The Colonization of the Seed The technological transformation of seeds is justified by scientists and industrialists in the language of "improvement" and increase of "economic value". However, "improvement" and "value" are not neutral terms. What is improvement in one context is often regression in another. What is value added from one perspective is value lost from another. The "improvement" of seeds is essentially a political process, shifting control over biological diversity from peasants to transnational corporations and changing a self-reproducing resource into a mere "input".
The ability of the seed to reproduce itself is an important barrier to the penetration of agriculture by the corporate sector. In planting each year's crop farmers also reproduce a necessary part of their means of production. Modern plant breeding is primarily an attempt to remove this biological obstacle to corporate control of the market in seeds. Self-reproducing seed is free, a common resource under the farmer's control. Corporate seed, however, has a cost and is under the control of the corporate sector or the agricultural research institutes. The cycle of regeneration of biodiversity is thus replaced by a linear flow of free germplasm from farms and forests into labs and research stations, and the flow of modified uniform products as priced commodities from corporations to farmers.
Winnowing wheat, Uttar Pradesh, India. Traditionally, farmers keep part of their grain harvest to plant the following year. "Improved" seeds, however, have to be bought for each harvest as their productivity decreases with succesive generations, increasing dependency and debt in farming communities. (Photo: Mark Edwards/Still Pictures)
The new biotechnologies, and especially the development of crops resistant to brand-name herbicides, will increase farmers' reliance on technology. Whether a chemical is added externally or internally, it remains an external input in the ecological cycle of the reproduction of seed.
ties has brought about a marked change in the status of insect pests like gall midge, brown planthopper, leaf-folder, whore maggot, etc. Most of the high-yielding varieties released so far are susceptible to major pests with a crop loss of 30-100 per cent."3 Even where new varieties are specially bred for resistance to disease, "breakdown in resistance can occur rapidly and in some instances replacement varieties may be required every three years or so."4 In the Punjab, the rice variety PR 106, which currently accounts for 80 per cent of the area under rice cultivation, was considered resistant to whitebacked planthopper and stem rot when it was introduced in 1976. It has since become susceptible to both diseases, in addition to succumbing to rice leaf-f older, hispa, stemborer and several other insect pests.
The natural vulnerability of HYVs to pests has been exacerbated by other aspects of the Green Revolution package. Large-scale monoculture provides a large and often permanent niche for pests, turning minor diseases into epidemics; in addition, fertilizers have been found to lower plants' resistance to pests. The result has been a massive increase in the use of pesticides, in itself creating still further pest problems due to the emergence of pesticide-resistant
pests and a reduction in the natural checks on pest populations.
The "miracle" seeds of the Green Revolution have thus become mechanisms for breeding new pests and creating new diseases. Yet the costs of pesticides or of breeding new "resistant" varieties was never counted as part of the "miracle" of the new seeds.
Over the centuries, the fertility of the IndoGangetic plains was preserved through treating the soil as a living system, with soil-depleting crops being rotated with soilbuilding legumes. Twenty years of "Farmers' Training and Education Schemes", however, have transformed the Punjab farmer into an efficient, i f unwilling, "soil bandit".
Marginal land or forests have been cleared to make way for the expansion of agriculture; rotations have been abandoned; and cropland is now used to grow soildepleting crops year-in, year-out. Since the start of the Green Revolution, the area under wheat, for example, has nearly doubled and the area under rice has increased five-fold. During the same period,
the area under legumes has been reduced by half. Today, 84 per cent of the Punjab is under cultivation, as against 42 per cent for India as a whole. Only four per cent of the Punjab is now "forest", most of this being plantations of Eucalyptus.5
The result of such agricultural intensification has been "a downward spiralling of agricultural land use — from legume to wheat to wasteland."6 The removal of legumes from cropping patterns, for example, has removed a major source of free nitrogen from the soil. In addition, the new HYVs reduce the supply of fodder and organic fertilizer available to farmers. Traditional varieties of sorghum yield six pounds of straw per acre for every pound of grain. By contrast modern rice varieties produce equivalent amounts of grain and straw. This has contributed to the thirtyfold rise in fertilizer consumption in the state since the inception of the Green Revolution.
Increased fertilizer use, however, has not compensated for the over-use of the soil. High-yielding varieties rapidly deplete micronutrients from soils and chemical fertilizers (unlike organic manures which contain a wide range of trace elements) cannot compensate for the loss. Micronutrient deficiencies of zinc, iron, copper,
The Ecologist, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April 1991