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30 June 2003updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

“Kindly tell our agonies to your scientists . . .“

"Kindly tell our agonies to your scientists . . ."

By Katharine Ainger

When you say you are trying to feed the poor, it can be embarrassing to have poor farmers turning up on your doorstep saying you are doing no such thing. In the summer of 1999, 30 farmers from Gujarat and the Punjab turned up at the Nuffield Foundation’s office in Bloomsbury, London and demanded to see the director. They wanted to challenge a report claiming that the development of genetically modified crops was a “moral imperative”. They were infuriated that Nuffield had consulted no farmers from the developing world. Eventually Anthony Tomei, the director, agreed to speak to them, though not before calling the police. I accompanied the farmers and recorded what was said.

Around the table sat the leaders of five of India’s largest farmers’ unions. A quarter of the world’s farmers are Indian, so their opinion was of no small account. “We understand,” began Manjit Kadran, an imposing man with a large turban, “that you have issued a report insisting that there is a moral imperative to develop genetically modified foods to feed the world.” He leant forward, sternly. “Perhaps you believe that India needs genetically engineered seeds, or there will be famine? I am from north-west India. India has a surplus of food, and we have a problem of storage, not of shortage. What we need are facilities and political will for the distribution of this food. Even without genetically engineered seeds, we have surplus. So you can imagine our astonishment to hear from your report that we need genetically engineered food to feed ourselves.”

The director said he hadn’t written the report himself, and that they couldn’t engage in debate then and there . . .

“This very bio-engineering,” interrupted a white-haired man in a dhoti. “What about our ecological and cultural biodiversity? When you limit seed varieties to one or two? Now we have hundreds of varieties. If one fails, we have many others we can use. If we have only one and it fails, all fails.”

Hashmukh Patel added: “Seventy per cent of Indians rely on agriculture . . . Our past experiences, for example with hybrid seeds, show they are useless after one or two or three crops, and require huge amounts of pesticides and fertilisers.

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“Your report gets heard. But we don’t have a voice that gets heard. This is why we came in a crowd. It is the only way to show our agony. No one hears us. We are frustrated. Kindly tell our agonies to your scientists.”

As we were getting up to leave, Patel added, with a smile: “You paid a lot of expensive researchers and consultants for that report. But we have given you our good opinion for free.”

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