Frankenstein or Frankincense Crops?

February 17, 2009
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

Here is a quite interesting story about GM foods. Personally speaking, I like the idea of having more GM food around the world. Just because the prices are falling a bit, does not mean that the pressure for more food has gone away. The middle classes of the world are demanding higher quality food, meat and the lot. They still need to be fed and watered. Given the lack of additional farm land, water, the only thing to do is to improve productivity of the existing cropland. GM foods provides one with a way to do this. Here are some interesting quotes:

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) said the global area of GM crops increased from 114m ha in 2007 to 125m ha in 2008, producing a harvest worth $7.5bn. The number of farmers planting GM crops rose from 12m in 22 countries to 13.3m in 25 countries.

Clive James, ISAAA chairman, said the most significant development last year was the first commercial planting of biotech crops in two African countries: maize in Egypt and cotton in Burkina Faso. Both crops contain “Bt genes” from bacteria, which kill insect pests. In 2007 South Africa had been the only country on the continent with GM plants (cotton, maize and soya).

Look at some of the benefits:

Of the cumulative economic gains of $44bn over 10 years of growing GM crops, the report attributed 44 per cent to yield increases and 56 per cent to reduced production costs, including the use of 359,000 tonnes less pesticide.

Now isn't that just peachy? Good stuff to read that not only you increase productivity, but production costs are reduced and less pesticide is used therefore reducing pollution as well. Yes, there are quite a lot of issues in this relating to the sale of patented seeds, potential for gene mutation, and the lot, but I think the risks are well worth it. Here is a good report from Friends of the Earth as a counterpoint to this argument. Anyway, I really dont want to get into a head banging argument about this.

One thing which is quite interesting is that if you increase the usage of GM foods, then the sustainability size factor of farms reduces as well. What do I mean by this? Well, in vast swathes of the world, you will see that the actual plot sizes are tiny. Plus with more and more children, the plots of land become smaller and smaller down every generation, till the end where the land is practically too small to support even one family and poverty increases dramatically. But with increase in crop productivity, less production costs, the level at which land sizes are no longer sustainable or able to support even one family increases. So for countries like India and China, this is good news indeed.

But beyond that, countries are now getting desperate for food security. Here’s a great example of what South Korea is planning to do in Madagascar. I quote:

South Korea's Daewoo Logistics this week announced that it had negotiated a 99-year lease on some 3.2 million acres of farmland on the dirt-poor tropical island of Madagascar…….Daewoo plans to put about three quarters of it under corn. The remainder will be used to produce palm oil — a key commodity for the global biofuels market. A Daewoo manager, Hong Jong-wan, told the Financial Times that the crops would "ensure our food security" and would use "totally undeveloped land which had been left untouched."

Here is another example of how Saudi Arabia is doing the same in Pakistan. I quote:

To this end, the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Bahrainis have been in talks with Egypt, Pakistan, Ukraine, Sudan, Turkey, Yemen, South Africa, the Philippines and Thailand to buy up or rent arable land and expand agricultural production in these countries.

This is actually good, I dont have an issue with this. This is pushing investments in poorer countries and combined with new types of crops, the food situation in the world will get a desperately needed fillip. So instead of these crops being Frankenstein type of horror for the world, I suspect they will more be frankincense.


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Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta works in the city of London in various capacities in the financial sector. He has worked and travelled widely around the world. The articles in here relate to his current studies and are strictly his opinion and do not reflect the position of his past or current employer(s). If you do want to blame somebody, then blame my sister and editor, she is responsible for everything, the ideas, the writing, the quotes, the drive, the israeli-palestinian crisis, global warming, the ozone layer depletion and the argentinian debt crisis.
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February 17, 2009
08:44 PM

Ignacio Chapela, Arpad Puzstai, Austrian study on GM corn and infertility, Cornell University study on Bt cotton in China, and Monsanto's presence all point to GMO being a Frankenstein. Don't trust their faulty science, lack of independent research by these companies, and don't trust Monsanto, or their sneaky methods used to plant GM crops.
No to GMO, yes to sustainable agriculture.

February 17, 2009
08:47 PM


February 20, 2009
10:53 AM

Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta, I enjoyed reading your post. You make some great points and are absolutely right when it comes to the need for biotechnology in order to feed the world. After all, our world population is projected to rise from more than 6.6 billion people today to more than 8 billion by 2030. Keep up the great writing.

February 20, 2009
11:01 AM

Here comes the Monsanto PR with the usual tripe of "feeding the population" which ignores the fact that the current production of food is enough to feed all, if used efficiently and distributed properly.

February 20, 2009
11:06 AM

Here comes the Monsanto PR with the usual tripe of "feeding the population" which ignores the fact that the current production of food is enough to feed all, if used efficiently and distributed properly.

February 20, 2009
11:39 AM

monsanto will feed the world!? and the joke, if that's the term for such macabre claims, is on??

February 21, 2009
03:39 AM

Kaffir #5, what you are describing is a theoretical position of having sufficient food for all. Unfortunately, that does not translate into what's on the ground. If there were no transportation problems, if you had good refrigeration and storage facilities, if there were no octroi taxes, if the port facilities were good, if there was no import and export taxes, if there was no subsidy, if transport was much cheaper, if there was no lower limit on sustainability of cropland, etc. etc.

I really dont want to get into the debate about monsanto and its killer seeds and stuff. That's an ideological debate and frankly not much of interest to me. But GM is, and I firmly believe that it is of massive interest and benefit to our farmers. They are begging for better drought resistant seeds and plants, better productivity and the lot.

Our national agricultural laboratories are between middling poor to pathetic. There is a role here for the private sector to assist in better crops under a reasonable amount of government regulation.

February 21, 2009
05:13 AM


"what you are describing is a theoretical position of having sufficient food"

I am afraid, you are doing the exact same. You too are refusing to deal with practical aspects and larger issues/objections raised. You are essentially micromanaging and creating pipe dreams out of them that are not practical.

"That's an ideological debate and frankly not much of interest to me."

Don't ideologies get to decide the outcome of such debates? Ultimately, issues get buried or packaged by ideologies.

"Here is a good report from Friends of the Earth as a counterpoint to this argument. Anyway, I really dont want to get into a head banging argument about this."

It shows unwillingness to grapple with bigger issues.

"This is actually good, I dont have an issue with this."

Another example of unwillingness to see the bigger issues. You seem to not care rich and powerful nations creating excuses and rationales for colonizing other countries, be it for agriculture or minerals or markets or skills/slaves or whatever. Bongs seems to have incurable penchance and fascination for colonialism.

February 21, 2009
05:18 AM


"Bongs seems to have incurable penchance and fascination for colonialism."

Editors: this kind of "racist", sectarian crap is regrettable, even though nothing can be done about it.

February 21, 2009
05:30 AM


"I really dont want to get into the debate about monsanto and its killer seeds and stuff. That's an ideological debate and frankly not much of interest to me. But GM is, and I firmly believe that it is of massive interest and benefit to our farmers. They are begging for better drought resistant seeds and plants, better productivity and the lot."

There is no shortage of serious studies that indicate that the problems outweigh the presumed benefits. I am surprised by the statement that the cons "are of no interest to me" and they are dismissed as "ideological" as if some humans can actually be non-ideological ie. are capable of representing the so-called "god's eye view of the world" or the "view from nowhere". At the end of the day, it is not possible to view the world ideologically, the dream of a minority of economists. Would anybody consider Paul Krugman to be non-ideological? He would not take this label seriously. At the end of the day, any policy, any strategy has differential effects on sections of "society". There are winners and losers. So far, GM foods have never ever benefited "farmers". Big landholding farmers yes, but not "farmers" or "society" in general. Once again, not for me to point to zillions of well researched studies on this issue of GM crops.

February 21, 2009
07:18 AM

thanks, Kerty, for your comments.

February 21, 2009
07:26 AM


Yes, I have seen those studies as well. I am afraid there are a few challenges I have with those studies. And yes, there is a very heavy ideological debate around GM, either anti-americanism or anti-capitalism or what have you. And no, it is not worth my while to argue for or against those. Its like the israeli palestinian argument, the time has long past that reasoned argument can be done on those. Same with Paul Krugman, the man is a polemist, when I dont have anything to do, then I read him, otherwise his screeching gets on my nerves. His papers are a different matter.

Now, lets get back to the GM crops issue. We have been improving and changing crops for thousands of years. Our wheat, rice and other crops have constantly been modified. And improvements keep on happening.

But lets get to some facts on the table, can you point to some economic papers which point to what you had expressed in terms of GM crops not benefiting farmers? For simplicity's sake, lets say we are looking at a share cropper in Bihar, UP or Maharashtra, say you take cotton, rice or wheat, some of the cash crops.


then you look at his current earnings over several climate and business cycles without GM crops.

then one could look at his new earnings over some cycles.

then we compare, right?

if you wish, you can do this comparison over any other country as well.

then you divide the farmers by big farms, small farms, medium farms.

once you have something like this, then you can start making meaningful comparisons, but otherwise, doubtful.

February 21, 2009
08:14 AM


Unfortunately, ironically to label Paul Krugman as a screecher is also an ideological statement!

I do agree that the debates over GM food do get a bit too heated up, but that's partly because the food production is involved. If consumers don't by the latest blu-ray dvd, no big deal. if all crops are patented and farmers de-skilled such that only high tech experts know the intricacies of farming, they insist that they own the patents to particular high-yielding varieties etc. the smaller farmers are simply unable to compete with those who can afford all the inputs etc.

This is not an ideological argument, but one that relies not simply on graphs and charts of productivity ignoring the fact that humans, not just econs stats are at stake. Not sure why one must rely on purely "economics" papers to discuss this issue that has social, political, cultural etc. ramifications. There may be and indeed there are many other factors, but cotton farmers in Andhra and elsewhere committing suicides after the introduction of BT cotton is not something that is imaginary.

This is not an attack on economics as such and should not be construed that way, but there's a reason why it carries the label of "the dismal science". What might mean "productivity" from a strictly economic point of view, may not mean the same from a wider social welfare point of view. So far food crises have occurred largely due to natural factors such as famine, coupled with social factors such as access, income, affordability etc. Imagine throwing in the spanner of GM foods at every level. Imagine what is happening to the GM car company - they too were confident of their bottom line - and it is not hard to figure out that the same could happen to GM foods too. That is why, the "precautionary principle" when it comes to food and livestock is worthy of attention. Plus the old adage, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

As far as putative "anti-Americanism" is concerned, sure this sentiment is hyped up sometimes. However it does not mean that the politics of food is not real. And yes of course it is not just the americans. Not for any reason is Japan is wary of its food (rice) security. And not for nothing does the US support the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines - after all America is not a big consumer of rice as a staple.

Obviously I don't claim to have any "right" answers, but some caution, when it comes to food, is not a bad idea!


February 21, 2009
08:50 AM


Me being me, I typed in fairly long-winded, and surprisingly for me, a fairly level-headed one too. But some computer glitch messed I have to run! (How convenient, you might think, but sincerely!). Later!

February 21, 2009
11:08 AM

BD, if there is a problem ("scarcity" of food), there can be many solutions to it. For example, policies that discourage wasting of food, encourage proper use of resources and more efficient distribution; or a technological fix.

Maybe you're already aware of this, but according to some studies, 45 billion kilograms of edible food is wasted in the US annually (, and I'm willing to bet that something similar to a lesser or greater extent happens in many other countries too. Recently, there was a picture of Indian farmers trampling on tomatoes as a form of protest because of policies regarding prices (sorry, don't have all the details). That's a waste of edible food which could have fed many.

Meat production is highly inefficient and damaging to the environment, as well as hogs a lot of resources than grain production, and feeds a lot less people (resources used to produce 1 kg of meat can produce ten times or so of grain, and feed more people). Maybe we can come up with economic policies that start to include such external costs into the price of meat, to truly reflect the amount of resources being used to produce meat, which they currently don't. Corn and soybeans produced in the US are not fed to people, but to animals in feedlots. That's a highly inefficient use of resources.

Or, we can ignore our own stupid and inefficient ways of doing things and maintain that status quo because it comes from the west, and look for technological fixes which will end up benefiting companies like Monsanto, which works in unethical manner and has no transparency in its methods, and give them even more control of the seeds and crops that are grown.

Besides, we do not know the long-term effects of planting GMOs and how that will affect the biodiversity of our planet, and whether there will be any adverse effects, and if there are, will Monsanto and other companies will be held responsible. Lots of unknowns, though we can look back and see that it's the taxpayers who end up cleaning the shit that was promised as shinola.

So, yes, there's more than one solution to the problem, and for reasons I enumerated above, I choose not to trust Monsanto as they have zero credibility, and instead, focus on other solutions which will make us use our finite resources more judiciously, and do not pose a risk to the biodiversity and freedom of farmers. If you want to call this an ideological position, so be it. I think of it as practical and fact-based.

Sometimes the easiest solution to water flooding a room is to turn off the tap that has been left running, instead of running around to find a mop and bucket, or thinking of a technology that will remove that water.

If you're not aware of it, I'd recommend you read up on the whole rBGH controversy in the US, which was advertised as the best thing to increase milk production while it was banned in EU, small dairy farmers who didn't buy into the hype and wanted to put "rBGH-free" on their milk were intimidated by strong-arm tactics, Fox news reporters who did a story on this were muzzled and fired. But more than ten years since rBGH was introduced, now companies like Starbucks are committing themselves to rBGH-free milk and the tide has turned. But it has turned too late for many whose lives have been destroyed by the giant who made a huge bundle by imposing its supply-side product for which there was no demand (US already produced an excess of milk), and that giant is Monsanto.

You're welcome to trust anything that comes out of the mouth of Monsanto as the gospel truth, but from what I know, Monsanto has zero credibility with me. And for very good reasons.

BTW, FWIW, the doomsday seed vault in Norway does not have any GM seeds, and didn't agree to the wishes of GMO companies which wanted their seeds to be included in that vault.

And please don't come back with "we've always tinkered with the genes of plants" because the issue is about the kind of tinkering and its impact.

February 21, 2009
11:21 AM


As an aside, Ramkrishna Paramhans, Bose, Bankim Chandra, Shyamaprasad Mukherjee, and Sri Aurobindo were also Bongs, and I doubt that they "seem(ed) to have incurable penchance (sic) and fascination for colonialism" they way you imply.

February 21, 2009
11:58 AM

I agree with Kaffir #15 200% and then some. and then some after that. he just makes commonsense, if not economic sense from a narrow economistic perspective.

Monsanto has a very shady record re: rBGH to say the least. Canada for one has completely banned rBGH, and it is not because the government is blatantly ideological.And google the Percy Schmeiser (spelling?) case re: Canola and the court case. Back to the issue of "the precautionary principle" ie. we simply do not know what the long term effects of GM food are.

Once again, the problem re: food is overproduction, not lack of productivity. The only reason companies such as Monsanto etc. are into it is: well whatever it is, it is certainly not about solving the food problem.

Not all economists are fixated on economics divorced from social issues, so I will not unnecessarily insult economists in general. But economic action is necessarily embedded in social contexts of life, death and all the other stages in between.


"And please don't come back with "we've always tinkered with the genes of plants" because the issue is about the kind of tinkering and its impact."

Absolutely on the mark, because this is usually the fallback position of those who want to argue in favour of GM. There's tinkering and then there's accelerated maniacal tinkering driven by the hubris and arrogance of claiming to understand the logic of evolution.

February 21, 2009
12:21 PM

correction #16:
"...the way you imply."


cs, good point re: precautionary principle. Agreed.

February 21, 2009
12:43 PM


here's some bits about yields and economic impacts in India.

February 21, 2009
12:56 PM

Kaffir, happy to hear your solutions for the issue with the indian farmers. I have given some links above which relate to yields and costs.

Having farmed in MP for some time, i have a bit of a feel (even if its a bit old) for these things and I am happy to hear what solutions you think would assist?

What proposals are you suggesting for say a farmer in Vidharba or in Indore who is growing wheat or cotton to improve?

February 21, 2009
01:13 PM

BD, check out this study.

Here's an excerpt:
"The study -- the first to look at the longer-term economic impact of Bt cotton -- found that by year three, farmers in the survey who had planted Bt cotton cut pesticide use by more than 70 percent and had earnings 36 percent higher than farmers planting conventional cotton. By 2004, however, they had to spray just as much as conventional farmers, which resulted in a net average income of 8 percent less than conventional cotton farmers because Bt seed is triple the cost of conventional seed."

You can also do a google search on the names I mentioned in my first comment, and their stories to see what credibility these GMO companies have, how much power they wield, and whether their methods of doing things are ethical or not. So, along with rest all issues, there's a question of trust.

There's also a documentary on Monsanto by journalist Marie-Monique Robin which a google search should turn up. Check it out before you make up your mind about Monsanto. Michael Clayton, from what I've read, is loosely based on the shenanigans of Monsanto.

BTW, I'm not anti-capitalist. I'm anti-unethical-and-shady-capitalism, as practiced by companies like Monsanto.

February 21, 2009
01:30 PM

Kaffir, check out the links which I had given, mate, specially the one about the Indian conditions for BTCotton. Seems like the results in India are giving you a diametrically different conclusion.

Also, seems like we have some more information on the chinese study here.

The overall goal of the research reported in this paper is to measure the patterns of insecticide use over time and examine the causes of any changes. Based on a dataset collected at the farm-level by the authors from 1999 to 2004, the analysis demonstrates that indeed there was a rise in use of insecticides to control secondary insects between 2001 and 2004. However, the increase in insecticide use for the control of secondary insects is only a small fraction (3.4%) of the reduction in total insecticide use that can be shown to have resulted from Bt cotton adoption. The study also finds that most of the rise in insecticide use that was observed between 2001 and 2004 to control the secondary insects--in particularly that for the use to control mirids--is likely due to changes in rainfall and temperature in certain Bt cotton growing areas. In fact, farm-level surveys in the fall of 2005 (the year after the concern over secondary insects became most prominent) demonstrate that the pressure from secondary insects in 2005 was lower than the previous year (2004); farmers also were using lower levels of insecticides. In summary, there is no evidence to suggest that secondary insects are undermining a large share of the gains that Bt cotton has produced for China's farmers or that the problem is becoming worse over time."

There seems to be some doubt in the results so would be useful to get hold of the actual cornell paper so that you can do comparisons.

February 21, 2009
01:33 PM

BD, I'm not knowledgeable about the farmers in MP and Vidarbha, or their agricultural practices, or the problems they're facing, so your question is best put to them or someone who is knowledgeable, and not to me. :)

There's research done (as well as ongoing research) on organic farming, crop-rotation, and traditional/Integrated Pest Management techniques which are also effective in increasing the yield, yet not compromising soil fertility. You can also check out the website of Rodale Institute for more information. There are many organic as well as non-GMO CSAs that are doing quite well.

As I mentioned, economists can start including more of currently external costs in the price of food. That would be a step in the right direction.

Your post was about GMOs, and based on what I know, I'm quite convinced that GMOs are not the solution to the problem, and will likely lead to more problems in the long-term. I'd be happy to reconsider my position as new information is added.

February 21, 2009
01:47 PM


well, that's where I was coming from, with a background in farming, knowing the challenges we have and the reasons for the very high widespread use of these GMO's. Lets take these one by one.

Organic farming requires a very large investment up front and the economics simply do not work in the heartland of India. We find governments fall because of the rise of basic food stuffs like onions, the chances of somebody paying over the odds for organic food is pretty slim. So it is tough to push that.

Crop rotation is a good idea and can assist. There are some challenges, not with the crop itself, but because our mandi's and local farm infrastructure is significantly unsuited or not scaled up for rapid crop rotations. But yes, that helps.

Soil fertility, now that's a huge issue in itself. Our farmland in India, by and large, has been very intensively farmed for centuries. External nutrition is vital, either that comes from fertiliser or you bring in additional soil or add manure. Given the cost benefit analysis, its much easier to go for fertiliser. And that reduction helps.

If you include additional costs inside the pricing of food, then we have some challenges which I am not sure we can handle. Most of our farming is at subsistence or just above it. Increasing the cost of food will increase suicide levels at its worst as we have already seen. Remember what's happening with the cost of inputs once the amount of subsidies is being reduced? I am not sure that we can afford to do that.

Well, i can only go by what's being reported, seems like GMO's are doing some good.

And this is just talking about cotton. There is a heck of more work being done in india specific crops ranging from rice to orchards to tea to spices to you name it.

I will get some more links for you for different crops.

February 21, 2009
01:54 PM

"What proposals are you suggesting for say a farmer in Vidharba or in Indore who is growing wheat or cotton to improve?"
BD, it would be highly presumptuous of me to propose solutions to a farmer in Indore, and neither am I an omniscient god who has all the answers. I can only speak of how GMOs have been rammed down the throat without sufficient independent scientific studies, and the unethical methods of Monsanto, be it firing of certain scientists or non-labeling of foods containing GMOs so that consumers can make a choice. The loosening of standards related to food safety (including GMOs) during Clinton administration, and the revolving door policy between his Agriculture Secretary and head of USDA, who had close links and conflicts-of-interest with the very food giants whose actions they were supposed to monitor, are quite troubling.

Part of the solution could be a return to what the word "agriculture" means, which is not the same as "agribusiness."

I could also turn the question around to you:
Why are you so keen on GMOs when there's so much evidence of unethical actions by these companies to raise doubt in any reasonable person's mind? Is it an ideological position (or blind faith?) that makes you ignore these red flags? :)

February 21, 2009
01:58 PM

Some more links from google scholar, peer reviewed articles (which has issues, but still...)


A study of the commercial growing of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton in India, compares the performance of over 9,000 Bt and non-Bt cotton farm plots in Maharashtra over the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Results show that since their commercial release in 2002, Bt cotton varieties have had a significant positive impact on average yields and on the economic performance of cotton growers. Regional variation showed that, in a very few areas, not all farmers had benefited from increased performance of Bt varieties.


The results of the study clearly indicate that there is enhancement of secondary metabolites in hairy roots, which is indicated through significant enhancement of the antioxidant activity, since these are the major constituents responsible for the activity. This is the first report on the presence of antioxidant principles in genetically modified roots of W. somnifera. These results of the present study may aid in utilization of the W. somnifera hairy roots for its rejuvenating principles.

3. This is from an economics institute so please use with care. But refers to good studies being carried out globally.

4. Here's something on rice. I dont have access to the paper, so can only go by what the abstract says:

The first generation of genetically modified (GM) crop varieties sought to increase farmer profitability through cost reductions or higher yields. The next generation of GM food research is focusing also on breeding for attributes of interest to consumers, beginning with 'golden rice', which has been genetically engineered to contain a higher level of vitamin A and thereby boost the health of poor people in developing countries. This paper analyses empirically the potential economic effects of adopting both types of innovation in Asia, including its impact on rice producers and other poor households. It does so using the global economy-wide computable general equilibrium model known as GTAP. The results suggest the very considerable farm productivity gains (even if extended beyond GM rice to include those from adopting other GM grains and oilseeds) could be exceeded by the welfare gains resulting from the potential health-enhancing attributes of golden rice, which would boost the productivity of unskilled workers among Asia's poor.

February 21, 2009
02:02 PM



here's some bits about yields and economic impacts in India.""

BD, I might sound like an ass to you :), but all these articles showing increase in productivity, decline in pesticide etc. don't mean much because the die-hard economistic economist are enclosed in their own logical, yet illogical traps because they ignore the wider social context, the social inequalities, the social structure and the long-term effect that cannot be predicted in advance. And I say this as a practising scientist, not as a knee-jerk traditionalist.

My view is best expressed by Kaffir, so no point repeating it:


"As I mentioned, economists can start including more of currently external costs in the price of food. That would be a step in the right direction."

To which, I just want to add that not all economists are mindless automatons forever seduced by decontextualized numbers, although I will grant you that this is the dominant trend. What economists could do with is a bit of a sociological perspective ie. they might want to bring in the total costs, including social costs instead of treating them as "externalities" that get in the way of a good equation/formula/result. In other words, economics is supposed to explain and make sense of the social world, not the other way around. When dealing with food supplies, one has to tread very carefully. Very carefully. The precautionary principle, period. Millions of dollars are spent to prevent surplus food from getting into the market; stocks of food are destroyed routinely etc. etc. And monsanto will come to the rescue?

"Ideology is like bad breath - we are never aware of our own" the late eminent ECONOMIST Joan Robinson.

February 21, 2009
02:05 PM

Kaffir #25

The answer to your question, why I support them is simple, GMO crops work, and that's why I support them. See the links.

Having been a farmer, mate, makes you be very cynical about what people say. Whether it be the companies, or the activists. Ideology doesnt fill the stomach, so to say.

When I am trying to grow soyabean, if somebody walks in and says that I will give you seeds that will reduce my cost, increase yield and increase revenue, I have to have a giant hole in my head to say no. As I said, I have grown and exported soyabean across the world.

When you are faced with farmers in the villages who have to make existential decisions, issues of morality or ideology or what have you seem very far away. Hence, sticking to facts helps.

Also, I have been through 2 debates over Monsanto, very long and ardous ones, there was more heat than light which was generated. So I simply do not argue that point. Our food and agricultural research institutes are also doing the same thing and they are providing free seeds. So if I do have to argue, I talk crop yields, fertiliser pricing, tractor usage, economics of the crops, the issue of water and stuff like that. Monsanto, bleah.

February 21, 2009
02:05 PM

"..the chances of somebody paying over the odds for organic food is pretty slim. So it is tough to push that."

I remember reading a while ago that certain farms in India are growing crops per organic standards as there's a market for them in other countries, maybe as raw material for organic foods. Sure, it's not mainstream or widespread, but it's there and people do want to pay a premium price for organic or sustainably grown food. Maybe not so much in India.

February 21, 2009
02:14 PM

BD #26,

As a practising scientist, and that too at an Ivy League university (ahem!!), it pains me to say that you are being scientistic, ie. unduly enthralled by the formal rationality of data rather than the "substantive" rationality of contextualizing that data in its larger social context.

A bit like: "the surgical procedure was perfectly executed doctor. I loved how technically perfect your handling of the scalpel was. Too bad the patient died."

All the journal articles and data etc. are also marshalled when certain economic policies are announced and implemented. But there is no shame in economists to admit that they are dealing with complex systems and they really cannot predict what really is going to happen to the economy due to the reality of "externalities", and real living humans that were factored out or "controlled".

This creates a fetish based on an image of science, not the reality of how exactly science works. Unfortunately many social scientists are afflicted with physics envy.

Unlike Kaffir, no amount of new information will convince me to change my mind on this one, not because I am a fundamentalist or stubborn, but because one simply cannot in advance guarantee that this is not a slippery slope where more harm than good will probably be done, despite confident reassurances by the "experts". It happens all the time in other spheres of the industry, stock markets, inflation etc. Look, if it's a question of a lunar mission, fine. But one is talking of food here.

February 21, 2009
02:17 PM

CS #27. I am really not sure why you would say that I am speaking from the perspective of an ivory tower economist? I am not, work in a bank and have prior (much much prior) experience of farming. Things have changed quite a lot but not that much, I still have investments in India and do keep up with what's happening.

Our country's development is very strongly tied to what we do with the farmers, all that india shining bit is all very nice and good, but the great unwashed herd is still dependent upon absolutely ridiculous practises.

Take the seeds for example. Do you know where the damn seeds come from? By and large, what you do is that once you have had a crop, you keep one bit aside for planting the next crop, one bit aside for eating yourself or trading locally and the third bit you go sell to your local village buyer or hoof it to the mandi.

Wider social and ideological aspects for a farmer worried about rats when storing seeds means sweet sod all to him.

We keep on asking about government intervention. What government? Just what government is there in my village? between nil and zero generally. When you live crop to crop, month to month, you pick on what makes your life better right now. And GMO crops offer that.

I have already commented on the inclusion of external costs into the price of food. I bloody well hope we dont because you will see a rash of more suicides up and down the country.

As a scientist you would know that demand, supply, and other curves behave differently at extremes. In 80% of the Indians in agriculture, if not more, they are seriously at the extreme end. Saying bio-diversity is all fine and good, but when you are living day to day and your kids are only having 1 meal per day, then tiny improvements in yield make a huge difference.

Europe can afford to sneeze at these things because they have a welfare state, we dont, that makes the equation different.

Even though I am a free trader, I am totally against India opening up to WTO trading in agriculture, India cannot handle open trade. Its already suffering, we have to bring our farmers up the wealth curve and get bigger farms and and and before they can be exposed to international competition. GMO crops offer that.

February 21, 2009
02:21 PM

kaffir #29, yep, some organic foods did happen. There is a pretty good export market in vegetables and fruits. But that got killed, guess why? because of the high cost of fuel, lack of good ports and refrigeration, and the biggest issue of food miles.

boom, screwed.

so these days, organic food includes a calculation for food miles. You can create excellent organic grapes in maharashtra but if you have to spend tons of money to refrigerate them, drive them very expensively over the bloody roads, then stick them on a container which takes 3 days to load over a pathetic port, and then ship them over, by the time it arrives in Europe or Australia or USA, its not really "organic" given the sheer expense of carbon emissions, lol.

btw, this is why i was very excited when reliance and others opened up their shops, love the idea, this will definitely help the farmers, give them more money and assistance, but I saw a closed shop in Lucknow and an open one in Indore. Guess whose farmers are more lucky? :)

February 21, 2009
02:28 PM


OK, I will bow out of this one too...

I don't question your experience as a farmer. But there are farmers and there are farmers. If only GM were the magic bullet, who in their right mind would not go for it? I will leave it there.

February 21, 2009
02:34 PM

cs #30, ok, Herr Professor Dr. practising and leading scientist at Ivy League university :).

not really sure why you are getting the idea that I am being unduly scientific. I have two perspectives here, first the economist but also the farmer. From either of those perspectives, I find GMO crops good.

Fetish? could be, but then, avoiding hunger for subsistence farmers (which describes the vast majority of our farmers) means that one has to be pretty precise...

Also, you might not know this but farmers are extremely eager for any new innovation. They are the biggest risk takers of all. Even more than industrialists and manufacturers. You know why, they are dependent upon their crop results being driven by uncontrollable factors ranging from poxy weevils to rats, Indra or the local money lender or the price of crops in the Chicago Merc. So anything that they find that improves their lives, they will pick up.

The patient didn't die, mate, the patient is doing better than before and doing pretty well as the studies show and what I have seen personally in and around Indore in MP. Its just the people standing on the side bellowing, you are going to die because of some reasons which I dont seem to relate while I am knee deep in cow manure and worried about the amount of ground water or the price of crops in the local mandi. See the problem?

This is the reason why GMO's are going to be used much more. :)

February 21, 2009
02:44 PM

CS, 33. Very good question why people arent using this more?

Well, there is a simple answer, lack of a good distribution network and infrastructure. Why is it so damn difficult to spread good farming knowledge in India?

i should get back to my book chapter on indian outsourcing firms as well, lol, what a boring old job, i must be mad to agree to do that.. :)

February 21, 2009
02:44 PM

"When you are faced with farmers in the villages who have to make existential decisions, issues of morality or ideology or what have you seem very far away. Hence, sticking to facts helps."

Erm, BD, my arguments are also based on facts. Or are you saying that your facts are facts, while mine are not? You give me links to scientific studies that tout the benefits of GMOs, and I give you links to the immense power that agribusinesses have, that they can get a scientist whose research discovered something troubling about GMOs, fired. That they can re-write laws to get their product approved and labeled as "safe" without being validated by independent research, since those doing the approval (Michael Taylor, James Maryanski) do so after ignoring their conflict-of-interest. That they can interfere in, and influence scientific research to their benefit. Just because it's science doesn't automatically imply that it's ethical and above-board, and to be accepted on blind faith.

If you think it's ideology that drives me, then as a soybean exporter who has special interest in increasing profits, I could say the same thing about you - that your ideology is driving you to pick-and-choose. So, that's neither here nor there.

You haven't said anything about "Precautionary Principle" which is of utmost importance when it comes to food - the most basic need over which empires fall - and which is ignored by agribusinesses (though EU is better than USA). You haven't mentioned anything about "Principle of Substantial Equivalence" - a fancy Orwellian term if one - that was used to fast-track GMO approval without enough scrutiny. You haven't addressed the issue of rBGH. As I said before, one of the issues is that of trust.

I have no problem with agreeing to disagree with you. You have certain knowledge which is driving your view, and so is the case with me. We don't have to be on the same page about everything or see eye-to-eye. I'm quite confident that I have done ample research, reading and thinking which has led me to my current position on GMOs, and I stand by it. You haven't really given me any proof that would change my view.

February 21, 2009
02:46 PM

plus you are right, I am sure we have bored all the DC readers with crop yields and stuff. Why dont we talk about pink chaddi's and stuff?

February 21, 2009
02:53 PM


"cs #30, ok, Herr Professor Dr. practising and leading scientist at Ivy League university :)."

OK, I'm probably making up this shit about ivy league university, as in it is surely irrelevant, except as a crude instrument for bolstering my sagging credibility :)

However, and i say this with all due respect since it is always a treat to read your pieces, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with you, when you have time, could you scan thru two books based on over a decade of fieldwork and everyday involvement with farmers in Western UP and Karnataka:

Akhil Gupta. _Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India_ (Duke University Press, date?)

A. R. Vasavi. _Harbingers of Rain: Land and Life in South India_ (OUP, 1999)

A. R. Vasavi. _Agrarian Distress in Bidar_ (National Institute of Advanced Studies: Bangalore, 1999)

Apologies for all the assinine wisecracks. I may still descend to the depths of the Kertys of this world (shudder, shriek, groan)

February 21, 2009
02:54 PM

"Europe can afford to sneeze at these things because they have a welfare state, we dont, that makes the equation different."

That may be the reason for difference in our perspectives. What I know is about what has happened in the US and Europe regarding GMOs. Next time I'm in India, I'll do some research into it from that perspective.

February 21, 2009
04:18 PM


"Europe can afford to sneeze at these things because they have a welfare state, we dont, that makes the equation different."

That also means India can not leave its agricultural sector and welfare of farmers to seed cartels and Agro MNS, nor it can leave it all up to the self-interests of few farmers without looking at these issues at macro level. If unscrupulous farming practices pushes out even small segment of farmers, India would have a major humanitarian disaster on hand.

India must maintain the viability of its agricultural sector and its bio diversity and its self-sufficiency and independence. Industrial sectors can not employ all or sustain all. India needs a robust agricultural sector to absorb all the shocks and up/downs and economic cycles created in the non-agricultural sectors. India cant put all eggs in one basket and be at its mercies.

February 21, 2009
07:08 PM

kaffir #36. I think we are talking past each other. I am talking about getting GMO's to increase yields and economies while you are talking about agribusinesses. The facts I relate to are relating to the yields and economies of GMO crops. I dont see what's the benefit of that would be to decide whether or not, as a farmer, I should plant GMO crops or not.

If you want to protest against the power of agribusiness, fine. Nowt to do with me, mate. Precautionary principles relating to what? Precautionary principle would apply in this case if the scientific consensus was that there is no benefit or there are definite cases of harm involved. You might want to debate the length of time you want to study the GMO crops, but I suspect a historical evidence trail over 10 to 20 years is pretty good. In the meantime, the improvements in crop yields and benefits are benefiting farmers, again based upon scientific research.

Principle of Substantial Equivalence. Another interesting debate. What does "enough" mean? Its a risk based approach that India has taken. You might want to quibble about whether its high or low risk, but that's a different argument.

I havent commented on the use of rBGH because that does not relate to the issue of crops and croplands. But ok its true. Same case with Thalidomide. Does that mean that we stop giving pregnant women any form of medicine? No, you decide what's the risk. That one instance does not mean that you ban every type of GMO under the sun.

Finally, your view is about agribusiness. Good. In the meantime, use of GMO's is going to rapidly increase year on year in countries such as India and that, based upon the scientific studies that I have seen means it is good stuff for our farmers.

February 21, 2009
07:11 PM

cs #38, thanks for the references, CS, have plonked those into my reading list which is itself whining and groaning.. :)

February 21, 2009
07:14 PM

kaffir #39, sure, would look forward to finding out what you find out relating to this in your Indian research.

February 21, 2009
07:29 PM

kerty #40:

now what you are mentioning is a different aspect. How does the GMO seeds get into the hands of the farmers. Nothing in your words is to be argued against. I agree fully with your sentiments.

But let me add some more words to your perspective that its the seed cartels and agro MNC's wot did it. I am afraid the culprits are much wider and bigger. Right, here are some major points.

1. Our agricultural research institutes are frankly hideous in terms of their outputs and efficiency. Here's a list of them.

What on earth are they doing? Or not doing?

2. What is happening to our system of agricultural funding and financing? What about crop insurance? What happened to the idea of getting a good solid agricultural futures business running in India? Nothing, sweet sod all.

3. What is happening to the Food Corporation of India and the PDS? Why is up to 30% of our stored food grains wasted or lost?

4. Land reform and the land ceiling act has not really been implemented properly and is causing major issues with farmers. Just like reserving certain industrial sectors for SME's caused us to actually lose industrial power, this land reform and land ceiling acts are causing similar havoc and now allowing large industrial farms to emerge to compete effectively.

5. Why are we not pushing for more private investment in the supply chains? Or greater investment to be done in infrastructure to transport goods around the country?

We do not have a robust agricultural sector for a huge number of reasons. Our pathetic crop yields, the lack of sustainable investments, very large families, corruption and and and is all causing us to live hand to mouth. And because the government is frankly corrupt and incompetent, it is not surprising that these agri businesses and MNC's are heading into the gap. But the trick is not to kick them out, they are bringing in investments, the regulatory regime and policy framework has to be fixed.

Ravi Kulkarni
February 21, 2009
09:18 PM

Dear BD,

As a late entrant to this wonderful debate, let me first admit that I haven't read all the references quoted in the main article or the discussions afterwords.

I think it is a mistake to go the GM way. We simply haven't understood the biology well enough to take one way roads. As Kaffir put it, the threat to bio diversity is very real, and we have no clue what the long term impact of consuming such foods. Whatever little research that has been done in a short period since such food became available is really nanoscopic in comparison with what is known about regular food. One can't simply draw any meaningful conclusions from this tiny amount of data.

We can't always look at everything from an economic perspective. It is not about imparting education in a better way, nor building a better computer - it is food - the most basic need of humanity. Are we shortchanging the future of the species for some short term (perhaps very real if your sources are correct) gains? Until such questions can be answered authoritatively and conclusively, it is foolhardy in the extreme to grow these monstrosities.

Just 2c from a non-ivy league, non-scientist, non-economist hoi polloi.


Ravi Kulkarni

February 21, 2009
09:56 PM

Dr. BD in response to Kaffir's acute observations, you wrote:

"kaffir #36. I think we are talking past each other. I am talking about getting GMO's to increase yields and economies while you are talking about agribusinesses. The facts I relate to are relating to the yields and economies of GMO crops. I dont see what's the benefit of that would be to decide whether or not, as a farmer, I should plant GMO crops or not."

My response is this. (Hope you have the patience to read thru this long response, which is not a rant and is respectful of your views)

1. The two issues are intrinsically related. It is a a narrow "scientistic" (NOT scientific) approach that seeks to disentangle them in order to hide behind the fig leaf of "pure science" or "economics" jargon of efficiency, productivity ie. to hell with humans. However, with a sleight of hand, later, everything is presented as if it was meant for the welfare of humans in the first place, even though the link between agribusiness, geopolotics, the politics of food security, issues of political economy (ie. who gets what and who gets nothing) is initially denied.

2. Almost ANY scientist except those who have become hired guns of the Monsantos and the Cargills, will tell you that we have barely scratched the surface of long term evolutionary trends when it comes to genomics and the evolutionary significance of very complex and chaotic processes related to plant and animal evolution. Even the top evolutionary scientists can never put all the pieces together to present a final theory of evolutionary processes which by their very nature are contingent upon interaction with the environment. What we think of as pests, weeds etc. are not the quite the same from an evolutionary perspective. We simply don't know what the adaptive advantages and disadvantages of a host of natural processes are. To short circuit these processes thru genetic fixes without ever understanding the whole process is sure route to disaster, no iffs and no buts about it. Sure some tinkering (Kaffir) has always occurred, but the genetic fix assumes that the open fields are the same as labs and some scientists/economists see it as not part of an open system of nature, but as simply "inputs" "outputs", "genomes". Economists see it as "productivity", "bottomline" etc.

Which "serious" geneticists do I talk about? Try just one for size. Richard Lewontin at Harvard, former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the discoverer of some the whole field of "population genetics" as applied to BOTH plant and humans. Forget about his "technical" papers, and if you have the time, and the interest, read this gem of a book written for a wider audience:

Lewontin, Richard. _The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism and Environment_ (Harvard University Press)

and for an anthology from serious scientists on these issues, try:

Daniel Kevles and Leroy Hood. _The Code of Codes: Social and Ethical Implications of the Human Genome Project_ (Harvard University Press)

3. Of course there are many scientists who will play to the gallery and make tall claims about the "magic bullet". The co-discoverer of the DNA, James Watson is one of them. But then he even claims that homelessness is not a social but a genetic condition.

4. You might object that you are not talking about the human genome, not about genomics in general, not about agribusiness, not about the politics of food, not about evolution in general etc. However if you do so, you must remember that in the real world these are not separate domains but inter-linked. Only positivists who have been seduced by the ideology of science, rather than the spirit of science, will try to disentangle these issues.

5. Kaffir raises an important point when he brings in the Orwellian "structural equivalence" issue. This is a cynical strategy of the hired gun scientists to claim that fundamentally there is no difference between GM and non-GM foods when we analyze their composition. Hence, there is no difference, hence no need to label them and to let consumers decide whether they want to eat it or not. This is surely sophistry, as the following example will surely demonstrate. Dolly the sheep was "structurally equivalent" to its mother. Complete genetic clone. Yet, it died prematurely. Why? A buffalo cloned in India recently was also "structurally equivalent" to its "mother" but died within a few hours after birth. Why if it was identical to its mother? For answers, read Richard Lewontin _The Triple Helix_ or watch him talk about such issues on youtube. He is a great speaker! And THE scientist on such issue, if you want to talk science and not ideology.

6. The hallmark of ideological argument is to deny that one is being ideological and claim the mantle of pure science or economics and fling the label at others. (British Economist Joan Robinson's quip: "Ideology is like bad breath; we are never aware of our own, only of others' bad breath").

7. As Ravi points out, and as I have done so ad nauseum, we are talking of FOOD, and not the cheap production of sexual toys such as vibrators and what not. Indeed, when you come back and tell us that science or economics tells us such and such, my response is that science and economics are too important to be left to the blinkered "scientists" and "ecnomists" alone! That is, like you, I also think I am making a "scientific" argument when I say that there is no shame in acknowledging our limitations when it comes to understanding complex processes. And once a certain process is underway, once biodiversity is destroyed, once we are locked into the stranglehold of the Monsantos of this world, THERE IS NO GOING BACK to the way we were because the ground realities would have changed. A manufacturer of vibrators would say, if the business failed, tough luck, you can do without self-pleasure. Use your hands. But what is the response when our tinkering with the food system fails? What, no wheat and rice, let them eat cakes?

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