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Posted at: May 4, 2019, 6:42 AM; last updated: May 4, 2019, 6:42 AM (IST)

Make room for diversity on the food front

Shiv Visvanathan

Shiv Visvanathan
By reaching into the folklore of diversity, India might create a more effective answer to the obscenity of intellectual property. Merely boycotting the multinational will not do. We need the scholarship to challenge it ethically and civilisationally and create new links between modern science and traditional agriculture.
Make room for diversity on the food front
Stereotype: The confrontation between a multinational and a few potato farmers has been presented as a David vs Goliath story.

Shiv Visvanathan
Academic associated with Compost Heap

THE media reports were stark, bare and skeletal, claiming that PepsiCo had sued farmers in Gujarat for growing a variety of potato without its permission. The multinational sought damages up to Rs 1 crore from each of them and later decided to withdraw the cases. The narrative gets immediately caught in a stereotype which loses its deeper layers.

It is presented as a typical David vs Goliath story. One has to challenge the very makings of the story. The language is all wrong, the morality is worse as the very idea of law turns ownership and exclusive ownership into an obscenity. The fact that law schools speak this language emphasises its acceptability while banalising evil. Hannah Arendt used it as a concept to explain Adolf Eichmann’s behaviour. 

In a moral world, seed and food are part of the sacred. They embody life and define life. The modern market turns seed into a commodity. Science destroys the sacred to create idolatry around innovation. One sees it in a standard book of economics where Joseph Schumpeter praises innovation as a creative act of destruction. In cultural terms, the Schumpeterian innovator, especially in the world of food, was a cultural idiot, illiterate about traditional innovation. Before one considers the innovation of modern corporations, one has to be clear that even today all food we consume, from maize to rice and wheat, is a result of traditional innovation. Modern agriculture has not added any major staple to this collection.

The first bias we have to counter is the bias of modernity and science about agriculture, which sees traditional agriculture as static and modern agriculture as innovative. The second bias is that of law which fails to realise that in most societies, food and nature were part of the commons. Food was a gift sustained by myth and ritual, by traditional diversity. Food was also a form of trusteeship. One of the most brilliant examples of such a trusteeship is the Potato Park in the Andes. The park, as a micro centre for diversity, protects over 40 varieties of potato based on traditional philosophies of agriculture. One needs such a background to understand that the very language and format of media narratives forestall the possibility of justice.

Our law and media pay little attention to history, law, ethics or philosophy. It is not just the asymmetry of the battle that makes it amoral. It is the nature of law which allows for a certain form of intellectual property and patenting regarding food. The multinational realises it is right in law but wrong in publicity. It decides to withdraw the civil suit and settle the matter out of court, provided the farmers become exclusive sellers to the company. It this is corporate humanitarianism, the very idea of CSR (corporate social responsibility), which is an ethical oxymoron, needs to be reassessed.

The language is precise. The farmers are ‘illegal dealers’ of a registered variety of plant which belongs ‘exclusively’ to the multinational. The obscenity of language and ethics mars the entire case and the law in its technicalities deodorises it. The obscenity extends to the politicians who, without challenging the validity of the law, threaten the company amid the elections. There is no evidence that they have any understanding of the political economy and epistemology of food. Cheap populism meets bad political economy throughout this narrative. We have a mangled text which hides a deeper history and a complex context. One has to resume the real narrative by going back to Peru, to the Andean mountains, a great gene pool of diversity on the potato. One goes back to an organisation like PRATEC, a project on peasant technologies in the Andes. Anthropologist Fredique Marglin is one of its finest storytellers, a scholar and an activist as knowledgeable about the Chau dance as of Andean potatoes. 

Marglin shows that the leaders of PRATEC realised that development as ontology, economy and epistemology had failed. They sensed that native agriculture was more adequate for the environment. The Andes had grown 3,500 varieties of potato, a part of the intellectual commons of the area. It would be obscene to patent such a living heritage. PRATEC leaders realised that to keep the potato with its stunning diversity alive one had to become trustees — in the Gandhian sense — of the world of the potato. One cannot imagine a multinational like PepsiCo or Monsanto engage in such an act of trusteeship as an act of cultural celebration. One has to realise what PRATEC is doing is not preservationist, ‘museumising’ the potato, but the best of innovation within a cultural commons.

The Potato Park is another variant of this dream of diversity. Central to all these experiments is the way memory and wisdom about the potato is passed on to the next generation. From storytelling to dialogue, orality expands to create a different kind of expertise. While dealing with the PepsiCo case, we forget this broader cultural background of debate. The limits of our radicalism are seen in the illiteracy of our protests. We talk of politics stripped of cognitive justice, of epistemology and ethics. One has to go back to a Gandhian model of Satyagraha and boycott the multinational food company. One is not arguing this from a mere Left ideology but as an academic anthropologist, a citizen who wishes to create a dialogue between knowledge and democracy and feels food needs its sense of the sacred to stay ‘food’. One should be grateful that at least one of the lawyers of the farmers, Anand Yagnik, is conversant with such as tradition. 

One needs to capture this narrative within a wider culture of storytelling. In doing so, we have to locate the bare-boned idea of law within a political economy which, in turn, has to be located within a wider history of science and ethics. The impoverishment of storytelling is part of the current impoverishment of democracy. By reaching into the unconscious of culture, into the folklore of diversity, India might create a more effective answer to the obscenity of intellectual property. Merely boycotting the multinational will not do. We need the scholarship to challenge it ethically and civilisationally and create new links between modern science and traditional agriculture.

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