Tuesday, April 12, 2011

There is no resistance without alternatives

there is no sense in dividing resistance and alternatives, since none of them can take place without the other (M.D. Nanjundaswamy, 1998, Cremating Monsanto).
Activism against GM crops has often received significant media attention. In some ways, this is because it makes for a good story: there's a clear target of activism (often Monsanto or the government), and opposition often takes on symbolic forms that make for good media. For example, burning a field of GM crops or holding mass protests provide striking images and clear heroes and villains for media coverage (although not always those the movement would prefer).

However, not all opposition to GM crops is about protesting outside government offices or burning GM crops. Most of the opposition takes place at the ground level, and is about strengthening the existing alternatives to GM crops. This activism sees GM crops and hybrid crops as sharing similar disadvantages. Both require farmers to buy seeds rather than save them, use purchased inputs (like herbicide and fertiliser), and encourage monocropping rather than intercropping.

Image: woman pouring seed into decorated jars.
Groups and coalitions like the GREEN Foundation, Sahaja Sumruddha, the Honey Bee Network, and the Organic Agriculture Network have all been involved in this work. They have been promoting a variety of different farming techniques, including permaculture and traditional intercropping. They have also been promoting seed-saving and the use of traditional seed varieties.

These techniques have a number of benefits. Activists argue that intercropping can produce higher overall yields than monocultures. Growing a range of crops also provides food security and nutritional security: even if market prices fall, farmers can at least eat what they've grown and have access to a varied diet. Saving seeds means that farmers don't have to take out loans to buy seed, and using traditional seeds means that they are suited to local conditions. (All of this is, of course, debatable - if anyone wants further information on particular points they're welcome to ask in the comments).

If these alternatives are to survive, some protection is required against the influx of GM crops into India. At the same time, activists cannot oppose the arguments in favour of GM crops unless they can point to viable alternatives that will meet farmers' needs.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Jessica Ridgewell.

Genetically modified crops: why the fuss?

There are a number of different reasons why people are opposed to genetically modified (GM) crops. This is just a brief overview, because this wasn't the focus of my research.

GM crops are unnatural.
This is not something that I've focused on in my research, because it wasn't the main focus for most of the activists that I met who were opposing GM crops. (And personally, I wonder: what does "natural" mean, when we have done so much else to change the world around us, and to change ourselves? And is something good just because it's "natural"?)

GM crops may have unintended consequences. 
One reason for this is that we don't fully understand how genes work yet. For example, it's recently been found that "junk", or "seemingly non-functional" DNA, actually does play a significant role in determining which genes are active.

Another reason is that ecological and agricultural systems are complex: it's not possible to tell how changing one part of the system will affect other parts of the system in advance. The gradual change involved in traditional plant breeding gives time to see how other parts of the system are changing in response. The swiftness of genetic modification means that the system may change suddenly and drastically in unexpected and undesirable ways.

Similarly, experiments that are meant to tell whether GM crops are safe are only looking at them under controlled conditions and in the short term: they will not necessarily be able to tell what happens when GM crops are used in a complex system or in the long term.

This also might mean that when GM crops are consumed over the course of years, in combination with particular foods, or in ways not initially intended, they may have negative effects on human or animal health.
Pioneer seed corn packet.

GM crops are controlled by multinational corporations
The "Green Revolution" that occurred between the 1940s and 1970s involved the development and promotion of hybrid crops which needed more inputs, including irrigation and fertiliser. These crops and agricultural techniques were largely (but not entirely) developed and promoted by public bodies, including Indian agricultural universities and US research scientists. Hybrid seeds were mostly distributed for reasonably low prices.

In contrast, GM crops have largely been developed and promoted by private agrochemical companies such as Monsanto. This means that GM crops are being developed to meet the interests of private corporations: they're aimed at increasing MNCs' profits, not reducing world hunger, helping the environment, or meeting other public needs.

Using GM crops (and using hybrid crops) some activists argue, means that farmers no longer control seeds or agricultural technology, but instead have to buy seeds and other agricultural inputs.

Living organisms should not be subject to intellectual property laws.
It's not necessarily the case that GM crops will be patented. It's possible that if GM crops were developed by public institutions or non-profit organisations they might be released into the public domain.

However, at the moment the majority of development is being carried out by private institutions, or by universities that are being pushed into profit-making models and public-private partnerships. This means that most GM crops are being patented.

Activists argue that this is wrong because:
1) It's unethical to make living organisms the subject of patents or other intellectual property laws.
2) It means taking crops that were developed by communities through thousands of years of breeding and putting them into the private domain.

There are other arguments against GM crops, and other variations of these arguments, but this covers the main objections.

Image courtesy of Flickr user oculator.

Genetically modified crops and hybrids

Humans have been modifying plants' genetic material for a very long time now. By choosing plants with desirable characteristics, like good production, and replanting them, we end up with plant varieties that are more suited to our needs. Corn, for example, was developed by cultivating a kind of grass, teosinte, over thousands of years.

Plants that we refer to as 'genetically modified' are produced by a very different process. Instead of being changed gradually over many years of selective breeding, the DNA of the plant is modified directly. The genes that are modified might come from another variety of the same organism, or from an entirely different organism.

A field of corn, from Flickr user Peter Blanchard

Genetically modified crops are sometimes confused with hybrid crops. Hybrid crops are created by crossing one or more crop varieties using traditional breeding techniques. This might be done to combine desirable characteristics of different varieties: for example drought resistance from one variety and high production from another variety. Future generations of hybrid seeds will revert to the original varieties; if you save and replant seeds from hybrid plants, the parent varieties will grow rather than the newer hybrid varieties.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Stories about stories about stories

This is a renarration of a renarration.

Scattered over 2006, 2007, and 2008, I spent several months in India trying to learn about the opposition to genetically modified crops. I was first interested in this movement because I wanted to understand how local movements connected to the anti-globalisation/global justice movement. Did activists in Karnataka feel part of the international movement? Did they feel like the anti-WTO protests in Seattle were relevant to their work?

Along the way, my focus changed: I became far more interested in how local struggles to shape knowledge contributed to the global justice movement.

Because it matters whether we think the "experts" are local communities, activists, scientists working for corporations, or policymakers.
And it matters whether or not we can share information easily.
And it matters whether we control the technologies that are vital to our lives.

So many people talked to me. Farmers and environmental activists and journalists and academics and friends.

Some of them told me what I was expecting to hear, and some of them surprised me. Some of them talked about things I didn't think I cared about, until I realised that I did.

From that, I built a story. One part of it is here, and one part of it is here, and other parts of it are still tucked away in my thesis.

The material on this blog is an attempt to take some of these stories and retell them, not just alone but also with the help of other people. I can only ever retell stories in the languages that I have. Sometimes stories need a new language to have a new life.

Image: a sequence of photos of a man telling a story with animated expressions, courtesy of Noel A. Tanner.

Renarrating the Web

Alipi is a Web accessibility project with a difference: it allows users to renarrate the Web, explaining Web content in ways that are more relevant and accessible for print-impaired communities. You can see a demonstration here.

Briefly, though, it might mean turning this:

(English narration of fire safety precautions.)
Into this:

(Hindi narration of fire safety precautions. As well as a section of text being changed from English to Hindi, the image of a fire truck has been changed.)

Or this:

(Kannada narration of fire safety precautions. As well as a section of the text being changed to Kannada, the picture of a fire truck has been changed.)
Most Web accessibility projects aim to change the form of websites, for example by making the text bigger, adding text-to-speech capabilities, or adding captions to images. These projects are valuable and important, and help to make the Web more diverse by allowing people with disabilities to participate and contribute. In India the challenge is slightly different.

The population here, as in the West, includes a significant proportion of people who are not able to use sites that have not been designed with accessibility in mind. However, a far greater proportion of those excluded cannot access the Web for other reasons: because they don't have the economic resources, or because they can't read, or can't read English, and there are few sites available in their first language.

Alipi addresses this latter part of problem. The project allows users to reinterpret content in ways that are relevant to their community, changing the content as well as the form. As well as providing translations in text or audio, users can add commentary and bring attention to parts of a site that are particularly important to their communities.