Association of financial or professional conflict of interest to research outcomes on health risks or nutritional assessment studies of genetically modified products

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Research published in a leading scientific journal concludes that commercial interests interfere with peer reviewed articles on health risks of genetically modified plants.

The study shows that studies funded by industry or involving scientists employed by industry are almost certain to produce conclusions in favor of product commercialization, as opposed to studies not dependent on such conditioning.

The study also shows that more than half (52%) of the 94 analyzed articles did not declare funding source. However, in those articles specifically, the existence of at least one author affiliated to industry was prevalent (73%). In 83% of the cases where funding was actually declared, none of the authors was directly affiliated with industry. Not surprisingly, proportionally more articles with undeclared funding ended up with conclusions favorable to industry.

Association of financial or professional conflict of interest to research outcomes on health risks or nutritional assessment studies of genetically modified products.
Diels, J., M. Cunha, et al. (2011).  Food Policy 36: 197–203.

Since the first commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops in 1994, the rapidly expanding market of genetically modified seeds has given rise to a multibillion dollar industry. This fast growth, fueled by high expectations towards this new commercial technology and shareholder trust in the involved industry, has provided strong incentives for further research and development of new genetically modified plant varieties. Considering, however, the high financial stakes involved, concerns are raised over the influence that conflicts of interest may place upon articles published in peer-reviewed journals that report on health risks or nutritional value of genetically modified food products. In a study involving 94 articles selected through objective criteria, it was found that the existence of either financial or professional conflict of interest was associated to study outcomes that cast genetically modified products in a favorable light (p = 0.005). While financial con
flict of
interest alone did not correlate with research results (p = 0.631), a strong association was found between author affiliation to industry (professional conflict of interest) and study outcome (p < 0.001). We discuss these results by comparing them to similar studies on conflicts of interest in other areas, such as biomedical sciences, and hypothesize on dynamics that may help explain such connections.

The presence of COI in scientific research does not imply actual behavior of study authors. But it does present a risk that the study outcome may be improperly influenced. This study has focused on how commercial interests may interfere with outcomes of risk and nutrition analysis studies of products derived from GM plants. This is a choice justified by the high financial stakes involved in the development of such products and the increasing weight of private funding in research in recent years.

Through statistical analysis of a selected population of studies in the described area, it could be shown that a combined analysis of COIs through professional affiliations or direct research funding are likely to influence the final outcome of such studies in the commercial interest of the involved industry. Our results partially confirm those observed in biomedical sciences, tobacco, alcohol and nutrition research.

Various hypothesis could be identified that may explain the observed association between study outcome and presence of financial COI: publication restrictions imposed by industry funders; contractual agreements of authors with industry; industry bias favoring friendly research; and researchers that are sensitive to the financial interests of their industrial sponsors or employers.

Apart from the observed relations, it was considered that types of funding other than industry, such as governments and NGOs may also condition investigation. Additionally, values held by scientists may influence research outcomes as well.

Our data reinforce the need to that all affiliations whether financial or professional should be openly declared in scientific publications. In situations where health risk assessments or nutritional evaluation studies of GM products serve to inform decisionmakers, procedures could be developed to minimize the risk of decisions being taken based on study outcomes that have been influenced by conflicts of interest. This may best be achieved by giving preference towards peer-reviewed studies where no COI can be observed.

Why dream borrowed dreams?

Shiv Viswanathan

One of the most seductive myths that the Indian middle class and its elite believes in is that the 21st century is the Indian Century. Generously the myth adds that we shall share honours with China. Wishfully it contends that we will have a seat in the United Nations Security Council. Our diaspora certifies this myth because it adds to its brittle dignity in the countries it lives in. Between IT, our youthful population, our comparative advantage in knowledge, we seem set to win the gold medals of globalisation. A panopoly of exemplars from Sam Pitroda to Nandan Nilekani is paraded as testimony to this myth of Indian progress. I want to play spoil sport to this thesis, not because India is going nowhere but because this is not the place to go or the way to do it. My arguments are as follows.

India is a pluralistic assemblage of civilisations and communities. When the West followed the myth of progress, it read the relation between tribe, peasant, industry as a sequence where the tribe evolved into industrialism. This created a legitimation for decimation of what was dubbed the primitive and the tribal. In India, the tribal is not our ancestor but our contemporary. We do not confine him to the museum or the reservation and we should not seek to deculture him. Ours has to be a multiple world with plural futures. To homogenise it is to accept the fact of genocide.

In a civilisation sense India has been a sustainable society. There is, however, one danger. If most of India were to turn middle class with equivalent standards of consumption, we would cannibalise the world and its resources. India as a whole cannot live at the calorific level of the American middle class. That would be the programme of unsustainable society and a short-run view of global responsibility.

India has to construct itself differently, inventing not just a new notion of ecological economies but a new imagination for democracy. The old model of a democracy as a pastiche of rights, electoralism and the vision of a nation state is old hat. Without a sustainable ecology, we cannot be a sustainable democracy. The test of sustainability is not just the survival of the forest, it is the well-being and liveability of our cities. We have to reconstruct the sustainable city as an imagination, think of new theories of space, creative ways of managing waste and rework the nation state which is currently a form of conspicuous consumption. Instead of fighting over carbon credits, let us take the battle the other way and invent new ecological possibilities. The idea of living on less need not be a Protestant theology or a repressive ideology. It can be a celebration of life, a civilisation’s way of reducing violence. It does not require a return to primitivism but a creativity that looks at the complexity of the world and creates a playful scenario of responsibility. We grow more, but not as an economy but as an ecology. We intensify diversity not just of nature but of the varieties of culture, where each culture is an exemplar of problem solving. We sustain ecologies and languages and become a high information society by ways of life, the livelihoods, the forms of knowledge we sustain. Around knowledge, we create an ethics of memory where different theories, memories can talk to each other. We need to remember that the other word for progress is obsolescence, the systematic eradication of our societies. We have to decentralise the “Indian Imagination” and stop seeing differences as pathological. I think it is time we drop the standardised prose of globalisation and tell the world that we are different and that our future is different.

We do not need to be envious of China and its bully boy militarism. The economics of force and the herd is not what we seek. The Chinese cost benefit on violence, uniformity, speed is not what we seek or what we are afraid of. We don’t seek to race or be part of the “B teams” of globalisation. If we are a civilisation, let us think like a civilisation. We have behaved like a second-hand society content to be Charles Lamb of the genius of other cultures. Let us understand the genius of other cultures by living out our dialects, our dreams, our forms of religion, our ideas of myth, ethics, our sense of values worked out as craft, colour or cooking. Why race when we can dance, why talk of the illiteracy of the globe when we have a sense of the cosmos? I want to argue that this is not a retreat from the world, but a return to our own genius. I cannot understand an India which is indifferent to its 50,000 varieties of rice but celebrates some child winning the Spelling Bee in the US.

A globalised India which sees itself as a second US is a secondhand, second-rate society. We become mimic men not of the old colonialism but of new imperialism which demands that we internalise the American way of life. It is time we move playfully away and discard the fetish for development, or the dreariness of millennial goals which has no sense of justice or poetry.

If India secedes from the global standard, I am sure other countries will follow. We dream differently and we do not need the current nightmare of IPRs (intellectual property rights). We do not need to subscribe to the battle of civilisations when any child can show that Huntington is an illiterate and that India is a great Islamic society. We do not have to close ourselves to do it but challenge the world to a debate. We need a wild ethics to challenge the dullness of the global dream. Let China westernise. I think we have the confidence to go our own way, offering hospitality to more sustainable and democratic dreams. China envy like America envy is a futile disease and like most Indian pathologies — self-inflicted. Our democracy is too precious. Our civilisation is much more interesting than the current visions of our time. The present is ethically unsustainable. It is this that we have to confront.

* Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist

India up for sale to MNCs

Pushpa M Bhargava

First Published : 15 Mar 2010 12:14:00 AM IST

The recent historic moratorium on Bt brinjal by Jairam Ramesh, minister of environment and forests, has created a network of citizens’ organisations around the country that have risen spontaneously from the ground, and have prevented the country’s agriculture becoming devoid of its diversity and moving in the direction of control by multinational corporations (MNCs). These corporations have strong links with the government of the United States of America US, and their sole objectives are (a) to make as much money as possible by any means, and (b) to eventually have total control over Indian agriculture, using every ruse known to the world of conmen. Unlike the government of India, they are fully aware that whosoever controls seed and agrochemical business in India, controls its agriculture. And whosoever controls our agriculture, controls India and its food security, for 62 per cent Indians derive their total sustenance from agriculture and, in our country, food security, food sovereignty, agriculture security, farmers security, and security of the rural sector, are synonymous and important components of national security and autonomy. If Bt brinjal had been approved, India would have, in course of time, ceased to be, de facto, an independent country and we, its citizens, would have had to start fighting the third war of independence which we would have eventually won, for truth always wins in the long run.

It is unfortunate that our government — our politicians and bureaucrats (exception granted) — and the rich and the powerful in the country, seem to be siding with the MNCs (read US), in their attempt to acquire control over our agriculture. This is reminiscent of India being ruled by the British through a class of Indians. Only the structure, colour and strategy of this class seem to have changed, while Britain has been replaced by the US plus the MNCs. Let us look at the evidence:

* We signed the India-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture during the first UPA government. Following this — and, perhaps, in preparation of this — our research and extension work in agriculture seems to have totally discounted our strengths and needs. Let me give some examples: The Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) has developed integrated pest management (IPM) and biopesticides for some 85 crops, including cotton and brinjal. Why have we not used these technologies instead of peddling Monsanto’s Bt crops?

Organic agriculture has been India’s forte. It brings better price for the produce. Andhra Pradesh already has two million acres under organic agriculture and has plans to take this area to 10 million in the next two or three years. Why are our Krishi Vigyan Kendras (I believe there is one in each district) not encouraging organic agriculture? Why does not ICAR have an institute devoted to organic agriculture?

Given today’s knowledge of molecular biology, why are our agriculture research scientists not developing varieties which would have the advantages of hybrids? The farmers can then have their own seeds and would not have to depend on seed companies. At a meeting that the director general of ICAR and I had co-chaired when I was the vice-chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, nine energy saving steps for agriculture were identified. Why have they not been taken?

The ICAR has published in several volumes, details of over 4000 traditional agriculture practices, many of which have been validated and cross-validated. We have many more documented by the National Innovation Foundation. Why are we not using the validated ones and taking steps to examine the remaining? Why are we not using our horticulture potential? For example, all the technology exists in the State Forest Research Laboratory of Arunachal Pradesh to grow over 600 orchids through tissue culture. These orchids can capture the world orchid market, replacing Thailand (for our orchids are far more beautiful and the world is tired of Thai orchids) and bring to Arunachal Pradesh a revenue of over Rs 10,000 crore a year. Why are we not pursuing the possibility?

Why is our department of agriculture not using the outstanding capabilities that our National Remote Sensing Agency has to, for example, identify diseased plants in a field so that one can prevent the spread of the disease?

* Ten of our leading CEOs signed the Indo-US CEO agreement (available on Planning Commission’s website) in which the Indian CEOs (led by Ratan Tata) agreed to put the lid on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, promised not to give any trouble to Coca Cola and Pepsi irrespective of the quality and quantity of their misdeeds, and open our retail market to the US. There is already a US demand that India cuts down its subsidies to agriculture which are a pittance in comparison to what the US provides to its agriculturists.

* We recently signed secretly, an MoU on ‘Agriculture Cooperation and Food Security’ with the US, even though all the inputs we require — scientific, technological, managerial or social — to improve our agriculture to meet national demands (present or future) are available within the country. The MoU (The Hindu, February 24, 2010), for all practical purposes, appears to have handed over our food security and sovereignty, farmers security, agriculture security and security of the rural sector comprising 70 per cent of our population, to the US.

* The government has been supporting introduction of GM food and other crops in the country, which will eventually give control of our agriculture to US-based MNCs. Jairam Ramesh, taking into account overwhelming public opinion and unbiased scientific opinion has, rightly and courageously, in a statesman-like manner, put an indefinite moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal; he has gone on record to say that he has only two supporters in the government and the ruling party: the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi.

* Our surrender to the US seems to be total. If we buy nuclear reactors from the US (which we would be obliged to buy), we will pay most of the compensation in case of a nuclear accident, not the vendor of the reactor. And on the March 6, V K Saraswat, scientific adviser to our defence minister, said that the US is still denying us technology (Deccan Chronicle, March 7, 2010).

On November 10, 1698, Charles Eyre bought three fishing villages — Sutanuti, Govindpore and Dihi-Koikata — from a Bengali landlord for Rs1,300, and laid the foundation of  today’s Kolkata. We are now trying to sell our entire country for a pittance (if for anything at all) to MNCs and the US. Those who are involved in this effort must understand that the citizens of this country are well-equipped to fight the third war of independence if that happens.

About the author:

Pushpa M Bhargava

is the former vice chairman of the National Knowledge Commission

Kisan Incorporated

August 28th, 2009

By G.V. Ramanjaneyulu & Kavitha Kuruganti

Some recent developments in India’s agri-related laws might make former finance minister P. Chidambaram’s infamous dream of seeing “only 15 per cent of Indians in villages” come true much faster than anyone thought possible. Moves are afoot to ensure large-scale displacement of farmers and agricultural workers — the most blatant move is already underway in Andhra Pradesh, under Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy. An experiment under the garb of “farmers cooperative” was approved by the state Cabinet recently, not very different from what his rival N. Chandrababu Naidu attempted some years ago. The arguments too are old: Small holdings lead to low productivity, low income, low investments and, this vicious cycle goes on.

This argument ignores the fact that more than 900 scientists from 110 countries have recently concluded an international process, called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), pointing out that small-holding ecological farming is the way forward. We are also familiar with the subsidies that prop up intensive, large-scale models of farming elsewhere, despite claims of efficiency. Numerous studies have confirmed the inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per unit.

A study from Turkey shows that farms less than a hectare are 20 times more productive than farms that are over 10 hectares! But why should anyone be looking at such data when the sizes of land holdings and their alleged low productivity is used as an excuse to grab land?

This is what the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister is proposing: Get farmers to pool their land into a cooperative/society/company. Farmers sell their land to the new entity in return for some shares, which will then take up all agricultural operations and pay dividends. Farmers can exit by selling their share to existing members and, if there are no takers, government will buy the shares at a pre-determined market price. Land cannot be obtained back. Though many questions remain unanswered — what will happen to the farmers and how will they take part in any decision-making? What will tenant farmers and agricultural workers do? Why will land not be returned to the farmers? — the state Cabinet has decided to take up a pilot project in 50 villages by investing Rs 5,000 crore and there are moves to introduce a new legislation along these lines.

To begin with, the entire reasoning that bashes small holdings is faulty. Two, an experiment taken up by Mr Naidu some years ago along these lines (“Kuppam Project”) failed in delivering the promised benefits and had environmental repercussions. Most importantly, this move will take away land permanently from farmers and is truly an exit mechanism.

Incidentally, it is in Andhra Pradesh that the world’s largest ecological farming project is unfolding, supported by the state’s rural development department, which is proving that farming can indeed be made viable through alternative technologies and people’s organisations.

This programme, yielding results on more than 20 lakh acres, all small and marginal holdings, has attracted great attention already. Is it by design that the state government chose to ignore such vastly successful models and set about “to make farming viable” through proven-to-have-failed models?

While this is happening in Andhra Pradesh, in neighbouring Tamil Nadu a bill was introduced in the Assembly and supposedly passed on a day when 30 bills were passed without much discussion. This new legislation, called Tamil Nadu State Agricultural Council Act 2009, is about setting up a council that will be empowered to inspect agricultural institutions, courses of study, examinations etcetera, all to ensure that standards are conformed to.

“At present, there is no law to provide for the regulation of agricultural practice… it’s been considered necessary to regulate agricultural practice and registration of agricultural practi-tioners…” states the object of the legislation. Sounds inane enough? However, the law says that no one can render agricultural services unless his/her name is registered in the “Tamil Nadu Agricultural Practitioners Register” with a formal agricultural qualification from Tamil Nadu (outsiders can register within 90 days of their entry!).
In a country which has always had a rich tradition of farming based on an oral and experiential knowledge and in a state where paddy productivity levels are recorded to have been up to 13 tonnes per hectare (in 1807 in Coimbatore) without qualified agriculture scientists, this move is an outright rejection of the vast untapped knowledge of our farm women and men.

Worse, in the name of regulating agricultural services, this seems to be a way of controlling the farmer-to-farmer spread of ecological farming in the state, which is led by farmers themselves, their networks and other civil society groups. Tamil Nadu is also the state where the anti-genetically modified protests against Tamil Nadu Agriculture University’s unthinking capitulation to agro-MNCs like Monsanto are running at a high-pitched level. A connection between the resistance movement and this new law cannot be ruled out.

This new regulation of “agriculture services” will effectively provide more and more markets for particular kinds of technologies at the expense of farmers, as the advisories will be driven by the mindsets that prevail in the agriculture education/ research system in the country and the commercial interests of the agri-services to be set up. This route of a “qualified” advisory system will obviously facilitate conflicting interests and help in improving exclusivity of “markets” by reducing competition, while ignoring the causes for the current agrarian crisis. While a law of this kind should regulate services provided by agricultural research and agri-business bodies to ensure accountability for their services, especially in relation to economic, environmental and social viability and sustainability of farming, it should not be used as a weapon to penalise farmers and civil society

groups which are trying to promote sustainable farming.

These two initiatives in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are not to be seen as isolated attempts to create more markets for agri-businesses, but as an orchestrated move towards an unwritten “exit policy” for farmers.

These two moves will set a bad precedent for the rest of the country.

Given that agriculture is contributing a lower and lower share in the country’s gross domestic product, its importance in the mainstream economic development model might be diminishing for many policymakers. However, this is a question of livelihood for millions of Indians — without ensuring access and control over basic productive resources and without moving towards sustainable production technologies, the current saga of agrarian distress, including suicides, will only increase.

Such legislations and programmes cannot be brought in without comprehensive debates and without the government clearly stating its vision for farming livelihoods and how they would be liable when things go wrong.

* Dr G.V. Ramanjaneyulu is the executive director of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, and Kavitha Kuruganti is a trustee of Kheti Virasat Mission, Punjab.

Seed of the crisis

Kavitha Kuruganti

Monday, July 27, 2009 20:42 IST

The US and India are back at it again. This time around, it is not the spectre of a looming famine in Bihar that is expected to kill thousands through starvation but global hunger and malnutrition, for which India and USA will collaborate to provide leadership in agriculture to raise crop yields.

Never mind that India has record buffer stocks of food grains right now and still more people sleep hungry in India than ever before and that India ranks 66th on the Global Hunger Index for 88 countries.

Never mind that intensive agriculture models led to more farmers killing themselves than the projected numbers of starvation before the Green Revolution was ushered in or that Punjab for example, the seat of the Green Revolution in India, is reeling under a severe environmental health crisis quite closely connected to agricultural technologies deployed in the name of increasing yields.

The first time around, they said that they were trying to get away from the ship to mouth existence that is being imposed by the Americans on us through PL 480 food aid programmes — and whose help did they take to get away from the American intrusions? The Americans themselves!

It is interesting to see how American leaders make it a point to include agriculture into their agenda during their India visits. George W Bush decided to stop over at the agriculture university in Hyderabad and Hillary Clinton at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa. For a country which has only 1.9 per cent of its labour force working in agriculture and a mere 0.7 per cent of total GDP contributed by agriculture (2002), why this American interest in Indian agriculture?

The answer possibly lies in potential huge markets held in the seeds and food processing sectors. In India, this market is emerging in an impressive fashion. In the global seed market estimated at $30 bn, India already has a large market worth $1 bn. The domestic seed market, especially of hybrid seeds, is expected to grow at an impressive growth rate of 13 per cent at least. In the food processing and retail sector, the Indian urban food market is expected to form a major chunk of the $50-bn-mark retail market in India in the near future.

Clinton’s speech at Pusa Institute made a clear mention of seeds and food processing as the sectors where investment will go. Interestingly, the second green revolution in this country, with the help of the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA) is supposed to be ushered in under the guidance of corporations like Monsanto and Wal-Mart which are on the KIA board. How investment on food processing would increase productivity of our food grains is an unanswered question, of course.

There is also mention of “cutting edge technologies” to raise crop yields and Clinton affirmed with authority that crop productivity was the ‘root’ of the problem of world hunger.

No mention at all of food lands going for bio-fuels, no mention about food grains being used for cattle feed and building inefficient food chains, no mention of the shocking wastage of food in the developed world not at the grain level but of processed foods, which would have already consumed much energy in their processing and packaging.

Nor any mention of overflowing granaries in India continuing to mock at the poor in the country who cannot access such food.

While Clinton is reported to have avoided the use of “GM” as the frontier tec

hnology, given the vast controversy over it, our agriculture minister was more forthright. He opined that collaboration in frontier areas like biotechnology would make a significant contribution to the world!

What our leaders don’t seem to realise is that there are vast differences not just in conditions of farming in the USA and in India but in the very philosophies and outlook towards agriculture. India for instance opposes patents on life forms in international forums while the USA and its corporations seek to patent everything that they can.

The rigid patent regimes in the USA have led to hundreds of farmers sued and/or jailed for doing something that they have done for millennia — saving their seed! Who is India listening to, on world hunger and the way out?

It would be extremely unwise for our leaders to provide ready platforms and markets for profit-hungry US corporations in the name of food crisis, world hunger, second green revolution and climate change.

If the government is keen on tackling the food crisis, it would do well to evolve a deeper understanding of both food production and access related issues, take up a comprehensive analysis of the Green Revolution and then chart out an Indian course of action. In this hundredth year of “Hind Swaraj”, our modern day leaders would do well to revisit Gandhiji’s vision.

For food security, farmer, not the scientist, should be our focus

By Bhavdeep Kang

Sops are easily handed out. Strategies for the empowerment of the small farmer are far harder to implement. Since 1967, the grey eminences who presided over the Green Revolution and its fallout— cancer epidemics, poisoned water and debt-drive suicides—have pushed agricultural policies that serve the interests of industry and hurt those of farmers.

The discussion on food productivity focuses exclusively on quantity with quality given the go-by. That sustainable agriculture produces better quality food is beyond argument. The “NPK” approach to agriculture has failed; similarly, the calorie-count approach to food does not address the issue of nutrition.

The wheel has turned full circle and we must now look to the farmer instead of the scientist for sustained food production. Technological solutions alone, divorced from social and political structures geared to universal benefit, cannot deliver the goods. Instead of seeking a surplus to feed industry, we must economically empower the widest possible cross section of farmers.

A bag of urea will last the farmer one season. Cattle will last all his life. Urea alone will not assure a good harvest but it will degrade the soil, undermine crop pest-resistance and pollute the ecosystem. Cattle alone will not assure him a good harvest either, but it will improve soil fertility and crop pest-resistance, preserve the environment and provide him with food, fuel and power.

“Annadaata”, a respectful term for the farmer, recognises him as the basis of the nation’s food security. Contemporary governments, be it the UPA or NDA, are encouraging big business to usurp that role. The farmer, representing 58 per cent of the population but only 18 per cent of the GDP, is increasingly marginalised and distressed as the economy “matures.”

Electoral math dictates that agrarian distress cannot be ignored. After four years and 40,000 suicides, the crisis is addressed through an eye-poppingly large loan waiver, instead of structural reforms aimed at assuring farm livelihoods and adequate food stocks. This faux charity charms no one. Not only does it fly in the face of good governance, but fails to assure the majority its entitlements.

Sops are easily handed out. Strategies for the empowerment of the small farmer are far harder to implement. Since 1967, the grey eminences who presided over the Green Revolution and its fallout – cancer epidemics, poisoned water and debt-drive suicides – have pushed agricultural policies that serve the interests of industry and hurt those of farmers.

The result is commonly referred to as an “agrarian crisis”. Its socio-economic dimension, manifested in farmers’ suicides, has attracted international and perhaps because of that, national attention. The second aspect, the collapse of our food security, is only now beginning to worry policy-makers as grain prices go north.

Food security depends both on adequate food production and on its appropriate distribution. We have neither. Despite the mushrooming of fast food chains and the sheer abundance of processed foods in departmental stores, the unalterable fact is that we are consuming more food than we produce. The apparent glut underlines inequities in food distribution. The super-entitled middle-class fights obesity even as the poor fight hunger. More than half our children are mal-nutritioned and the majority of women are anaemic.

The total annual requirement of grain for the Public Distribution System is 75.6 million tones. As the Department of Food & Civil Supplies observed, PDS procurement is falling and offtake (and leakages) increasing. Despite this, multi-national corporations and their front companies are permitted to stockpile Indian grain.

The projected demand for food grains in 2010 is 270 MT, against current production of 216 MT. A 25 per cent increase in productivity, at a time when per unit yield is falling, begs a miracle. Expensive food imports are a poor basis for food security. What we need is food sovereignty.

The current shortage was predictable given that the four basic determinants of food production – soil, water, seeds and farming practices – are under unprecedented stress.

Land and water: Industry, urbanisation and resource-intensive agriculture thrive at the cost of cultivable lands and groundwater resources. Climate change, fuelled by industrial agriculture, has materially affected productivity.

Seeds: Traditional open-pollinated varieties have fallen victim to government policies aggressively promoting one-time use only hybrids and genetically modified (GM) seeds, without regard to health safety or bio-diversity. Farmers, instead of saving and improving their own seeds, are dependent on seed companies.

Farming practices: Capital-intensive “industrial” farming failed to produce yields comparable to those obtaining in the early 20th century! Farming based on Indian Traditional Knowledge Systems not only produces higher yields over the long term but is more importantly, environmentally sound and therefore sustainable.

But armchair opinion-makers, lacking interaction with genuine stakeholders, prescribe quick-fix technologies. Laboratory-engendered miracle seeds to boost productivity without depleting natural resources! This is precisely how the Green Revolution was presented, as a benign, scale-neutral technology based on “miracle seeds”. It was no such thing. Common resources were plundered to profit a few and all farmers now have to pay the price.

Even if miracle seeds are developed, lengthy trials must be conducted to ensure that apparently innocent technologies do not have crippling side effects and introduce potent environmental threats. We dare not to promote the agricultural version of Thalidomide, the “safe” drug for pregnant women which resulted in horrifically malformed infants.

Interestingly, the discussion on food productivity focusses exclusively on quantity with quality given the go by. That sustainable agriculture produces better quality food is beyond arguement. The “NPK” approach to agriculture has failed; similarly, the calorie-count approach to food does not address the issue of nutrition.

A fifth determinant of food production is land ownership. The direct correlation between ownership and improved productivity did not escape our constitutional fathers, who paid lip service to land and tenancy reforms but did not follow through.

The wheel has turned full circle and we must now look to the farmer instead of the scientist for sustained food production. Technological solutions alone, divorced from social and political structures geared to universal benefit, cannot deliver the goods. Instead of seeking a surplus to feed industry, we must economically empower the widest possible cross section of farmers.

The first step is liberation. Not just from debt in the short term, but from the burden of high input or industrial agriculture, through the adoption of Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) systems. High cost of inputs like laboratory-made seeds, factory-made agro-chemicals, diesel and power-driven machines and pumps makes farming non-viable for the majority of farmers. Typically, industrial agriculture focusses on yields while sustainable systems promote crop diversity and nutritional self sufficiency at the farm level.

Critics of organic farming and other LEISA systems claim their productivity is low. But studies have established that LEISA produces higher net returns per unit of land, labour and capital, besides being far more energy efficient and environment friendly. In terms of ecological economics, there is no valid arguement against LEISA. However, these are knowledge and labour intensive systems and hence, do not benefit industry.

Structural reforms in agriculture – a changeover from industrial to sustainable farming – demand a shift in subsidies, away from the fertilizer companies and directly to the farmer, giving him the option of adopting modes of agriculture more suited to his needs. A shift in R & D and agricultural technology is also called for, geared towards the farmer rather than industry. Reform requires monitoring of credit flow so as to build the farming community’s asset base in the form of cattle, low-cost & clean fuel and energy systems and small-scale agri-processing infrastructure, instead of investment in one-time inputs.

To put it simply, a bag of urea will last the farmer one season. Cattle will last all his life. Urea alone will not assure a good harvest but it will degrade the soil, undermine crop pest-resistance and pollute the ecosystem. Cattle alone will not assure him a good harvest either, but it will improve soil fertility and crop pest-resistance, preserve the environment and provide him with food, fuel and power.

Investment in the standardisation and popularisation of low-cost rural technologies like bio-gas, non-conventional energy and drought energy based units – which, unlike “miracle seeds”, already exist – can render villages self-sufficient in power and fuel and boost small-scale industry.

A participatory as opposed to a top-down approach to agriculture alone can ensure sustainability. For instance, restoration of pastures is critical to animal husbandry and can only be achieved through community effort. Ask the farmer what he wants. Adopt empirical methods.

The current picture is grim. The farmer has not been merely economically undermined but socially and psychologically as well. He is no longer a desirable Pati in marriage and has come to regard himself as downtrodden. Small wonder the majority of farmers finds agriculture unviable and are looking for exit routes.

It is imperative to let the farmer reclaim his self-sufficiency and self-respect and the nation its food sovereignty. If Ms Sonia Gandhi and Mr Rahul Gandhi have the small farmers’ interests at heart, let them take a Gandhian view of agriculture.

(The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at