Farmers in Bangladesh and India question unequal access to homegrown innovation

By Joan Conrow

June 1, 2015

This is the first of a series of articles about the challenges and opportunities that farmers in Bangladesh and India face.

Despite rampant speculation, little is known in the West about what farmers in India and Bangladesh want or the obstacles they face. Even less is known about the agricultural biotech research underway in India, where universities and institutions, not multinational corporations, are taking the lead in developing traits to benefit the food crops most widely grown there.

In an effort to find out what’s really going on, Cornell Alliance for Science videographer Jeremy Verveka and I traveled in India for two weeks this spring, interviewing plant geneticists, policy-makers, seed merchants, pesticide sellers, social theorists and farmers in their fields. What we found was strong farmer support for biotech, due both to their largely successful experience with Bt cotton and their desire to minimize the expense and health hazards of pesticides, especially in the heavily treated brinjal crops.

We also learned that even as many farmers are enjoying a higher standard of living, and such modern tools as Facebook ag forums accessed via smartphones, they’re facing myriad challenges: a farm labor shortage, high equipment costs, intermittent electrical service for irrigation pumps, insect pests, plant diseases, closed export markets, government regulations, high-interest money lenders and restrictions on farmland ownership.

We met plant scientists conducting genetic research on chickpeas, peanuts and other pulses so important to South Asia’s food supply, and developing drought-resistant and salinity-tolerant varieties of rice. Some of them represent the first generation from their villages to attend college, and they’re trying to find ways to help farmers succeed back home through access to innovation. We learned of an active Western-funded disinformation campaign that has created political obstacles to GE plant research and deregulation, and the India-based efforts to counter it with scientific evidence.

And we talked with local entrepreneurs who are developing, financing and advancing agricultural biotechnology in India and South Asia. Though Monsanto, through its joint venture with Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd. (Mahyco), is a powerful presence in South Asia, we discovered that India’s emerging biotech industry isn’t dominated by multinational chemical/seed companies, or such familiar commodities as Roundup Ready corn and soy.

Instead, it’s homegrown a combined effort of the nation’s scientists, public institutions, private investment capital and farmers, focused on the primary crops that feed India’s 1.2 billion people and others in the South Asia region.

Through the summer, we’ll be using the Alliance for Science blog to post videos, articles and photographs sharing the faces, voices and stories of those most closely involved with agricultural biotechnology in India.

We’ll take you with us to cities and villages, plant laboratories and farmers’ fields, urban business offices and rural grain markets, vegetable stands and seed shops. And we’ll also foray into Bangladesh, where Jeremy spent another two weeks meeting with farmers and documenting the Bt brinjal trials.

We’re introducing the fruits of our labor with this video and profile on Gurjeet Singh Mann and Gurdarshan Sidhu, two farmers who grow wheat, paddy (rice), Bt cotton, corn and potatoes on their family farms near Sirsa. We filmed them on Mann’s shady patio one warm afternoon as they discussed topics dear to farmers everywhere: crop prices, yields, machinery, the weather and, in keeping with the changing times, seed technology.

As Mann asked, “If Americans can have those things, why not we can have?”