Gene Campaign, a non-profit mission to improve the lot of the Indian farmers in the country’s hinterland, is connecting to the youth of urban India— the country’s biggest food consumer segment — to open a dialogue and discussion about the ways to encourage farmers to nurture better yields, preserve traditional agricultural knowledge systems and become sustainable to meet the global standards of food so that India can become food sufficient.
The chairperson of the organization, Suman Sahai, who was conferred one of the highest civilian awards in India Padma Shri in 2011 for her contribution to agricultural research and advocacy, says she is trying to steer the movement to a new target audience by involving the youth to raise awareness about the country’s farms, agriculture and quality of food grown by preserving the traditional agricultural wealth, gene banks and helping the poor farmers overcome the constraints posed by resources.
The campaign is extremely relevant among the youth today, says Sahai since “it deals with issues of food, nutrition and livelihoods, it works to get farmers a better deal than they have today so that India can be a food secure country, its people having access to adequate and nutritious food,".Sahai says.
The relevance is in the backdrop of the fact that India is home to the largest number of hungry people in the world and its malnutrition statistics are worse than the poorest of African states. The young people must engage with these issues since they must determine the country they want to inherit and lead. As tomorrow’s leaders, they must want a country that is food secure, proud and self reliant. They should remember that a country that is not food secure, is not secure in any way. It cannot
be secured by guns,” Sahai says.
The movement that began in 1993 as an awareness campaign against the “negative” import of the Dunkel Draft for India after the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiation on the protection of plant varieties and patenting. The Gene Campaign sent out cards and letters to likeminded “food and farm campaigners” to move the government against patenting. Genetic resources belong to humanity and “their rights could not be transferred to individuals”.
The inspiration for the movement was Jayaprakash Narayan’s student agitation that begun in Bihar (that eventually overthrew the government at the Centre). Many of the initial contacts of the historic students’ movements with a socialist tilt became the core support group of Gene Campaign. Preserving the country’s agro-diversity and traditional knowledge systems are the focus of the campaign. It collects seeds from farmers in the hinterland and stores them in special gene banks across the country, Sahai says.
The campaign has been largely responsible for raising a national debate about the dangers of seed patents and its threat to food security. Its sustained struggle for farmers’ rights culminated into a legislation, “Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights” that granted legal rights to farmers. The campaign has been fighting the patent against basmati rice.
“We advocate proper regulation for stringent bio-diversity testing for GM Products. A writ petition filed in 2004 in the Supreme Court appealed for a national bio-technology policy and a change in the regulatory structure for GM crops to make it more technologically competent,” Sahai says.
The campaign requested a moratorium on GM crops till the regulatory structures were improved. “GM technology in the country is being implemented in a careless and biased manner… It is dangerous,” Sahai says. It is dedicated to preserving the rights of farmers, traditional agriculture practices, knowledge and indigenous seed pools.
The agricultural sector in India for the past 10 years has been in a throes of a complex crisis — brought about by disparate forces. While the government has increased subsidies on farms to protect the country’s economic lifeline, it has failed to streamline the distribution of largesse to beneficiaries at the grassroots, leaving millions of marginal farmers in the heartland states (like UP, Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh) out of the purview of the benefits. This has created an imbalance in the agricultural sector with the emergence of two distinct groups — one who have access to better farming methods and sops and one that is still languishing on the sidelines with small acreage and poor yields.
Coupled with this is a sustained attempt by large -multinational corporations to push genetically modified gene banks (engineered seeds and saplings) for enhanced output and better nutrition value — a claim that has rung hollow in quality checks worldwide.
Scientists say while genetically modified seeds increases yield, it runs the risk of serious health hazards. Moreover, an inflationary market with spiraling price indices across sectors have pushed the poor Indian farmer — especially in the hinterland where the sizes of holdings are small and resources scarce — to the brink in regions and states like Vidarbha (Maharashtra), Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and rural West Bengal.
In the last two decades, the cotton growers of Vidarbha have been plagued by “debt and drought-related distress deaths” while thousands of farmers elsewhere have switched to alternative livelihoods. The quality of produce has taken a drubbing in the process together with the loss of traditional farming practices, seed varieties, ancient living cultures and cuisines. Chemicals fertilizers and pesticides have replaced organic manure and traditional detoxification methods on the farms — taking the soil’s output capacity far below the optimal. The situation has been compounded by a changing climate, global warming, erratic rain cycles and socio-political uncertainties in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh where Maoist insurgency has destroyed farmlands and agriculture.
The market networks have collapsed and a vicious exploitation and debt nexus perpetuated by middlemen has deprived farmers of fair prices for their produce in the markets for decades. As a result, the food on our platter has failed to live up to international standards .
The National Food Security Bill 2013 (Right to Food Bill) signed September 12, 2013 that aims to provide subsidized food to two-third of India’s 1.2 billion people do not factor in the plight of the small and marginal farmers. It neither comes clear on “deserving” remuneration to farmers. The status of genetically-modified food remains ambiguous — without any specific curbs on its introduction and proliferation.
Interventions must come from within in crises-riven societies, development economists contend. In a country where nearly 40 per cent of the 1.2 billion people is below the age of 35, the youth has to be the mobilising force to spread the word about the “deplorable condition” of Indian farmers, farming and the “alarm bells” ringing in the food sector.
If the rising prices of onions are a yardstick, the crisis only sets to deepen instead of mitigating unless a proactive citizenry deliberates on the nation’s farm anatomy. The urban youth can engage and offer effective solutions to bring the issues to the centre-stage — acting as intervention and advocacy tools to create new linkages between the urban consumers and the farmers in the villages.
“The Gene Campaign is of the view that the new food law is not going to bring food security. The new law
is just a rehashed version of the public distribution system and the old ration shop system with all their shortcomings and corruption. Instead of fostering self reliance, the food law tries to make beggars ofalmost 70 percent Indians by giving them highly subsidized food., No food security program can succeed if farmers are not strengthened and enabled to produce food. There is no mention of farmers in the new Food Security Act,” Sahai says.
Sahai puts the onus of the advocacy to bring about a tangible change in the agricultural sector on consumers in the city who form the largest consumers’ base. “Consumers in city should keep five simple points in mind about Indian agriculture and its significance,” Sahai says.
Farmers grow the food we eat. If they did not produce food we would have nothing to eat. Farmers are among the poorest and hungriest people in our country,” the food campaigner points out. That is perverse and unjust that those who feed us are themselves hungry.
“If young people would make visits to farmers fields, they would understand the enormous mental and physical work that goes into growing our food. Agriculture is a science and farmers are scientists.
There are no rice and wheat plants found in the forest. These are not gifts of nature but the gifts that farmers have given us. They selected wild plants and developed thousands of food crops from them…rice, wheat, maize, beans, vegetables Shepherd women mastered the art of milking cattle. They found ways to convert milk into curd,
paneed and ghee…in a way, shepherd women started the dairy industry”, Sahai says.
Some Gene Campaign advocacies
Rice of India: Agro-biodiveristy has been Gene Campaign’s main focus area. The decade-long work by the campaign to collect, characterize and conserve the agro-biodiversity of rice, Sahai claims to have a collection of more 2,300 varieties of indigenous rice gene displays in her collection. The campaign has been honoured with the Genome Saviour Award in 2009 for the agro-biodiversity project.
Zero Energy Gene Seed Bank: Conserving traditional varieties of seeds for future use became necessary with climate change disrupting patterns of agriculture. Gene Campaign established a network of zero energy gene seed banks that run without electronic energy. The banks are simple well-aired rooms that are moisture and light proof. Extensive manual labour keeps these rooms in storage conditions all round the year. The seeds of traditional varieties of rice and other crops like legumes, oilseeds and vegetables are collected from the farmers in remote villages and conversed in the zero energy banks for future use. The information about the seeds and the characteristics of the genetic crop varieties are documented for resource guidance. The farmers access the seeds three times a year.
Genetically Modified Crops: The Gene Campaign Advocates proper regulation and stringent bio-safety testing for GM products. A writ petition filed in 2004 in the Supreme Court appealed for a national bio-technology policy and to change the regulatory structure for GM crops to make it more technologically competent. At the same time, it requested for a moratorium on GM crops till the regulatory structures were improved. The campaign holds that the GM technology in the country is being implemented careless and biased manner. It is dangerous.
Indigenous knowledge: In the last two decades, Gene Campaign has tapped into the knowledge pools guarded by the Indian farming communities about their seeds, crops, methods of farming and useful qualities of the crops they grow. The campaign has since been working for the recognition of indigenous knowledge as an important technology and its potential for increasing incomes for rural and Adivasi community. The campaign has successfully lobbied to keep medicines and products derived indigenous knowledge out of the purview of patents so that they can be exempted from patent law. The work is with the Indian government as classified material.
Household Nutrition: Gene Campaign has helped farmers set up homestead gardens with green vegetables and fruit bearing trees to provide supplementary food to the families all the year round. The campaign runs a programme to revive the use of underutilized and valid foods such as locally found tubers and leafy greens for diet diversity