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On Monday, June 10 2019, over a thousand farmers in the Indian state of Maharashtra launched a campaign of civil disobedience, a “farmer satyagraha,” to protest their government blocking access to some of the safest, most sustainable, productive seeds in the history of agriculture. They want to grow new cotton varieties improved through biotechnology to resist pests without requiring costly and potentially hazardous pesticide sprays, and brinjal (eggplant) with the same kind of improvements.
The farmers planted cotton and brinjal seeds in defiance of government prohibitions, risking jail, fines of Rs 1 Lakh (~$1,400) and the destruction of their harvests. This follows reports of other farmers growing the same seeds illegally in Haryana. If they’re being grown in Haryana and Maharashtra, odds are they’re being grown widely in other provinces—especially those bordering Bangladesh, where farmers have ready access to numerous biotech improved varieties. Estimates indicate as much as 10 percent of all Indian cotton produced last year was from these illegal seeds. Why would these farmers break the law and then draw attention to it with protests?
Indian journalist Shruti Rajagopalan notes that, “The first farmer satyagraha led by Mahatma Gandhi was… protesting against an oppressive government that took away farmers’ choices and forced them to grow a crop (indigo) that increased their food insecurity and financial stress. Unfortunately, not much has changed over the century except the colour of the oppressors. Now, farmers must fight against their own, as the Indian government denies them their right to choose and innovate.”
This development is both surprising and completely predictable. Though widely described as the first such protest by farmers demanding biotech improved crops, Indian farmers conducted a similar protest on the margins of the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg (as I witnessed). And as governments have lagged in approving these new varieties, farmers around the world have been engaging in civil disobedience by breaking the law to get their hands on biotech improved seeds, despite being harassed by special interests.
- Brazil: Genetically modified (“GM”) soy beans were not approved until 2003, long after Argentine farmers had the green light. Even then, Brazil had to resort to an unusual presidential decree to break a deadlock created by “green” groups who worked the system to obstruct government approval for years. Eager to grow superior seed easily sourced from their neighbors and competitors in next-door Argentina, Brazilian farmers defied the law to import and grow them. Only after standoffs with provincial officials threatened to spiral into violence did newly elected President Lula da Silva break the impasse to legalize the biotech improved soybeans, and now Brazil threatens to dethrone the United States as the world’s leading supplier of soybeans.
- Thailand: Biotech-improved virus-resistant papaya were field tested in 2004. It’s not clear how they subsequently made their way into farmers’ hands, though one plausible scenario implicates Greenpeace vandals who trespassed and sabotaged the field trial, dumping 10 tons of fruit outside the Ministry of Agriculture, where it was heavily pilfered. By 2009, despite recall efforts, it was widely disseminated in Thailand, and in the years that followed also in neighboring countries, including China.
- Ukraine: The government hasn’t approved any biotech-improved crops for growing in Ukraine. But I crisscrossed the country in 2007-08 and witnessed vast fields of soybeans impossibly clean of weeds. And the same government officials who insisted publicly in meetings there was no GM soy in Ukraine admitted privately over a cigarette in the hall outside that 60 to 80 percent of Ukrainian soy was illegally planted GM varieties, as I had seen with my own eyes.
- China: Long rumored, illegal plantings of biotech crops were publicly acknowledged by China in 2015 and 2016 after announcements by Greenpeace made continued denials untenable. One of the main sources for anti-GMO propaganda in China is a renegade army general, who acts with apparent impunity in opposition to official Communist Party support of ag-biotech by stoking the conspiracy theory that GM foods are a Western plot to undermine Chinese food security. While controversy simmers over biotech-improved food crops in China, farmer demand is such that new corn and rice varieties are apparently widely grown despite the absence of formal approval. Meanwhile, biotech improved cotton and poplar trees are grown on millions of acres with little concern. And in 2016, state-owned ChemChina bought Swiss biotech seed giant Syngenta for $43 billion and announced plans to commercialize biotech-improved corn and rice by 2020.
- India: The Indian government was slow to approve biotech-improved insect-resistant cotton, with the first commercial plantings permitted only in 2002 after farmers had been growing bootlegged varieties for several years. Although biotech-improved mustard and brinjal subsequently received positive safety evaluations, raucous opposition from a small but noisy minority intimidated the government into withholding approval—most famously in the case of brinjal, approved by the appropriate regulatory authorities in 2010 but blocked by the Environment Minister at the behest of a handful of special interest groups. This set the stage for the recent farmers’ protests.
These and other similar examples put the spotlight on one undeniable fact: Farmers around the world are willing to break the law, if necessary, to gain access to better seeds that will allow them to reap larger harvests, of superior quality, with fewer inputs, on less land, for increased revenue. That is what biotech-improved crops have been delivering now for years, with an unmatched safety record—not a single sniffle can be laid to the genetic improvements in “GM” crops, much less any deaths. Organic growers can only envy such a record.
Despite the conceit of opponents of agricultural biotechnology who insist the 18 million farmers growing biotech crops around the world are fools, farmers are not stupid.
Farmers who make poor choices (such as selecting the wrong seeds, failing to manage weeds, pests, and diseases, or hedge against the weather)—or who simply get hit with bad luck—lose their farms, if not their lives. Farmers are masters at distributing and managing risk, hedging bets. They are the ones with the most skin in the game, and it’s not a game. This is why, as one of the Indian farmers put it, they have chosen to mount “a civil disobedience movement to highlight oppressive government laws.”
In recent years, as the Indian government has dragged its feet in approving new varieties for no legitimate reason, in a vain attempt to placate a noisy and intemperate minority, the proportion of illegal seeds planted by Indian cotton farmers has grown to as much as 10 percent of the total crop. “Until last year, farmers were cultivating the unapproved seeds covertly. From this year, we will plant them publicly,” a spokesman said.
A representative of Bayer said, “cultivation of unapproved technologies without following mandatory guidelines would set a bad precedent and would be akin to dismantling the country’s robust regulatory process.” This is true. Farmers planting seeds not permitted by the government is a violation of the law, a transgression against the social contract that maintains order in society and allows civilization to flourish. But these farmers are acting in the finest tradition of satyagraha. They are not seeking to evade responsibility for their lawbreaking; they are exposing themselves to the consequences to highlight the injustice of a law that is itself being ignored by their government. The government of India has failed to honor the science-based procedures it has laid out for the safety review and approval of new biotech-improved seeds. There has been no scientifically justifiable reason for this. The government is violating the social contract on which its legitimacy rests. These Indian farmers deserve and command the respect of all who care about people and our planet.