Indian farmers give wary nod to GM trials

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The Independent Online

In the first attempt to give a hearing to the farmers of the developing world who are claimed to be the ultimate beneficiaries of GM technology, a "citizens' jury" of Indian farmers, including a man with 60 acres and a landless and illiterate peasant woman, decided on Friday by a majority of nine to four that it would "consider" the option of planting GM crops. But they demanded first that GM producers ensure that the products do no damage to any aspect of their environment. Some of the farmers said they had "no use" for GM technology, as "it is inherently eco-unfriendly and would destroy biodiversity".

In the first attempt to give a hearing to the farmers of the developing world who are claimed to be the ultimate beneficiaries of GM technology, a "citizens' jury" of Indian farmers, including a man with 60 acres and a landless and illiterate peasant woman, decided on Friday by a majority of nine to four that it would "consider" the option of planting GM crops. But they demanded first that GM producers ensure that the products do no damage to any aspect of their environment. Some of the farmers said they had "no use" for GM technology, as "it is inherently eco-unfriendly and would destroy biodiversity".

Tony Blair last month claimed in the Independent on Sunday that the West had a "moral obligation" to develop and test GM crops in order to enable the developing world to feed itself. Thanks to this experiment, conducted by the British charity Action Aid, a representative sample of farmers in the southern Indian state of Karnataka have given their side of the story. Sitting under a large tamarind tree on an organic farm near the ruined city of Vijayanagar, for three days they heard experts debate the pros and cons of GM crops.

In Friday's "verdict" nine of the 14 said "Yes" (by a show of hands) to the question "Would you consider the option of growing GM crops?" and four said "No". But in a second, secret ballot on the question "Would you sow new commercial seeds proposed by the [Indian government's] Department of Biotechnology and Monsanto immediately on your field?" nine said "No" and four "Yes".

The farmers wrote a series of caveats on which they unanimously agreed to insist before they would accept GM crops. These included stipulations that GM crops should not cause damage to any microbes, insect or animal populations, or to other environmental elements; that they should be lawfully released only after five or 10 years of field trials; and that they should do no damage to adjoining or subsequent crops. The jury also said that it was "very concerned" that multinational companies could ultimately gain control over seed and thus over the sovereignty of Indian farmers. A "proportion" - it was not disclosed how many - said there was "no use" for GM technology "as it is inherently eco-unfriendly and would destroy biodiversity."

The verdict of the citizens' jury is unlikely to bring much cheer to Monsanto. India's population remains about 70 per cent rural and offers a potentially vast market for GM products. The Indian government is disposed to look more favourably than in the past on overtures by multinationals.

But many Indian farmers have almost no capital and are vulnerable to fluctuations of market price and the depredations of money lenders. Thousands have committed suicide because they were unable to repay debts incurred buying herbicide, pesticide, seed and other "Green Revolution" necessaries. Some jurors said they would grow GM crops if the manufacturers gave a certificate guaranteeing compensation if the crop failed.

Tom Wakeford, a biologist at the University of East London and visiting lecturer at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, was involved in putting together the jury and ensuring that a broad spectrum of Indian farming was represented on it. He said: "It worked well, because in India people have a strong sense of their democratic rights. They were very involved." There was a strong feeling among them that India's "Green Revolution", credited in the West with banishing famine, had brought very variable results. It had brought benefits to rich farmers, but trouble and expense to poor ones: "They are not rigidly against innovation, but they are very sceptical and want reassuring."

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