It’s around 50 years since the seeds of the Green Revolution began to grow in India. Mass starvation threatened the country and the Cold War meant that the West was fighting communism — or rather vying with the Soviet Union for global influence and access to resources — through largely non-military means. One such method of promoting Western hegemony was the United States bringing industrial agriculture to the developing world. By introducing monocrop farming, industrial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to what was then known as the “Third World”, the US hoped to win the Cold War through stimulating economic growth in non-industrialized economies. Revolutionizing agriculture was the way to do it.
In India, rice and wheat production skyrocketed and prices fell. Along with a significant growth in food production came a growth in population. Whether this was more a case preventing famine or causing overpopulation is a cause for some debate. It is of course not so simple a question. For example, the US government in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan was more about fighting family planning (an issue that can never be ignored when discussing overpopulation) than ensuring food security in the Third World.
The other side of the coin was that cash crops like wheat and rice replaced the varied and biologically diverse subsistence crops that many farmers had relied on for generations. A monoculture replaced a polyculture and with it has come increased soil degradation, biodiversity loss and pollution.
This growing practice, largely controlled by multinational corporations worth billions, has both supporters and detractors. Proponents say GMO crops are the best way to feed a growing population. They claim GMOs improve crop yield and enhance the nutritional value of said crops.
In recent years, genetically modified crops (GMOs) have been making their way onto the Indian subcontinent. Yet there has also been strong opposition to GMOs in South Asia. Pakistan recently suspended the issue of new licenses for GM crops until they have established a proper legal body and scientific testing procedures. But this comes after a large penetration of Monsanto GM cotton in the country. Once a GM crop has entered the environment it can germinate and spread, legal or not.
Neighbouring India saw the illegal sale of GM cotton seeds preceding official approval for commercial cultivation. In 2009, India imposed a moratorium on growing GM brinjal, or eggplant, but in October 2013 Bangladesh became the first South Asian country to approve commercial cultivation of a GM version of the vegetable. GM food crops such as maize, rice and vegetables are now poised to enter the South Asian market on a large scale, either through the efforts of foreign companies or of domestic agricultural research institutes, but regulation remains a thorny issue.
Again, like with the first Green Revolution, it is small farmers who are left scratching their heads. Poor farmers may not be able to buy patented seeds each year from some multinational corporation (as is required). What’s more, these GM seeds may need more water, herbicides and fertilizer than what the farmers are used to. Suddenly the poor are saddled with learning technologically based agricultural methods that differ from the ones they’ve always used. It is simply not always possible to apply these new methods successfully and so they lose out.
While the advantages of a pest-resistant cotton, corn or eggplant crop are easy to see, the disadvantages of GMOs should not be ignored or unexplored. But it seems like many of the mistakes of the first Green Revolution are doomed to be repeated.
Read about Bangladesh’s GMO debate in the Guardian.