Anti-GMO propaganda frequently came up in conversation while I was traveling in India last spring on assignment for the Cornell Alliance for Science.
It didn't matter whether I was talking with farmers, scientists, politicians, seed dealers, business owners, journalists, taxi drivers or average citizens. They'd all been exposed to it, and rejected its claims, based on their own personal experience with the technology, independent research or a healthy skepticism.
Yet they still marveled, as I did, at how effectively it had influenced politicians and the general public.
It's a topic that's fascinated me since I began watching the same phenomenon unfold in Hawaii, starting with the Vandana Shiva rally back in January 2013. After doing exhaustive research into biotechnology, and the groups that oppose it, my own views on the topic shifted dramatically, and I began chronicling and debunking the anti-GMO movement in the Islands.
So it was with great interest that I interviewed my better-educated, and far more devoted, Indian counterpart — Dr. C. Kameswara Rao.
Cornell videographer Jeremy Veverka and I climbed the narrow stairway to his home in Bangalore, a fast-growing small city that can best be described as a swirl of traffic. His house was a quiet respite from the hot pandemonium of the streets. He served us cold mango juice and said we should call him Kam.
Kam is a retired academic and plant biologist who now spends his days refuting anti-GMO propaganda and writing about biotechnology. He and other Indian scientists started the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education as a self-funded public service, providing a credible source of information about biotech.
Kam sees activism against agricultural technology as driven primarily by economic special interests, whether its European pesticide companies who lost significant business when India adopted Bt cotton, which requires fewer pesticide applications, or the organic industry.
“It is their livelihood, not a calling,” he said. “In fact, all these activists, they are registered lobbyists on European Commission records. Europe is the major funding agency for all these activities here in India.”
He believes the stakes in the GMO battle are high, with anti-biotech activism posing the greatest threat to India's food security.
"It's a question of affordability," he said. "That is the basic issue here. People are hungry because they don't have money to buy the food that is available. Food will become cheaper if your production is more."
I thought of the similar high stakes in Hawaii, not only for the future of agriculture, since seeds are its biggest sector, but for the global seed industry, since the Islands are a hub for international plant breeding. That's the dreaded “research” that Don Heacock referenced ominously in the propaganda film “Aina.” They aren't doing any pesticide experiments here, either. That work is done in confined facilities, on the mainland.
“Over here, we're all about keeping the plants alive,” said Dr. Sarah Styan, a horticulturalist and senior research manager at the Dupont Pioneer facilities in Hawaii.
That's because plant breeders around the world are awaiting the timely arrival of healthy seeds, for which they pay handsomely.
I'll be writing more about what I learned by visiting the Kauai seed operations. I hear a similar invitation was extended to the Sproats, and I hope they and the rest of the Waipa Foundation board will accept. It's quite amazing to contrast reality against the propaganda that's been disseminated so aggressively.
In the meantime, you can read my profile of Dr. Rao here.