New Delhi-based Gene Campaign works for conservation of genetic resources of the Global South. Its founder Suman Sahay says it’s time to take the debate on genetically modified food to the people

Call it my bias or a run through reality, after snaking through an urbane farmhouse colony of the country’s First Capital — strewn with plush houses of the well-heeled and their posh cars swishing by – the last thing you expect to hear is a resident talking doggedly about farmers’ rights. Well, set aside the moneyed, who is really interested in making farmers’ condition any better? The policymakers in their air-conditioned offices? The votehungry politicos? The mall-savvy middle-class? The industry with the huge advantage of a sizeable cheap migrant labour population?

Look at the media. Isn’t it sometime now that news about farmers’ suicides slipped from newspaper page one? Such news, if at all covered on news television, is for non-peak hours certainly. Simply because there would not be enough ‘eyeballs’. So what are we talking about here!

Sainik Farms resident Suman Sahay seems resolute. Point by point, she touches the objectives of Gene Campaign, an advocacy organisation she founded 20 years ago for the conservation of genetic resources of our crops and indigenous knowledge of agriculture by keeping farmers of this country, and the Global South, at the head of the table while decision-making. An unbridled conversation with Sahay, a Padma Shri-accorded genetic scientist, leads you to a string of hard questions to dwell on and seek answers for yourself.

The conversation begins far above the ground. “You know, India is the only country in the world to have given legal rights to farmers,” she begins. Completion of 20 years in the field is naturally a time to look back and Sahay counts this legislation — the Farmers’ Rights Act — as one of Gene Campaign’s key achievements. “It was during the GATT-WTO days (early 1990s). We picked up the issue and went to the barricades. We said, if you have to have intellectual property rights, there is no way you can have patents. We organised a nation-wide campaign of farmers without any money. Thanks to alliances and partnerships we could build up at that time, the campaign could be taken to 17-18 States,” she recalls.

The term ‘patent’ was not easy to explain to a farmer in pre-globalised India. She remembers telling farmers “there will be an iron cage in your field. The key to that cage will be with someone else. Only when that someone else opens the key will you be able to sell your produce and you will never be allowed to save the seed.” Powerful farmer leaders like Mahendra Singh Tikait were also roped in hammer on the point. “It was not easy to explain to the kisan union leaders either that how through patenting the control over agriculture would be lost. So we took the metaphor of East India Company. Tikait belonged to a generation which understood what East India Company did. We reminded him, it came to trade but stayed on to rule us. If we accept all the proposals of the Dunkel draft (Arthur Dunkel as its director general drafted its proposals), then it will rule us. This caught on and Tikait till his last days referred to the metaphor to oppose patenting.” A farmers’ rally led by M.D. Nanjundaswamy of Karnataka and Tikait was organised on a March morning in 1993 at the Red Fort.

Sahay says it was during this time that her organisation “got a new track”.

“We began as an advocacy organisation for farmers’ rights. When the GATT-WTO episode was unfolding, the entire debate was focussed on the product patents in the pharmaceutical sector. But we argued that the real deadly patent demand is on seed. Till then, nobody had realised it because the country was focused on the health sector and also big players were involved in it but it touched a chord somewhere,” she feels. As a geneticist, she “could see the game plan then, the legal terms used in the proposal.” She was particularly attuned because as a lab scientist in the University of Heidelberg (She obtained her habilitation in human genetics there), she “saw the genetic material coming in all kinds of conditions.”

“We have grown up in a climate where everything is exchanged between labs for free. Then suddenly, the whole patent thing began to happen, we could see where it was going. So our first effort was to stop it.”

Soon the farmers’ rights movement got a new symbol — the seed — and was named Gene Campaign “to conserve the genetic resources of the Global South.” Sahay recalls “understanding the issues herself from people like Muchkund Dubey, B.L. Das.”

Gene Campaign organised a day-long discussion on the Dunkel draft in New Delhi then where it put forth “a list of minimum must for renegotiation.” She remembers representatives of all political parties coming to the discussion “because there was a lot of curiosity about it.” She now feels, “After that event, some amount of positioning began in the political parties.” One minimum must for renegotiation was “in exchange of giving it financial mobility, we should be given labour mobility.”

Gene Campaign shifted focus on Genetically Modified (GM) food on its 10th anniversary, debating its relevance, the safety measures required. She however, underlines, “We are opposed to it but we don’t belong to the vitriolic anti-GM brigade.”

As a scientist, she knows the ill effects of GM food, the dangers of not having genetic diversity. “Only last year, the United States lost its entire corn crop because of genetic uniformity. The Irish Potato Famine is your biggest example. In the time of climate change, the countries that have genetic diversity will have the answers, not those who have put their entire agricultural economy on say, five varieties,” she is categorical here. India’s large variety of crops, particularly rice, is its biggest wealth, based on which “it can be a food exporter one day.”

Food is not a mere necessity, she reminds you. “It is also a symbol of one’s sovereignty, a weapon.” Resorting to technology without gauging the need for it just doesn’t serve the purpose. “It is insane to have GM food when there is no need, when the safety measures are not followed. We have been arguing with the Government to send our people for bio safety testing to those countries who have been doing a good job of it but in vain.”

While there is a serious concern that the Government would let open its gene bank to private players and ICRISAT is already doing it, Gene Campaign through its gene and seed banks in States like UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarkhand — where it does field activities — has already collected 3000 accessions of traditional rice. “One of our biggest joys is that farmers come to us for traditional seeds. It is their property, we are only keeping it safe for them,” she says.

The need of the hour, insists the IARI alumna, is not to give in to the waves of urbanity but to resist it. “I am tired of hearing economists saying we need competitive advantage. My answer to them is, make farming more glamorous, make farmers entrepreneurs. It will dent the huge amount of disenchantment the rural population has with farming now, particularly among the youth.” Also a reason why she is opposed to this version of the Food Security Bill. “Because it delinks the producer from his produce.” She asks, “Where do you see the farmer in the Act? He is mentioned nowhere even though he is the one who will produce the food.”

“With so many people put on dole for votes”, she wonders, “Who will do farming?” A reason why she has an issue with MGNREGA too. “MGNREGA has no vision, just a populist scheme. It will have a huge effect on agricultural labour in some years. One is already sensing it.” Sahay notes here, “You know, I am downbeat about the Government’s attitude but upbeat about the possibilities.”

The activist rues that “the real tragedy in India is that there has been no good farmers’ movement, only episodes of it.” Gene Campaign, in coming times, is thinking of something on these lines. “May be, it is time to take the issue of GM food, the need to safeguard the seed, to the people yet again,” she says.

Losing genetic diversity

Suman Sahay warns that India is already losing a lot of genetic diversity not just in plants but in animals too. “We are a home for buffaloes. There is a kind of buffalo called Bhadavari. Its fat content is as high as 12 per cent, much coveted for it. But today, I think we don’t have its purest form,” says the scientist.

India is also the birthplace of rice, particularly eastern India. “In States like Odisha, Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand, you will find non-sticky rice. When you move upwards to the North East, you will get both sticky rice and the non-sticky varieties. But when you move further to China, you will find only sticky rice. Rice probably followed a path that way,” she states. Unfortunately, many traditional rice varieties are either lost or in the process of extinction. “For instance, the red rice is nowhere to be found in Himachal Pradesh.”

A policy against bio terrorism

One of the recommendations that Gene Campaign put together at its 20th anniversary function in New Delhi was to have a policy on bio terrorism. The deliberate release of viruses, bacteria, toxins or other harmful agents to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants in a country. Sahay explains, “The safety measures are prime when you are resorting to GM food because if something goes wrong, you will have no control. As a scientist, we know it can create new organisms, so it needs constant surveillance. But today, 30 to 40 per cent of our agriculture is based on BT technology and it is not need-based.”

There is also a lot of secrecy, she feels. “The intentions at times are not honourable.”

“Long before BT brinjal became widely used, I filed an RTI with the Department of Biotechnology seeking information on the tests it had conducted and their results. The Department wrote to me saying it was confidential. So I went to the Supreme Court which said it should be in public domain.”