhi, the farmers would move against an unwelcome foreigner, echoing the Mahatma’s campaign against British imperialism. And to focus the nation’s attention on the threat of a new colonialism, they would seize on a speck of nature at the core of civilization and at the heart of their livelihoods: the seed.

The seed agitation began in a stairwell just before noon on Dec. 29, 1992. Seventy-five farmers mounted four flights of stairs that led to the southern India offices of a multinational food corporation. Inside, half a dozen employees from Cargill Seeds Private Ltd. of India--a tiny subsidiary of the largest privately held company in the United States--were going about their business when the farmers burst through the door. “We have not come to harm you,” announced Sesha Reddy, a barrel-chested farmer with a shock of white hair, Coke-bottle glasses and a booming baritone. “We are here only as a protest.”

The farmers smashed windows, tore phones from the walls, emptied desk drawers, broke open locked file cabinets and hurled armfuls of papers, financial records and the symbol of their protest--Cargill hybrid seeds--through the broken glass to the street below. “It was,” recalls John Hamilton, manager for Cargill Seeds India, “a rather unpleasant experience.”

Below, in the streets of downtown Bangalore, a city of 4.1 million in the state of Karnataka, 400 farmers scooped up the papers, files and seed packets as they fluttered down from the fifth-floor offices. Wearing his trademark green-felt hat, M.D. Nanjundaswamy waited in his car with a pack of matches. Farmer, state legislator and former law professor, Nanjundaswamy is perhaps India’s most prominent figure in the farm protest movement. When the piles grew high, he handed the matches to a farmer. Within minutes, a huge fire brought traffic to a stop.

Bon fire,” Nanjundaswamy said with a smile. “From the French origin. Good fire.” The farmers formed a ring around the flames and shouted up to Cargill, in the south Indian language of Kannada, the historic slogan of Gandhi’s freedom struggle: “ Tolagi India !” Quit India.

“THIS IS INDEED A DEFINING MOMENT IN ECONOMIC HISTORY,” declared Peter Sutherland, director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Sutherland was addressing economic ministers from around the world who had gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, in April to sign the largest trade pact in history and to establish a new international structure, the World Trade Organization. Sutherland, a former Irish attorney general, is generally credited with keeping the fractious First and Third World forces together and bringing the negotiations, which had begun more than seven years ago in Uruguay, to a successful conclusion. Many of the signatory governments still must ratify the treaty.


Since the fall of communism, free trade has carried an air of destiny. Proponents, mostly from the First World, compare GATT’s falling trade barriers to the collapse of the Berlin Wall; both are seen as essential steps in the world’s march toward democratic capitalism. The trade pact, according to its advocates, will eventually add $235 billion a year to world economic income and expand the development of the First and Third Worlds within a decade of its ratification. “Every country gains,” concluded Sutherland, amid palm trees and gleaming pink walls. “There are no losers.”

But the farmers of India’s seed agitation are convinced that the pact will produce many losers. And they are not the only ones who think this. In the year preceding the accords, millions of farmers, environmentalists and social activists in India, Europe and east Asia took part in mass demonstrations and, in the case of Mexico, open rebellion. Leaders of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas cited free-trade accords as a principal motive for their revolt. Cheap corn imports from America, they claimed, will drive down prices and wipe out Mexican peasants. In South Korea, thousands of people participated in “rice riots” to denounce low-priced imports. Japanese legislators went on hunger strikes, and rice farmers vehemently protested increased imports. More than 10,000 farmers across France joined in anti-GATT demonstrations, blocking highways and rail lines and bringing their tractors into the heart of Paris. And in India, crowds reaching half a million rallied against GATT for more than a year.

These opponents of the trade agreement believe it will force millions of farmers off their land and place much of the world’s basic food supply in ecological jeopardy. As multinational companies prepare to bring seeds, chemical pesticides and fertilizers into Third World markets, many scientists and ecologists warn that a few corporate-owned varieties will replace thousands of locally cultivated seeds, making crops vulnerable to disease and drought and increasing the chance of famine.

“The drive toward the uniformization of world crops is leading to a dangerously precarious world food system,” says Timothy C. Weiskel, associate director of the Pacific Basin Research Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “More and more people are coming to depend on fewer varieties and fewer species of crops. Champions of GATT, whether they realize it or not, are destabilizing rural populations in the name of unsustainable agriculture. This will drive the small farmer out of production altogether. This is being done in the name of a new international economic order in which the Western world feels it can now write the rules for a post-Cold War global economy. GATT is one great big can opener of Third World countries for multinational corporations.”

But Indian officials say old policies of protectionism and bureaucratic socialism have failed to bring prosperity to the world’s second most populous nation. GATT, the government insists, is crucial to economic liberalization. “We went through a phase in which the government used to intervene in the economy,” says Indian Finance Secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia in his high-ceilinged office near India Gate, New Delhi’s great stone arch. “But the present reforms are based on the understanding that we now have an industrial base, we have a competitive capability, we have the resources to be a more open economy integrated in the world. India will do well if it becomes a more open and more competitive economy.” Indeed, many farmers support the government’s plans to increase exports, reduce tariff barriers and promote multinational investment from companies like Cargill, believing that these reforms will bring them more income.

With the trade pact in place, multinationals will have broad access to India’s vast farming market for the first time since independence in 1948. A quarter of the world’s farmers--more than 200 million--live in India. Already, scores of seed and petrochemical companies from Europe and the United States, armed with large research budgets and advanced genetic-engineering techniques, have arrived here to develop and market seeds, chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The GATT accord makes it possible for these companies to search India’s fields and then create, patent and market new, “improved” products--which, in turn, can be sold back to farmers.

Ten days before the GATT signing and nearly 16 months after the original raid on Cargill, more than 100,000 people gathered at Delhi’s historic Red Fort. As Indian trade ministers prepared to leave for Morocco, the crowd marched toward Parliament. Bricks flew at the national memorial to Gandhi. Police used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to turn back the crowd. On the day the accord was signed, Nanjundaswamy and his farmers’ group staged another raid, this time against Union Carbide Private Ltd., the American chemical corporation infamous in India for the Bhopal disaster. “The nationalist forces,” declared the former law professor, “have decided to destroy the property of all multinational firms.”

Farmer-activist Sesha Reddy sounds equally ominous when he recalls the East India Company, the British trader that dominated the lives of Indians for more than two centuries. “We call Cargill the West India Company. We don’t want a West India Company to once again dominate our economy, our freedom, our politics. We are prepared to die for this.”

MORE THAN A YEAR AFTER FARMERS ransacked the offices, Cargill’s Bangalore headquarters are quiet. John Hamilton, a stocky Australian with broad white sideburns and a horseshoe mustache, sits behind his desk. With Cargill for 15 years, Hamilton set up its India operations in 1988. On Republic Day, the anniversary of the enactment of India’s constitution, a frail guard sits watch in the hall behind a new wrought-iron gate. “Next time,” says Hamilton, “we’ll be ready.”

Cargill’s managing director for India laces his fingers behind his neck and gazes at the streets below. The agitation, he says, is mostly the work of “a political radical with a political agenda"--M.D. Nanjundaswamy. “He is a charismatic local personality. But we will not let one small-time politician campaigning against our seed company run us out of the business.” This is unlikely. Minnesota-based Cargill markets grain, coffee, cotton, beef, oil, steel, plastics and other goods to 58 countries and employs more than 69,000 people. Last year, company sales reached $47 billion.

Cargill’s arrival in India is part of a global strategy to market seeds and fertilizer to farmers and consumers more efficiently and cheaply than local producers can. Cargill, says Hamilton, can help India’s growing population meet a potential food shortfall by producing high-yielding crops from hybrid seeds, increasing farmers’ income in the process. But in developing improved seeds for farmers, he says, the company needs assurances that its seed innovations will be safe from “fly-by-night traders (who) set up shop” and resell them. Without these protections, won during contentious GATT negotiations, many seed corporations would not come to India.

The issue of intellectual property rights--for farmers, corporations and national sovereignty--is a source of great disagreement and confusion. Indian citizens, trying to understand the trade accords, patents and intellectual-property protection, have had to wade through technical jargon and a slew of acronyms--GATT, WTO, TRIPs, PBR, UPOV, PVPA, NPBGR, WIPO. In India, citizens have simplified the whole morass to “Dunkel"--for Arthur Dunkel, the former director general of GATT who presented the draft treaty signed in Morocco. “Reject Dunkel, Reject Imperialism” is familiar graffiti.

During most of the GATT controversy, say its critics, the Indian government did little to help its own cause, neglecting to make the treaty available in any of the 16 major Indian languages. Citizens have been left mainly with vague reassurances about long-term benefits or somber assessments of a new global reality in which national governments will cede much of the responsibility for economic well-being to outside forces. “We are no longer the controllers of the economy but promoters and facilitators,” Minister of State for Industry Krishna Sahi told reporters the day after the GATT accord was signed.

Leaders of the anti-GATT forces, for their part, often added more heat than light. At mass rallies, they claimed that under the GATT pact, farmers will be prohibited from selling or exchanging seeds or even saving them for the next year’s planting. Such restrictions could go into effect when the World Trade Organization reviews intellectual-property rights, among other things, in 1998, which has generated the specter of a Draconian world in which farmers would be virtually forced to buy seeds from multinationals. But that is not the case under the current agreement.

Between corporate demands that their agricultural innovations be protected and farmers’ demands that their genetic heritage be preserved lie several basic questions: Who owns a seed? Who owns a biological property? Who owns the life form creating a new seed from the genes of four or five others? The difficult relationship between ancient custom and Western science, between farmers’ rights and corporations’ entrepreneurship, between indigenous knowledge and First World intellect, is revealed in the debate over an ancient plant that has been part of Indian life since before the birth of Christ.

The neem tree is fundamental to rural India. Neem-leaf juice prevents scabies and other skin disorders. Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet and Nobel laureate, is said to have drunk it every morning for his health. Villagers brush their teeth with neem twigs. Gandhi chewed neem leaves before his meals. And for centuries, farmers have scattered neem leaves on their fields, using it as a natural insecticide.

Now the American-based multinational W.R. Grace & Co., the world’s largest producer of specialty chemicals, has developed neem-based bio-pesticides in India and sells them in the United States. American patents for Neemix were granted because the scientific process involved an “inventive step"--stabilizing and purifying the natural pesticide inherent in neem. Nanjundaswamy claims that, because of GATT, farmers are now legally prohibited from using neem leaves on their fields. This is not true.

Grace has not even obtained Indian patents, says corporate vice president Martin B. Sherwin. “We have no intellectual-property protection in India, nor are we interested in any,” he says. But critics of Grace say that once Indian patent law is brought into conformity with GATT, the U.S. patents for neem will essentially take effect in India. “The moment GATT comes into force,” says Devinder Sharma, Delhi journalist and author of “GATT and India: The Politics of Agriculture,” “India will be obliged to honor the patent. The effect will be that farmers will not be allowed to use the seeds of neem.” Sherwin denies this. Yet there may be something more fundamental than patents at issue here.

Neemix spray, which will likely earn substantial profits, is based in a property first identified by farmers in India and elsewhere in Asia. Grace has no plan, and no mechanism, for compensating anyone in India for a share in the neem patent. “It is of Indian origin,” says Sesha Reddy. “It is our material. It belongs to the entire nation.”

But the real innovation, Sherwin responds, only came in 1959, when a German scientist identified the property within neem, azadirachtin, that makes it a good insecticide. This scientific breakthrough, Sherwin says, is far more sophisticated than any indigenous knowledge of neem’s properties. The fact that Indian farmers already knew neem was a good insecticide is more akin to “folk medicine--like what root might be better to chew to cure a headache.” And that, says Sherwin, “is well outside my ability to comment on.”

P. REMENANDAN IS STANDING IN AN AIRTIGHT, LOW-HUMIDITY REFRIGERATED room. In this cooler, and in the deep-freeze across the hall, 30,000 varieties of sorghum seeds lie in small containers arranged 35 to a tray. Down the hall is a similarly vast collection of millet and another of chickpeas. Elsewhere in India and around the world, collections of corn, rice and wheat seeds--virtually every known species of select agricultural crops--have been stored before they vanish into biological history.

“The traditional varieties are disappearing,” Remenandan says, his soft voice carrying just above the drone of industrial coolers. A food geneticist, Remenandan works at the gene bank at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, 250 miles north of Bangalore. Bankrolled by national governments, the U.N. and various funding agencies, ICRISAT is part of a global research effort whose mission is to increase crop yields to feed a world population expected to expand by 3 billion over the next 30 years.

“Those genes have been formed after millions of years of evolution,” says Remenandan, picking up an airtight aluminum container. “They cannot be cre-ated overnight. If they are not conserved, they will disappear forever.”

The diversity of the world’s agricultural crops began to decline in 1944, near the end of World War II, when, ironically, Vice President Henry Wallace and officials of the Rockefeller Foundation launched a program to feed the hungry of the Third World. Plant breeder Norman Borlaug left his classified DuPont defense lab for Mexico, where he was asked to devise a highly productive variety of wheat. By 1954, Borlaug had crossbred Japanese wheat varieties with Mexican wheat, creating a “miracle seed” that would forever change global agriculture. The Green Revolution was born in the name of peace and abundance--and to thwart the spread of communism in the rural Third World. Borlaug, for his part, has always emphasized the program’s social agenda. “Children born into this world,” he says, “have the right to the basic necessities for a decent life, starting with food.”

Scientists he inspired soon brought similar leaps in rice production in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. In 1966, Indian officials imported 18,000 tons of Borlaug’s miracle seeds from Mexico, resulting in extraordinary jumps in wheat production in Punjab and other regions. In receiving the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, Norman Borlaug--and the Green Revolution--were credited with fending off starvation for millions in the Third World.

But the miracle seeds brought unexpected consequences. Green Revolution farmers were told that the miracle depended on the addition of chemical fertilizers. For many farmers in the Punjab and elsewhere, the excitement of the first few years subsided as they put more and more chemicals on their land just to match the output of the previous year. And as genetic uniformity replaced biological diversity, the new monoculture became increasingly vulnerable to disease and pests. Against the threat of plagues and massive crop losses, researchers began setting up their refrigerated gene banks to conserve genetic material in case new disease-free varieties were needed--and to preserve indoors the very species they helped to displace in nature. In the fields, pests developed resistance, forcing farmers to increase their use of chemical pesticides. Costs shot up, small farmers left in droves for the cities, and some Indian nationalists charged that the Green Revolution was part of a Western conspiracy.

“The Green Revolution strategy integrated Third World farmers into the global markets of fertilizers, pesticides and seeds and disintegrated their organic links with their soil and communities,” writes Vandana Shiva, a leading intellectual in the Indian opposition to GATT, in her 1991 book “The Violence of the Green Revolution.” “Having destroyed nature’s mechanisms for controlling pests through the destruction of diversity, the ‘miracle’ seeds of the Green Revolution became mechanisms for breeding new pests and creating new diseases . . . and with them the ever-increasing demand for pesticides.”

GATT, charges Nanjundaswamy, will open up Indian agriculture to another massive transformation, built on the seed-and-chemical model of the Green Revolution. “GATT is the beginning of the second chapter,” says the professor, himself a disillusioned Green Revolution farmer. But there is a difference.

The first Green Revolution was largely a public effort. Funds came from foundations, governments and U.N. agencies. Research was shared. Seeds were exchanged in the interest of increasing food production. And though its benefits are still debated--a recent survey by the Indian National Institute of Nutrition indicates that about 90% of Indian children 5 and under still suffer some form of malnutrition--few doubt the motives of people like Norman Borlaug in serving a social good. But now global agricultural research is moving inexorably into private hands. Green Revolution centers like ICRISAT, for example, have had their budgets slashed by an estimated 30% in the past three years. At the same time, more and more publicly funded research is being directed toward corporate use.

As the Green Revolution took its toll on the environment, it became clear that new seeds were needed, seeds that depended less on chemicals. S.K. Kapoor, managing director of Proagro Seeds Company Ltd., a New Delhi-based seed company, says that chemical corporations “became apprehensive. If seeds are being made resistant to pesticides and insecticides, what happens to the chemical companies? The demand for insecticides will go down. So they started buying seed companies.” In the 1970s and ‘80s, there were more than 1,000 corporate chemical buyouts of seed companies around the world, according to Pat Mooney, author of “Seeds of the Earth” and a leading expert on the loss of genetic diversity. “The ulterior motive,” says Kapoor, “was that there should be a regular demand of pesticide and insecticide.” Subsequent events bear him out, especially in the field of agricultural biotechnology.

Biotechnology allows scientists to genetically engineer seeds for specific properties--resistance to disease or pests or drought, for example, which would help make the seeds more productive. But most testing for genetic engineering in the industrial world since 1986 has not attempted to make seeds hardier or more nutritious or to help them survive better in saline soil or high winds. Instead, biotechnicians have tried to make them resistant to herbicides, thus allowing farmers to kill most weeds and other plants but not the biologically protected crop. Monsanto, for example, has devised a way to make tomatoes resistant to Roundup, allowing for sales of both the seed and the powerful herbicide and assuring the continued use of chemicals on food crops. Initial marketing for “Roundup ready” seed will be in the United States. Monsanto, DuPont, Hoechst and Rhone-Poulenc have done similar tests for other crops, including soybeans, corn, potatoes, wheat and cotton.

“We’re certainly not encouraging farmers to use more chemicals,” says Karen Marshall, director of public relations for Monsanto’s agricultural group. “But farmers need to control weeds. If you hoe those lands, you could end up with soil erosion. You could lose ground moisture.” Because Roundup is a broad-spectrum herbicide, Marshall says, “our hope is that we’ll be able to reduce overall herbicide use.”

ACACIA TREES AND MUSTARD fields flank the road on the outskirts of Delhi. A turbaned farmer, near the end of a long trek from Rajasthan state, leads his cows to summer pasture. Bulging sacks of fodder perch on wooden carts, hauled slowly up the road by Rajasthani camels. India’s ancient system will be modernized, says J.S. Sindhu, Proagro’s director of research, but he has a bleak vision of the changes the multinationals will bring.

“Suppose the farmer has got two acres of land,” Sindhu says, pointing out the window of his white sedan. “You are a multinational. You come to him and say, ‘You’re not making any headway.’ And you have come with a formula to convince him that if he produces this certain crop exclusively, he’ll be better off. You say, ‘I have got a tomato seed. This tomato will give you 200,000 rupees (about $6,500) from these two acres. The total you earn now is 125,000 ($4,000). You can put this difference in the bank, educate your kids, have a nice house, buy a scooter. . . .’ That is the dream.”

It is also the kind of direct corporation-to-farmer marketing that the Indian government is now encouraging. At first, Sindhu says, only a few farmers will experiment with the new seeds, and then only on a portion of their land. “But seeing is believing,” he says. “It only takes six years, and everybody switches. In certain areas, you will find only one crop exclusively--on 200,000, 250,000 acres, even on 2 million acres. The chances of epidemics will be very high. Any time you put monocultures in vast areas, it is not scientifically safe. You are working against variability. You are working against nature. And when you work against nature, you have to be prepared to face the consequences.”

The consequences, says Arun Kumar, economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, will be a repetition of the Green Revolution--chemical dependency, soil sterilization, water-table contamination, genetic loss and urban flight for small farmers who can’t afford the increasing costs of pesticides and fertilizers. But unlike the Green Revolution, Kumar argues, corporations like Cargill will not necessarily focus on producing food for India’s poor. Oil from Cargill’s sunflower seed, for example, or PepsiCo’s potato chips and export-quality basmati rice will go to those who can afford it--to India’s middle and upper classes and to consumers in the First World.

“What will be produced is what can sell in the other countries,” says Kumar, principal author of the annual alternative budget, a critique of the government’s liberalization policies by a coalition of opposition parties. “The richer countries have 85% of the world’s purchasing power, so the cropping pattern will shift to the requirements of the advanced nations. What the average Indian requires is unlikely to be produced. The Indian poor will suffer. The food security of the whole Indian economy will suffer a great deal.”

“Food security is not in danger,” replies Finance Secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia. First, he argues, the amount of land dedicated to export crops will not threaten India’s production of basic food grains. Second, “as you move to an agriculture open to export possibilities, you generate higher income for agricultural producers. This feeds back in to better investment in their fields. India easily could double its yields per acre.” Higher yields, Ahluwalia argues, will give farmers better harvests, more income and therefore more buying power, which is the ultimate security against hunger.

And higher yields can only be assured, say executives like Cargill’s John Hamilton, if multinationals are allowed to market more productive seeds. Indian farmers, he says, want to buy quality seed that will give them consistently good yields. Cargill’s sales for sunflower and corn seed are already up 300% over last year. “If that seed is going to come from a foreign company operating in India, it is of no consequence to the farmer.”

BENEATH A PEEPAL TREE IN THE southern India village of Gobbedi, on a stone worn smooth from countless generations of sitting, villagers join Sesha Reddy, the farmer who has spent much of the last two years opposing Cargill and the multinationals. Like many in the farmers’ movement, Reddy once believed in the Green Revolution. But he speaks now with the fervor of a man who has lost one faith and, after some searching, found another.

“In its youth, just like people, the Green Revolution was beautiful,” he says. “But after some aging, it is going away.” Reddy is now a convert to indigenous, sustainable agriculture, part of a local network of farmers who are practicing traditional techniques and are working with Indian geneticists to set up their own gene bank. “We have to go back to the nature,” he says. “We’ll go green now--instead of Green Revolution.”

But in the face of multimillion-dollar foreign investments encouraged by the government, the Indian farmers’ movement faces long odds. Although small seed-saving collectives and indigenous associations have sprung up throughout the country, the demonstrations against GATT have quieted since the April signing, provoking some analysts to predict that the movement will fade. Reddy, though, insists a significant number of Indian farmers will reject the “new colonization.” They will withdraw, he says, from the global economy by building a Gandhian system of self-reliance. He likes to quote the great poet, Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free. . . . “ Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

“Where knowledge is free!” repeats Reddy. “Knowledge should not be for the enrichment of the individual. It should be for the community.”

Across the road, farmers prepare the paddies for the new rice plantings. Frogs and crickets call from the darkening fields. “Monopoly is not life,” says Reddy. “Only in sharing there is life.”