Nature has given us a cornucopia of biodiversity rich in nutrients. Malnutrition and nutrient deficiency result from destroying biodiversity. The Green Revolution has spread monocultures of chemical rice and wheat, driving out biodiversity from our farms and diets.
And what survived as spontaneous crops — like amaranth greens (chaulai) and chenopodium (bathua) that are rich in iron — were sprayed with poisons and herbicides. Instead of cherishing them as iron- and vitamin-rich gifts, these vegetables were treated as “weeds”.
The “monoculture of the mind” treats diversity as disease and creates coercive structures to remodel this biologically and culturally diverse world of ours on the concepts of one privileged class, one race and one gender of a single species. As “the monoculture of the mind” took over, biodiversity disappeared from our farms and food. It’s the destruction of biodiverse rich cultivation and diets that has led us to the malnutrition crisis.
The latest insanity from genetic engineers is to push genetically modified bananas on India to reduce iron deficiency in Indian women. Seventy-five per cent of Indian women suffer from iron deficiency.
One rich man named Bill Gates is financing one Australian scientist James Dale who knows one crop, the banana, to impose inefficient and hazardous GM bananas on millions of people in India and Uganda.
The project is a waste of money, and a waste of time. It will take 10 years and millions of dollars to complete the research. Meanwhile, governments, research agencies and scientists will become blind to biodiversity-based low-cost, safe, time-tested, democratic alternatives that are in the hands of women.
Indian women have a wealth of knowledge about biodiversity and nutrition; they received it over generations, from their mothers and grandmothers. Any woman will tell you that the solution to malnutrition lies in growing nutrition, which means growing biodiversity.
To remove iron deficiency, iron-rich plants should be grown everywhere — on farms, in kitchen gardens, in community gardens, in school gardens. Iron deficiency was not created by nature and we can get rid of it by becoming co-creators and co-producers with nature.
But there is a “creation myth” that is blind to both, nature’s creativity and biodiversity as well as to women’s creativity, intelligence and knowledge. According to this “creation myth” of capitalist patriarchy, rich and powerful men are the “creators”. They can own life through patents and intellectual property. They can tinker with nature’s complex evolution over millennia and claim their trivial yet destructive acts of gene manipulation as “creating” life, food and nutrition.
India’s indigenous biodiversity offers rich sources of iron. For example, amaranth has 11.0 mg iron per 100 gm of food, buckwheat has 15.5, amaranth greens have upto 38.5, karonda 39.1 and lotus stem 60.6.
Bananas only have 0.44mg of iron per 100 grams of edible portion. All the effort to increase iron content of bananas will fall short of the iron content of our indigenous biodiversity. Not only is the GM banana not the best choice for providing iron in our diet, it will further threaten biodiversity of bananas and iron-rich crops and introduce new ecological risks.
If adopted, the GM banana will be grown as large monocultures, like GM Bt cotton in the banana plantations of Central America. The government and other agencies will push this false solution, and our biodiversity of iron-rich foods will disappear.
Also, our native banana varieties will be displaced and contaminated. These include Nedunendran, Zanzibar, Chengalikodan and the Manjeri Nendran II variety.
The idea of “nutrient farming” of a few nutrients in monocultures of a few crops is already being pushed at the policy level. Finance minister P. Chidambaram announced a Rs 200 crore project for “nutri farms” in his 2013 Budget speech.
Humans need a biodiversity of nutrients, including a full range of micronutrients and trace elements. These come from healthy soils and biodiversity.
There is a perverse urge among the biotechnology brigade to declare war on biodiversity in its centre of origin. An attempt was made to introduce Bt brinjal in India which is the centre of diversity for brinjal. GM corn is being introduced in Mexico, the centre of diversity of corn. GM banana is being introduced to the two countries where banana is a significant crop and has large diversity. One is India, the other is Uganda, the only country where banana is a staple.
HarvestPlus is the corporate alliance pushing “biofortification” — breeding crops to increase their nutritional value. But experts say that fortification of nutrients in foods could lead to insurmountable problems: “(it) may deliver toxic amounts of nutrients to an individual and also cause its associated side effects (and) the potential that the fortified products will still not be a solution to nutrient deficiencies amongst low income populations who may not be able to afford the new product and children who may not be able to consume adequate amounts thereof”.
Australian scientists are using a virus that infects the banana as a promoter. This could spread through horizontal gene transfer. All genetic engineering uses genes from bacteria and viruses. Independent studies have shown that there are health risks associated with GM foods.
There is no need for introducing a hazardous technology in a low-iron food like banana when we have so many affordable, accessible, safe and diverse options for meeting our nutritional needs of iron.
We have to grow nutrition by increasing biodiversity, not by industrially “fortifying” nutritionally empty food at high cost, or put one or two nutrients into genetically-engineered crops.
We don’t need these irresponsible experiments that create new threats for biodiversity and our health; we don’t need nutrient solutions imposed by powerful men sitting in distant places, who are totally ignorant of the biodiversity in our fields and thalis, and who won’t have to bear the consequences of their destructive power. We need to put food security in women’s hands so that the last woman and the last child can share nature’s gifts of biodiversity.
The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust