Last week the Indian government secured Cabinet approval for a new agreement which aims at promoting greater privatisation of agricultural services and increased collaboration between American agribusiness and the Indian farm sector.
The agreement comes as one of a package of six pacts signed between the two countries as part of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). Most publicised for its focus on counter-terrorism, the MoU also covers issues as diverse as education, health, green development and in this instance, agriculture. Viewed as representative of stronger links between the two nations, Obama has described their growing relationship as, “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.” Indeed P.M. Manmohan Singh’s reception in Washington as the first foreign leader hosted as the State Guest by the 10 month old administration acknowledged his country’s heightened significance.
The proposed Indo-U.S. pact on agriculture is intended to widen the opportunities for private investment in the farm-sector and reciprocal trade. The agreement includes a bilateral policy dialogue and agribusiness-to-business collaboration between the two countries. Practically, this will involve assistance in weather forecasting in order to improve crop management and marketing, and food security co-operation. This latter focus will be increasing the quality and quantity of “diversified and fortified foods”. Greater co-operation in technological and expertise exchange through private enterprise and international agribusiness partnerships should allow for modernisation and efficiency benefits in the farm sector. The nature of this technological exchange will be in the form of the commercialised extension of genetically modified foodstuffs.
There have already been those who have raised their concern at these developments. Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign has argued that although farmers would benefit from enhanced weather prediction models, the MoU will also give the U.S. access to the great genetic diversity ofcrop plants for commercialization in their interests. “The opening of food security policy dialogue is also a matter of concern as it will impose on India the U.S. model of agribusinesses and vertical integration of food chain, impacting diversity and consolidating monopolies,”
These fears appear to be borne out by the one-sided appearance of the agreement. The various arrangements on the subject of agriculture appear to almost exclusively benefit India. The receipt on the part of the farm sector of greater technology, expertise and developmental intelligence is unlikely to come without significant reciprocal exchange. It would be naïve to assume that the donation of such assistance would not be part of a program of investment intended to deliver returns.
The investment by U.S. firms in the Indian farm sector has been growing since the turn of the 21st Century. Monsanto first released its pest-resistant BTCotton in 2002 and both Monsanto and Cargill have been on the board of the U.S.-India Agricultural Knowledge Initiative (AKI) since 2008. The firms have played a strong role in the collection of data on crop performance and the publication of reports on the benefits of GM seeds through the channels of the AKI and state departments.
Despite the distinguished reports coming from official levels, the development of BTCotton in particular appears to have somewhat less success on the ground. Commercial cultivation throughout the six states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu revealed low levels of performance when compared against non-GM strains. The average yield of Bt cotton was found to be lower in all categories of land holdings, whether they were irrigated, good quality soils or poor quality red soils in the rain fed areas. In fact, 60 % of the farmers cultivating Bt cotton were not even able to recover their investment and incurred losses averaging Rs. 80 per acre. Added to this have been reports that prescriptions requiring barriers of non-GM crops surrounding BTCotton fields have been ignored. This may result in insects developing resistance to the anti-pest gene, and hence becoming a greater threat to farmers.
Monsanto has become a name associated in both North America and Europe with the powerful marketing of inefficient and sometimes dangerous crops, and vigorous law-suits against farmers who breach their patents. Their poor performance history in the Indian market to date will be little to belay fears of a continuation of their domestic commercial practices.