Monsanto’s Mean Green Revolution

In a remote village in the state of Maharashtra in India, a cotton farmer named Ram Krishna Kopulnar struggled to stay one step ahead of his creditors.  Like many of his peers, Kopulnar was forced to adopt the Green Revolution program, to toss traditional seeds aside for genetically modified varieties.  After introducing a genetically modified breed of wheat to Mexico, Norman Borlaug (the father of the Green Revolution) and the Rockefeller Foundation took their seed experiments on the road, bringing GMO technology to India and Africa, leaving a trail of farmers crippled by debt, forced to borrow money to purchase seeds and the inputs (fertilizer, water, and pesticides) necessary to grow them.  Debt and the flooding of cheap, imported commodities (due to free trade agreements) has meant the financial ruin for many formerly subsistence farmers.

Kopulnar and his family live in Maharashtra, home to the Mumbai Stock Exchange and the Indian state with the highest suicide rate by farmers, over 41,000 between 1997 and 2008.  A 2009 report by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU found that 17,638 farmers in India committed suicide that year; that’s one death every 30 minutes.  Many end their lives by drinking pesticides, a grim but apt metaphor for the cause of death.  The documentary Bitter Seeds followed Kopulnar to see if he will be the next casualty in the GMO Genocide.  Kopulnar mortgaged his house in order to buy modified cotton seeds from Monsanto.  Everything depended on the harvest from the crop, which a stroke of fate in the form of a drought or pestilence could destroy.

Author Raj Patel of Stuffed and Starved explained to me that the motivations for Borlaug and company were not humanitarian.  “The Green Revolution was originally intended to boost food production,” Patel said, “So poor people living in the cities of the Global South would have enough in their bellies that they wouldn’t rebel and become communist.”  This was encapsulated into an aid workers’ catchphrase, described in Nick Cullather’s book The Hungry World, “Where hunger goes, Communism follows.”

The consequences of the Mean Green Revolution are devastating for peasants and landless workers globally.  Farmers are pushed off their land, moving into urban areas to join the global class of low wage workers.  The United Nations estimates that over 67% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, because of migration from rural communities, most in the concentrated poverty of slums.  Meanwhile, global hunger continued to rise under the regime of the Green Revolution.  Nearly 870 million are chronically undernourished, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, one in eight persons.  The numbers of hungry have been rising in the Third World, particularly in Africa, with 20 million joining the ranks of the hungry in four years.

Farmworkers suffer higher rate of toxic chemical injuries than workers in any other sector of the U.S. economy, because of pesticides usage with GMO seeds.  According to the Pesticide Action Network, farmworkers, and often their children, are regularly exposed to pesticides in many ways: mixing or applying pesticides; planting, weeding, thinning, irrigating, pruning, harvesting, and processing crops; or living in or near treated fields.  Studies show that pesticides carried from field to home on parents’ clothing and skin put farmworker children at risk.

Although Norman Borlaug was deified for his efforts, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, people across the global south are rejecting the Mean Green Revolution.  In northern India, farmers held protests to hold a local university accountable to a recent Supreme Court decision to halt GMO field trials for the next 10 years.  Hundreds held signs that read “Monsanto GM Corn Quit India”.  The field of corn engineered by Monsanto was burned down.

A similar initiative is afoot in the U.S., a ballot measure Prop 37 to label GMOs will be voted on by Californians this month.  If the proposition passes, California would join more than 40 countries, including Britain, Russia, and China, in requiring GMO foods to be labeled.  A study published in peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini raised serious questions about the long-term impact of consuming genetically modified food.  Rats who were fed a diet of Monsanto corn or the pesticide Roundup were at increased risk of developing tumors and premature death.

“Across the world, there are heightening concerns about the health risks of eating genetically engineered foods,” said Proposition 37 Campaign Manager Gary Ruskin.  “There is a giant question mark hanging over these foods and their health risks.  For those of us in California, the case for labeling of genetically engineered foods has never been stronger.”

Art by Favianna Rodriguez.

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