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Green, Gene and Evergreen Revolutions: Interesting wordplay

By Suman Sahai

By successfully morphing the popular Green Revolution with the Gene Revolution, proponents of agricultural biotechnology appear to indicate that the latter will bring in all the benefits of the former, and in perpetuity. But there are glaring differences between the two so-called 'revolutions'

Agbiotechnology is presented in many forms, the most common being that it will solve world hunger. To reinforce this claim there is interesting wordplay at work. Agbiotechnology is referred to as the 'Evergreen Revolution' or the 'Gene Revolution'; both terms are an attempt to link agbiotech with the Green Revolution.

In the view of most political leaders, policymakers, farmers and citizens, the Green Revolution was a positive event that brought benefits. It did, in fact, increase food production, principally cereal production. It made India independent of food imports and firmed up its political spine. It ensured surplus grain that could be stored as buffer stocks to be rushed wherever and whenever the need arose. And it tried to ensure that famines were not a feature of the Indian reality.

These gains were so visible that the downside, the unequal distribution of benefits, of land and water degradation, the accompanying loss of genetic diversity, and persisting endemic hunger and poverty, could not take the shine off the Green Revolution.

Because of this positive image, promoters of agbiotech draw semantic parallels, invoking the earlier agricultural revolution. The subliminal message is: if the Green Revolution brought so many benefits, the Evergreen Revolution would bring all those benefits in perpetuity.

This play of words and imagery has actually been quite successful. Political leaders and policymakers carry over the positive association with the Green Revolution to the Evergreen one. If the earlier version brought such benefits, the newer one (more precise, with greater possibilities, as the industry says) would surely bring even greater benefits to farmers and the poor. Conveniently left out of the picture are the essential and crucial differences between the two 'revolutions'.

The Green Revolution (GR) was a publicly-owned technology belonging to the people. The research was conducted with public money to fulfil a public need -- inadequate food production -- and it created public goods to which everyone had access. There were no Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), no patents vested with multinational companies, no proprietary technologies or products. If there was ownership of the GR, it was with the farmer. Once the seed reached the farmer, it was his; he moved it where he wanted. Therefore, despite its drawbacks, the Green Revolution addressed farmers' needs and India's food production showed an upward curve.

The Evergreen Revolution (ER) is almost the exact opposite. It is a privately-owned technology. Six corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Dow, and BASF Plant Science) control practically all research and output in the field of transgenic plants. Processes and products, including research methodologies, are shackled in patents and the farmer has no say, let alone any control. The technology creates only private goods that may be accessed only at significant cost (a bag of Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt cotton seed in India costs Rs 1,600, as compared to between Rs 300 and Rs 400 for superior varieties produced locally).

The seed belongs to the company, which strictly controls its movement. With the development of the popularly termed 'terminator' or sterile seed technology, the farmer is reduced to a helpless consumer, not a partner as in the case of the GR. The Evergreen Revolution has in its 20 years not yet produced a crop variety that has any direct connection to hunger and nutritional needs. The most prevalent crops remain corn, soya, cotton and canola, and the dominant traits are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Despite its other faults, the Green Revolution was able to put out a number of crop varieties in a short span of time that enabled direct yield increases, which brought immediate benefits to farmers. That, in short, is the contrast between the two revolutions, so assiduously camouflaged by the agbiotech spinmeisters.

India participated enthusiastically in the Green Revolution and is on its way to equally enthusiastically embrace the Gene Revolution or agbiotechnology. Yet there is little debate in the country on whether any lessons have been learnt from the Green Revolution. There is even less discussion by policymakers and other stakeholders about the path that agbiotechnology should take in India. There is no consultation with the public, as in many other countries (for example, in Europe), or any sharing of information as is done in almost all countries that are implementing GM technology.

The department of biotechnology has promoted research projects randomly in universities and research institutions, without any assessment of farmers' needs and the best way to fulfil them; civil society has been uneasy about the lack of transparency and lack of competence in regulatory bodies; the media is largely uninformed; and political leaders remain unaware of the direction this new and controversial technology is taking in India and have no say in determining what it should or should not do.

It is time that the country came up with a well-thought-out national policy on agricultural biotechnology. The policy should be framed after widespread consultations with all the stakeholders. The process of consultations should be inclusive and transparent, allowing a range of expertise and insight to be brought into the decision-making process. The greater the ownership of the outcome of the consultative process, the better will be the acceptance of the policy that is framed.

(Suman Sahai has a PhD in genetics. She is the Director of Gene Campaign, a leading research and advocacy organisation working on farmer and community rights, bio-resources, IPR, indigenous knowledge and GE food and crops)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2007