Socialist Worker

Don't swallow the hype

GM crops Can the new wonder 'protato' solve hunger problems in India?

Issue No. 1856

'IT WOULD be morally indefensible to oppose it.' This claim was made by one of those behind the 'protato' – the genetically modified (GM) wonder crop we were told last week will solve malnutrition in India. No one should be fooled.

The 'protato' is the latest PR gimmick from some of the most powerful corporations aimed at extending their domination of world agriculture. The man who made the 'immorality' claim was a Dr Padmanaban, former director of the Indian Institute of Science. He didn't enlighten his audience about the secret financial deal he had done with Monsanto. Monsanto controls 91 percent of the total world area devoted to GM crops.

The 'protato' is a potato with genes from the grain amaranth added, to give a slightly higher protein yield than ordinary potatoes. So, the argument goes, by feeding this to malnourished Indian children you end hunger. The hunger millions suffer from in India is not caused by a lack of available food. It is caused by a combination of poverty and agricultural policies driven by governments and corporations like Monsanto.

Even World Bank president James Wolfensohn admits, 'Even though global food output is adequate to feed the entire world's populations, 800 million people are going hungry because they cannot afford to buy the food they need.' India has had a huge food surplus, yet food rots in warehouses. The effects of poverty are amplified by agricultural polices in which the Indian government and global corporations work together to open the country to, and make India a major player in, the global market.

Pulses – crops like lentils, peas, beans – are a far higher source of protein than potatoes. But pulses have been driven off Indian land in favour of grain monocultures – growing only one crop – often for export to world markets. These cash crops make money for larger farmers who come to dominate, and global corporations who sell the seed and chemicals their production depends on. In Punjab in India the area devoted to pulses has collapsed from 14 percent in the 1960s to around 3 percent today.

So the country which is the world's largest pulse consumer now has to import pulses, which as a result have risen in price. The choice of amaranth for the protein genes placed in the 'protato' is equally telling.

Amaranth is a grain which grows abundantly in India, and in many other countries. It has around 12 times the protein content of the GM potato. Encouraging its production would certainly help reduce malnutrition. The neo-liberal, right wing Indian government has another agenda.

India is the world's third biggest potato producer, and wants to be an even bigger player in a global potato market worth £116 billion a year. The 'protato' is about pushing this commercial agenda. The 'hunger' claim is window dressing to win public acceptance of GM crops.

Five companies – Pharmacia (Monsanto), DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow dominate the global GM business. They also dominate the $45 billion a year global seed market.

But 80 percent of the world's farmers are still outside this market and save or exchange seed with fellow farmers each year. The big five want to change this. GM crops are often hybrids (and so sterile) so farmers have to buy new seeds from the corporations each year. They are also dependent on chemicals and fertilisers supplied by the same corporations.

There are serious health and environmental issues at stake with GM crops too. GM crops are nothing to do with tackling hunger and everything to do with expanding corporate control of agriculture and food. As Monsanto admitted, 'What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it's really the consolidation of the entire food chain.'

For more on GM crops, hunger and food:

  • Read: Eat Your Genes by Stephen Mottingham, or World Hunger: 12 Myths by Frances Moore Lappe and others
  • See websites:

    Paul McGarr will be speaking on 'What kind of agriculture do we need?' at the Marxism 2003 event in London Saturday 5 July at 11.45am

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    Article information

    Sat 21 Jun 2003, 00:00 BST
    Issue No. 1856
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