Thoughts on economics and liberty

Video debate on GM technology between Vandana Shiva and CS Prakash – full transcript

This is an important video – the 2000 debate between science and anti-GM passion.

To understand better I transcribed it. The Word version here. The video below, and the transcript with my annotations below that.

Interviewer: Those who favour genetically modified crops insist that they are the best bet for Indian farmers while those opposed to them maintain that the introduction of such foodstuffs will endanger the biodiversity of the country. Those in favour argue that the critics of genetically modified foods are working at the behest of the Western farming lobby afraid of competition from Indian farmers. And those in opposition maintain that the supporters of genetically engineered crops are working for the multinational seed companies. To discuss which group is right we have in the studio Professor CS Prakash director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research at the Tuskegee University and after Vandana Shiva director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. We will start with you dr. Shiva. How would you respond to this charge that you’re working for the interests of the Western farming lobbies?

Vandana: Unfortunately it is the genetic engineering group that is working for the global corporations. That’s the way the technology is organized and is patented. Even when the public sector does enter it works on terms that are totally dependent.

Interviewer: But you’re not answering the question I asked you. Are you working for the Western farming lobbies? I will ask them what they are working for.

Vandana: Not at all. I work for myself and I try my best to serve Indian peasants, especially those who are at that vulnerable situation where any increasing cost of inputs – whether it is seed or chemicals or patent royalties and technology fees – will push them even further over the brink. Then we are already seeing them – the suicide the kidney sales are already indicated.

Interviewer: Now let me ask him the question are you working for the multinational seed companies?

Prakash: Oh, no not at all. I work for myself and for my University and I personally feel that this technology is so pro-farmer, and so somebody who is working for the peasants should allow for the choice for the farmers to decide for themselves.

Interviewer: Why is this pro-farmer?

Prakash: Because this is a technology that specifically favours and helps. It has so much potential into their livelihood and bringing increased food production, bringing in an element of profitability. More than anything this is a choice that the farmers want.

Interviewer: Now you disagree with that view because you said the costs are going to go up

Vandana: The costs are already going up. The replacement of farm seeds by public sector supplied seeds by hybrids has already shot up the price of the seed itself and of the inputs associated with it. In the case of genetically engineered seed the costs will be even higher and all comparisons to date are in the context of large industrial farms of the United States. In the case of India the GE package is a costly package, high-cost package, and unlike what is claimed it is not in any case – whether it’s Roundup resistant or herbicide resistant crops – we do require by their very nature a herbicide associated with the crop and in the case of so-called pest resistant crop, the pest resistance is for a short time to one specific family effect of boll worm (CHECK). All the other pests require spraying.

Prakash: Sure, that is fine but cotton boll work that you mentioned is the single largest pest of which farmers spray about eight or nine of the twelve sprays that do on cotton they do it on that. So if the farmer has to spray only three sprays instead of twelve what is wrong in that? And so it is again a choice of the farmer that that he has to make, whether to go for that or to keep using the pesticide? And so that’s the first choice. Let me address to the other. [Sanjeev: Clearly, this reduces pesticide use]

Interviewer: The costs are going to be higher.

Prakash: Yes, costs are going to be high and again this is a choice that the farmers (have) to make. We had the same arguments for the hybrid seeds. I come from Bangalore where we have this excellent seed company there – Indo American hybrid seeds – that sells hybrid tomato amongst other things, and that day they release their tomato seed, you could see the farmers lining up and waiting all night to buy their seeds. And they spend a lot of money to buy the seed. Why? Because farming is a profession, its not a vocation.

Interviewer: So even if the costs are high the profits are also high?  [Sanjeev: This is a key point]

Prakash: Exactly. Farmers are not stupid. It is high time we stop relegating our farmers to the role of fools, that they are gullible, incompetent, they need some environmental screen from the big urban cities to protect them against the clutches of this phenomena.

Vandana: It was the Indian farmers who were the first to uproot the first trials of cotton. It was no green it was no environmentalist. It was farmers of Karnataka and farmers of …

Prakash: It was the farmers who are growing again. [Sanjeev: 90 per cent of India’s farmers are mass-producing Bt cotton today, so Vandana’s points are completely futile]

Vandana: Yes they don’t need protection. They making up their own minds. But first of all, bollguard is not the dominant pest – even for cotton around the world. In Australia it is not.

Interviewer: But what about in India?

Vandana: In India the point is that other pests are starting to build up huge resurgences. There’s even in the United States news that new pests are emerging. We have data that the Bt cotton and Bt crops are starting to affect beneficial species which destroys the balance and therefore creates new problems for pest management. And in South Africa we have been recently the farmers are being asked to plant only 30 percent of their fields under bollguard because 70 percent has to remain under conventional cotton just to manage resistance in bollguard because the data is accepted by Monsanto that there is huge rapid resistance.

Prakash: No, people were saying the same thing four years ago when we started planting cotton in the United States. We have 40 million acres planted under cotton and not a single incident of pest build up come about. And because of the refugee management. And just because the pest is going to build up are we going to deny the Indian farmers a viable opportunity and the chance that they would be able to cut down on their pesticides and make more profit? [Sanjeev: to me this is a valid point – there are always trade-offs in life. ]

Vandana: Why not cut down on the pesticides? When you compare it to ecological organic farming it does not. [Sanjeev: THIS IS THE BIGGEST LOAD OF NONSENSE I’VE HEARD ] And as far as the yields claim of genetic engineering is concerned, around the world and especially US the data on yield, from independent assessments, all data of increases comes from the companies themselves who hold secret trials, never let it be transparent. Today, Indian trials are secret.

Interviewer – One minute, he is working in a university, not a seed company

Vandana: But the interesting thing is that Dr. Prakash’s University is the preferred University by USDA to deploy this technology in the Third World. They have a huge grant to do this job. They are coming out as agents of the USDA.

Prakash: USDA is not a company

Vandana: And just last week USDA was requested by its own Advisory Committee to back out of the patent on the terminator technology which it holds and the USDA turn on the advice of its own Advisory Committee.

Prakash: I am at the committee and that is not true. [Sanjeev: Vandana seems to be putting in a few fake points with extreme confidence] I’m in that Committee so I would know. I’m one of the advisors in that. But secondly, coming back to the access to the technology, why are we trying to be anti-farmers here, trying to deny a technology that can make an overwhelming impact on the lives of the 80% of the people in this country. The science is not the issue here. You can talk about the pest resistance – every scientific body that the looked at this has said that this technology is any good as any other technology

Vandana: We are serving the Indian farmers with information they ask for. Indian farmers are bright, intelligent, organized, they’re the backbone of this country politically and economically, and they don’t need help from either Dr. Prakash on me. [Sanjeev: That’s correct] But basically they asked us for specific information and specific support at specific times and we are there to help. [Sanjeev: I WANT TO KNOW WHETHER VANDANA IS PAID FOR HER SERVICE? IF NOT, WHO PAYS HER?]

Interviewer: What is the specific support?

Vandana: Well, they ask us for information and analysis on GM crops and we do it.

Prakash: And that includes scientific information that they are safe?

Vandana: We get it from around the world, We don’t depend on the Monsantos. There are lots of independent scientists around the world. [Sanjeev. This is NONSENSE. There is only one science.]

Prakash: Who gives these scientists the field information saying that …?

Vandana: Greenpeace does not generate such data. You must understand that. They take action.

Prakash: Every scientist and agency that has looked into the biotechnology, all the most credible international (scientists) including the Indian National Academy of Sciences, and we have one of the best regulatory oversight in this country in India for the release of genetically modified crops – it has gone through that. [Sanjeev: This is even more conclusive today]

Vandana: We have a Supreme Court case because .. the rules under the EPA were violated for the trials. And now the present clearance is given in the year 2000 is for seed bulking. Under a trial you can’t have seed bulking under the trials. You’re supposed to be testing out the seed

Prakash: Sure, we have been growing these crops for past four years in the United States. 25,000 field trials have happened and thousands of xxx. I can give you 50 publications from independent agencies, peer review publications talking about safety of this. And again you should remember the science and the expert judgement behind it – What can go wrong when one gene from a soyabean is taken and turned around and put back.

Interviewer: Can you give an example of where this has gone wrong?

Vandana: Well, yes, two years ago the Roundup reistant cotton, the ball started to fall off.

Prakash: That because of the excess heat in Texas. That would have happened in any case. These are real world situations. In one per cent of the crop. Don’t crops fail here (in India)? [Sanjeev: Vandana’s point is BOGUS]

Vandana: We have the data on Bt toxin impacting non-target species. That data exists in peer-reviewed journal Nature and Science

Prakash: Yes, those the monarch butterfly with a little laboratory study, where they force-fed these butterflies. In the actual fact, in three years butterfly numbers have increased. What about micro-toxin? What about the 30 fold reduction in the cancer -causing toxin that is 30 times less in the Bt corn. Why don’t you talk about it? Look you can keep harping on the little nitty gritty things but when you take the overall that there is a …  [Sanjeev: This bad study has been blasted out of the water by Prakash]

Vandana: If there was no concern the nations of the world wouldn’t have negotiated for ten years on the issue of biosafety.

Prakash: But nations of the world are also using this as an instrument for trade protection.

Vandana: What trade protection in the Third World which is not producing any of these seeds at this moment?

Prakash: No, this is a transatlantic war between Europe and America.

Vandana: No, Europeans and the US were not the leaders in the negotiations. It was the Third World. I was present in every Negotiation. I was there in ‘91 when we put in the clauses in the Convention on Biological Diversity. You are making the US and the Europeans the surrogate for every independent assessment and call for safety by citizens and governments of the world.

Prakash: No! We don’t have to. India has one of the strictest and the most scientific biases for GE and we are doing it. [Sanjeev: Once again, Vandana has raised a furphy. The fact is that Indian scientists are fully competent to judge, and they follow internationally agreed protocols]

Vandana: And we are upholding the rules that exists on the paper and the companies …

Prakash: And it is not just the companies, OK? And again when I am talking about biotechnology for the Third World and biotechnology for India it is not just about the companies. We have the scientific progress within the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and universities to bring out the products in the public sector.

Vandana: And it is not the public sector winding itself down?

Interviewer: We are not getting anywhere with this argument. So let me ask you a very simple question: What do you think will happen if the genetically modified crops come to India. Cannot the government protect biodiversity and all these in externalities that you’re talking about quite separately from the choice being made by the farmer?

Vandana: Iin terms of what can happen, what will happen is since biotechnology is embedded in a certain context of socio economic and political control – including when the technology is deployed via the public sector – the costs are not going to go down

Interviewer: Profitability?

Vandana: Profitability is not more, because at this point the crops are being rejected worldwide. Wherever farmers – whether it is United States or Brazil, wherever farmers have planted GE there is no market. Even in India the soya farmers came to us and said please keep India GE free. People are rejecting and if you’re looking for farmer responding to markets, the markets for GE don’t exist.

Prakash: Let the market decide. [Sanjeev: Vandana should let the market decide. Period.]

Vandana: On the second issue the protection of biodiversity is part of what you do with your farming, so it not a separate issue It’s at the heart of how you do your agriculture. And therefore it’s at the heart of how you deploy ….That’s why we are saying make your biosafety regulation stronger, start removing the ignorance you have on ecological impact because it’s tremendous and I’ll give you a very simple example. The trials in India were started with a 2 meters isolation distance so preventing impact. And this was called containment distance. In the USA when they are growing cotton, this is one mile away, in Arizona. There is difference between two metres and one mile for pollination distance. We need to get these basic facts right. Especially in today’s context where organic is the preferred alternative and certification of organic depends on absolutely committing yourself to organic. Organic farmers will lose the option.

Prakash: About profitability, like she said we don’t need Vandana Shiva telling farmers what is profitable and what is not. What is important that the farmers can decide for themselves what is profitable. And again it is not true that the market is rejecting. I believe in the power of market. When you look at the facts, in Brazil this year 1 million acres of this GM crop in soya bean was planted illegally by farmers and they’re not doing it without a reason because there is an increased element of profitability. And if it’s not profitable they are not going to grow. It is as simple as that. Second, organic we can reject it outright. Organics not going to feed the world. We need about six billion cows to put out the manure for organic. There’s always going to be a limited amount of market for organic. Organic brings a higher incidence of e-coli. Outside Bangalore we are growing vegetables in human waste. So it is very easy to sit here and say that we can go organic but in reality what we need is choice for the farmer. If the farmers wants to grow organic let him do so, but it is the scientific-intensive agriculture that has helped prevent millions of acres of forestry land being brought under the plow and then by Green Revolution and by GE revolution we’re going to make sure ….

Time ran so the debate came to an end.


This is an amazing debate. Vandana repeatedly raises half-truths, in fact blatant lies. What got me thoroughly riled was her insistence that protection of organic farming has to be a consideration for banning GM crops. But GM IS ORGANIC! Brinjals produced by GM are almost pesticide-free, probably use less fertiliser and are entirely natural, made of organic chemicals. Bt proteins are organic and consumed by humans like any other protein. Does she even know what is organic? Does she know what happens during human digestion?

And if “organic” farming means growing plants purely without the support of modern technology, it will not just bankrupt farmers but will kill off one third of the humans alive today, due to the huge reduction in output. Years ago, Norman Borlaug said: “There are 6.6 billion people on the planet today. With organic farming we could only feed 4 billion of them. Which 2 billion would volunteer to die?” Is Vandana volunteering to die? Instead, she wants to kill farmers and the poor.

I went to a farmer in Eastern UP/Haryana border a few months ago and his organic sugarcane was feeble, half the size of normal sugarcane he had planted at the same time. He is not going to make the mistake of going organic (without fertilisers and pesticides) ever again. In fact farmers have a strong incentive to cheat gullible “sophisticated” consumers by using fertilisers and pesticides on the sly and selling normal food as organic. That’s happening all over the West. I don’t mind if gullible people like Vandana want to pay big money for “organic” foods. Price discrimination is good for the market – it also ensures that fools are parted from their money. Good for human evolution. The fact is, however, that organic has not the slightest health benefit over standard technology-based foods. Which university did Vandana go to?  (I just looked at her background – she has ZERO training in biology! and yet she’s allowed to debate specialists in biology!)

Anyway, I’m now coming to a much stronger view now, that the anti-GM lobby is deeply ignorant about biology and economics, both essential in order for India to succeed. I’ll start writing a further article about the harm being caused by these ignorant people for my TOI blog.

I think nearly three days have passed when I offered this opportunity to the anti-GM groups to raise their questions. They have none. And this has been witnessed by India’s top journalists first hand. They have no valid reason for their opposition! They oppose for the sake of opposition.


Please follow and like us:
Pin Share

Sanjeev Sabhlok

View more posts from this author
Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial