Thoughts on economics and liberty

CS Prakash interview by Kevin Folta on recent farmer civil disobedience

I’ve extracted on Youtube:

Youtube has transcribed. I’ve spent a few minutes to sort out the text. Download Word version here.


Prakash: And again biotechnology is just one of the solutions that farmers see. It not only cuts down the use of pesticides but also the expense that goes along with it, and on the labour involved in spraying. That is why you see wherever these Bt crops have been introduced it has been embraced by farmers all around the world. In Philippines for instance, they have Bt corn, and Bt cotton, of course, is grown in many many countries and it is almost 100 percent accepted in those countries where it has been introduced.

Interviewer: Now as the story goes the Bt brinjal was really developed for India not originally for Bangladesh, but why wasn’t it approved in India?

Prakash: You’re correct. It was first developed in India by a company called meheeco in partnership with couple of agricultural universities. Because India is the largest producer of egg plants in the world and so it just simply made sense. And they use the same gene that was used in Bt cotton which has already been very successful in India. But sadly, this was not approved by an Environment Minister at the time about nine years ago –  Mr. Jairam Ramesh – despite the fact that it went through extensive testing all across India and it was approved by the biotechnology regulators in India after such extensive testing to make sure that it is safe for human consumption, it is safe for animal consumption and it is also safe from an environmental point of view. It was not approved based on political reasons. It had nothing to do with science or safety.

Interviewer: So the Bt brinjal was something that was developed for India that is being held back probably because of political reasons more than scientific reasons and now it’s starting to leak its way back into India. Prakash, how long have you been working in area of the biotechnology discussion?

Prakash: More than years It’s been it’s been a long time.

Interviewer: I always think of you as one of the leaders and one of the first people who were actively engaging through social media and alternative media quite a ways back now. I’ve been reading your stuff for a long time. So, how about how long has that been?

Prakash: Oh, before this became controversial, in addition to being a scientist and a professor I used to be a science communicator – kind of like you do – but in a small way I used to write in the newspapers and magazines and speak at local schools and Rotary clubs and things like that. And once this became controversial then I’ve simply drawn into the global media, like you were, and so I’ve been doing this as an educational outreach for the last 30 years but more into the controversy and speaking on the science part of the GMO controversy for the last probably 25 years now.

Interviewer: And If you go back 30 years and you think about where were we you know, could you have ever predicted that these technologies would still be so arrested in their deployment in the developing world?

Prakash: Not in my wildest dreams because you know I came from a plant breeding background where I learned conventional plant breeding and this is simply a tool that I had to learn that I incorporated in my research. And so we never really thought of this as something that is going to be seen as very controversial. We knew it was something different but we also saw having grown up in India that I have seen, I have experienced firsthand, how improvements in agriculture especially the kind of new seed that the farmers could use help improve their livelihood and prove the food situation in India. And so you know one could see with one single gene Norman Borlaug could feed a billion more people – with the dwarf genes that he introduced into wheat and then similar dwarf genes that were introduced into rice, then a lot of us plant breeders thought that wow! now we have a new tool that we could bring in many such single genes and put it into crop plants and make them grow without the use of pesticides or fungicides or even probably the fertilizers one day. And we saw this as simply a new tool that would be an important arsenal in our ability to feed the world.  Never saw it as going to be so opposed especially by the the NGO groups across the world.

Interviewer: So when we think about the Bt brinjal and its impact in Bangladesh, which we discussed was already very positive, rumors have it that it really has escaped the border and is now come across to India. And what is known about that?

Prakash:  Well, that simply shows you can’t keep a good thing away from the hands of the farmers and as you know a lot of the borders between India and Bangladesh are porous and so it was simply inevitable that something like this would slowly move out of Bangladesh and be in India. And it’s just something we have seen again and again happen. When Brazil resisted growing GM soybeans for a long time officially, yet the farmers in Brazil were growing that for a long time. Even the Bt cotton – that almost every 7 million Indian farmers grow – it started as a clandestine crop that was grown illegally in India. And so this is what’s happening and a lot of us who’ve been around are not surprised by it all.

Interviewer: All we read you know online and websites and when we listen to the anti-GMO pundits when they when they talk, they always say “But the big companies control the seeds and they have a stranglehold on small farmers”. And so how are they getting these seeds if the big companies control them?

Prakash: All right again, it just shows that not that all the narrative that we hear from anti GMO folks is right. This BT brinjal has really nothing to do with the big companies. It was developed in Bangladesh by the Bangladesh government with assistance from USAID with active participation from university researchers. And it has now come to India and it is grown by small farmers and it just shows that the farmers whether big or small are always open to innovation and if they find something that will help them produce more and cost less and is safe, they are going to embrace it

Interviewer: Well, if the government of India were originally looking at this, why have they resisted legalizing these resources for farmers? What’s holding them back?

Prakash: I think it’s again very political. It’s not just in India, we see this across the world for the past 20 years a lot of anti-development forces like many of these NGOs and so-called environmental organizations have opposed these GM crops and they have made this as a very big issue. And many of the politicians in India and other places simply have become very apprehensive about the noises coming from these groups. And also I think it the media has played into the hands of many of these anti-farmer organizations and have simply amplified their voices. Well, in reality, the opposition to biotech is small, as you’ve seen when people and farmers have a choice to select something that is healthy and useful, they will go for it. And I think this just shows that what has happened today or yesterday in India – where a small group of farmers took law into their own hands and planted some of these Bt crops – unapproved strains of Bt cotton for instance – this shows that farmers are not going to wait for too long for the governments to keep interfering with their access to technology and they’ll just take these things into their own hands.

Interviewer: I’m really interested in that farmer story but maybe something else first – who in their right mind or what organization would possibly stand against technology getting to some of the poorest farmers in the world?

Prakash: I always wonder about that and their goals because many of these small farmers are really very small. You know, I grew up in India and my grandfather was an agricultural officer, and I have spent a lot of time growing up with these farmers, and many of them are very small and very poor and when now – in just in the last 10 or 15 years we have seen progress coming into many of the small farmers in India in the form of economic revitalization and opening up the of the economy – and so they’re very anxious to embrace new technologies, the new innovations that would help improve their productivity. And so I wonder why anybody would come and interfere in the ability of these farmers to access these technologies, which only would help them to improve their livelihoods

Interviewer: Well, on the flip side of that argument, so you can say “OK, there are organizations that are standing against technology to reach the small farmer”, but on the other hand there are people who always claim to be these advocates for small farmers in seed sovereignty and you know, let the farmer decide and give farmers choice, like folks like Vandana Shiva. You know, where is she on this issue?

Prakash: Oh, Vandana Shiva as you know has made a big career for herself by opposing these technologies, especially the GM seeds, and so she’s very much against it. It’s simply because her audience is really not in India or the farmers.  Vandana Shiva charges about twenty-five thirty thousand dollars per speech in the United States and many other Western countries, and it is a small group of people in these countries who are willing to pay and encourage people like Vandana Shiva to come out of India and say that Indian farmers do not like these technologies, which is simply false. Anytime anywhere in the world when farmers are given a choice to have access to technologies that will improve their livelihoods, they will do that, and if Vandana Shiva says that let farmers make a choice, let them do it! Let them see which technology is good or bad for them. And if they feel that it is going to help improve them and if it is cost-effective then they will choose what is in their best interest.

Interviewer: Well, what about those farmers in Maharashtra – the ones who staged this recent protest – you know what did they do and what’s the penalty if you plant seeds that are illegal?

Prakash: Well what happened yesterday was really interesting because it’s kind of very historic. More than 1000 farmers came together in a small village in this place in India and in an act of defiance that is reminiscent of what Mahatma Gandhi did about 100 years ago in his protest against the British when he walked off and made salt illegally, because making salt was illegal at that time when the British controlled our country, and in a symbolic act of defiance he made salt in a salt marsh. And so the farmers – not very far from where he did that in the state of Maharashtra – planted these BT HT cotton seeds – that had been approved all over the world as safe and simply been not allowed into India – as a matter of civil disobedience. And this simply shows that the farmers are not going to take any longer that the government which is in cahoots with some of these anti-farmer organizations is blocking access to the technologies.

Interviewer: And so what do you think will happen next? Do you think that these kinds of protests will bring attention to the true issue of seed sovereignty, in farmers making up their own mind, or do you think this will just ignite more conversations about the dangers of unapproved technologies and more restrictions?

Prakash: I hope this is going to open up more meaningful conversations. Already when I have seen in the last 24 hours the media reports on this farmer protest have been very sympathetic to farmers’ needs, and I think it is opening up some meaningful dialogues already. Even New York Times, which is, you know, not very farmer friendly, has come up with a very positive story on this protest that happened yesterday. I believe this will also open up the minds and eyes of the governments in looking at the issue more carefully and will help them realize that they just can’t ignore the voice of the farmer when it comes to what is important for them.

Interviewer: Well, it’s a fascinating story and I hope that you keep in touch with us as it continues to unfold and especially if there are people who are on the ground there who can give us further insight. Its time that farmers play a leading role in fighting for the technology they want not just in places like India but even in the United States – that with issues like glyphosate and other things they’re getting to the point where now good technologies are looking to be restricted and perhaps even banned.



Sanjeev Sabhlok

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