Science / Globalization

The Seeds of a Failed Agricultural Revolution

The benefits of a globalized agricultural economy has been extolled much in the same way that most neo-liberal policies have been championed in recent decades. The advantages, mostly economic, are often framed in the context of the efforts of developing countries to integrate themselves into an increasingly global trade system. Nowhere has this discussion on the nature of globally-integrated agricultural economies been more heated than in India, which continues to struggle with its efforts to become a powerhouse in the global agriculture game. In an effort to wean itself from a reliance on cash crops, India has instituted a number of policies regarding genetically modified (GM) seeds. Though well intentioned, these policies have had grave unintended consequences, devastating the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and threatening the future of the Indian agricultural sector as a whole.

Agriculture, according to the Indian government, is “unquestionably the largest livelihood provider in India, more so in the vast rural areas.” The rural areas in question serve as the home for seventy percent of India’s 1.2 billion people, most of them farmers. Unfortunately, most recent data suggests that India’s agricultural sector contributes only 21% of the country’s gross domestic product – suggesting that millions in these rural areas live in poverty. In fact, the World Bank reports that India has the largest concentration of poor people in the world, with over 300 million living below the poverty line. To make matters worse, the Indian government’s agricultural legislation has been weak, disorganized, and ineffectual. The Economist recently pointed out that the agricultural sector “still fixes prices and subsidizes inputs, when public money would be far better spent on infrastructure and research.” These shortcomings have had immediate negative impacts on an economy that relies heavily on cash crops.

A decade ago, in an effort to restructure its economy and agricultural sector, India accepted loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF loans, intended to increase the rate of mechanization and agricultural development in the country, came with a number of conditions. Among them was a promise of preferential access to Indian markets for several agricultural corporations, including Monsanto, Cargill, and Syngenta. Many of these corporations have since flooded Indian markets with GM seeds that are produced in their own research and development departments. The seed varieties of corn, cotton, and other crops introduced by these large agro-businesses are advertised as resulting in a product whose genes have been successfully altered to excrete a protein fatal to some insects, therefore cutting line item costs for pesticides completely. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, India’s small shareholder farmers would no longer suffer from bollworms, which once devastated their harvests.

Ten years after the institution of these policies, the dream of lush, green, bollworm-free fields–envisioned by Indian farmers and proponents of economic development alike–has unfortunately not come to fruition. In fact, regression has been noted since the introduction of GM seeds, not only in the quality of life of farmers, but also in the productivity of the Indian agricultural sector itself. In regards to quality of life, several organizations and major publications have made strong arguments that link Indian farmer suicides–more than 270,000 since 1995 according to some accounts–to the increasingly high price of GM seeds that continue to control the market and which have thrust hundreds of thousands of farmers into a cycle of inescapable debt. Despite general economic growth, India’s agricultural productivity has suffered not only because of the social instabilities caused by widespread farmer indebtedness, but also because of massive oversights regarding the use of GM seeds. The seeds, once viewed as the potential saviors of the Indian agricultural sector, are not adapted to the unique Indian environment, nor are they tested before leaving the corporate laboratories in which they are developed. To make matters worse, neither the Indian government nor the seed developers took into account changing environmental conditions caused by worsening climate change, an oversight which has compounded India’s volatile food security situation and threatened its potential for economic growth.

And yet, in the face of these cataclysmic problems, multinational agricultural corporations like Monsanto continue to raise seed prices in order to decrease research costs at home and manage stringent biotechnology research regulations formulated by the National Institutes of Health and enforced by the American government. In sum, the combined effects of corporate seed monopolies, social instabilities, and declining agricultural output has created a system of dependence that reinforces a cycle of poverty in India. The question of where to begin to look for solutions is becoming increasingly challenging, and intervention via microenterprise efforts has only recently become a focus of the Indian government’s attention.

The system of dependency that has been created is one that has alarmed not only advocates for economic development, but also ecologists and environmentalists. Clearly, the quest for development, at least as it concerns India, has not taken into account multiple variables that are necessary for success on both the micro and macro levels. Besides using India’s agricultural problems as a valuable case study for poor development economics, we must attempt to undo the system of dependence on GM seeds that world powers and multinational organizations have thrust the country into. In order to do so, it is imperative that internal reform at institutions such as the World Bank and IMF take place to enable the formation of more sustainable development policies. Doing so will allow for a more holistic approach to development that benefits individuals as well as the state. Reform at these institutions may be the only way to truly affect positive change in the agricultural sphere without the devastating social and microeconomic ramifications that have taken place in India.