My Lesson About Genetically Manipulated Food from a little Village in the Himalayas


Sunderlal Bahuguna hugs a tree

Let me tell you where I am coming from.  I grew up in India in the 70s and 80s and our school text books fed us the idea of genetically engineered (GE) crops as the ultimate solution for our poor country’s vast food needs.  Later I went to college in the U.S. and did my studies and research in genetics and ecology.  The plan was to go into a Ph.D. program to become a plant genetics engineer.

However, while in college I got a fellowship to go and work in India on a project with the Chipko – a grassroots movement of rural people, mostly women, working to protect their immediate environment.  Chipko literally means — to hug.  And it was one form of activism.  Women and children would hug the trees, literally using their bodies as shields to protect the trees from being felled.  It’s probably where the term “tree-hugger” comes from.

The founder of the Chipko, Sunerlal Bahuguna, a man of a magnanimous spirit and vision, was very receptive towards me, and gave me many options where I could work on an ongoing project.  I picked a project that I thought would put my background in ecology and genetics to good use.   I was mentored by Dr.Vandana Shiva(who is now at the front of the battle against GM crops).


Personal correspondence with Mr. Bahuguna that I treasure

My project  was in a remote village called Nahi-Kala in the Sisiyaru-Khala Valley, which is sub-valley of the majestic Doon Valley in the Himalayas.  This region is now known as Uttarakhand.  Besides lush flora, this region  is also rich in limestones, which companies had been strip mining.   They would sometime replant the stripped hill sides with Eucalyptus, another commercially viable product, which being non–native to India not only inhibited and further destroyed local species, but which with its deep and fast growing roots also robbed the region of ground water.  Worse still, since the limestones themselves, being porous, are natural aquifers for this region, all the rivers in this area had started drying up. The villagers from Nahi-kala were fighting as case in court against the limestone industry on their ‘hill,’ to force them to shut down.  This was only one case, and I do believe there were similar struggles going in villages in other parts of the valley.

My project was to do a general ecological survey of the area around the Nahi-kala village and create a scientifically classified herbarium of plant samples from the Sisiyaru Khala valley.   This was to establish the plant genetic diversity of the valley where the Nahi Kala village was located.   I also did what is called a folk classification.  Which is, I classified the plant samples according to the local system, using local names, establishing the use and impact of each plant, tree and herb that grew in the valley on the life of the local people With the help of other urban, legal activists who joined the Chipko, the Nahi people had taken their case to the Supreme Court of India, accusing the limestone industries of destroying their environment, their livelihoods and endangering their very survival.

Rivers and streams drying up

A completely dried up river bed. A man walks across it.

The dense original forest in the foreground. In the background the area strip mined and replanted with eucalyptus trees.


Here I am with Chammun Deyi and her children. She used herself and her children as shields to stop the mining trucks at one point.

However, there was an interesting twist to my project. The villagers I stayed with told me another story which was not related to my project.   I observed that they had little nurseries near their houses, where they’d transplant wild plant species from the forests, for lentils, herbs and other legumes, and domesticate them in these nurseries, before transplanting them to their fields.  I was astonished because we read about plant domestication happening thousands of years ago, but I didn’t really realize that for communities remote like this one, this was still very much a part of their every day existence.  Indeed the community depended for its everyday survival needs besides food, — also herbs, medicines, fibers, fuels on the biodiversity of the forest which the limestone mining company was destroying.  The villages here are very isolated; there are no roads going up, and it took me 7-8 hours using a ‘goat path’ to climb to the village.  And that could be one of the reasons for this extreme dependency on the forest for all their needs.

Letter from the Nahi people telling me about their Victory!

But I thought the plant nursery was absolutely incredible!  The Nahi-kala folks told me, how the Indian government in the late 1970s had sent officials up the mountains to these remote villages to get them to agree to use the ‘magic’ crop seeds (the GE seeds) that the government was pushing farmers to use.   The GE seeds gave no yields – because they are dependent on fertilizers and insectides (which the villagers have no money to buy!) and the crops need lots of water.  Traditional crops are adjusted to whatever water they get from rain.  The villagers then uprooted the GE crops and promptly went back to farming their old ways, using diverse species that they were constantly seeking and domesticating and transplanting from the forests.

That herbarium I created to was used to establish the biodiversity of the valley (more than 110 species in a 1 km radius by the way), and how it actually sustained life for the people in the valley.  When I got back to the U.S., The American Botanical Society gave me the Young Botanist of the Year award.  But the best thing that happened was when some time later,  the villagers sent me a jubilant letter telling me about their victory in the Supreme Court and thanking me for for fighting with them.  The company was forced by the Supreme court to shut down their activities in the subvalley where the Nahi village was!!!


A Chipko booklet published in Hindi and pahadi by the locals

But the gratitude was actually mine! The direction of my research, projects, my career – indeed my life turned around completely!  It was like changing sides during World War II.  I went into conservation biology – and I still used my background in genetics and ecology but not for plant genetic engineering but for fighting for the preservation of plant biodiversity at the macro level.  One of my most favorite projects was to locate case studies of the small farmers in third world countries who still maintained traditional crops in their fields, like the way the Nahi people did.

I had realized from my experience at the Nahi village that genetic diversity as it existed in nature,

Their story in their words: It says Nahi Kala is witness to the destruction of the limestone industry

in the fields, and forests and soils, was life – and was what sustained life.  Repackaging diverse genes in a single crop, and expecting it to be multi-functional was not diversity!!!  In traditional crops the kinds the villagers used, because the crops bred naturally they contain immense diversity amidst each crop.  And so even if there was an insect attack – some crops got destroyed, but some survived.  The villagers did not go hungry.  But with GE crops – all seeds have the same genetic makeup and so if an insect attack comes, they are all equally susceptible.  This much was clear to me — GE crops was not the solution to India’s or the world’s hunger.  On the contrary GE was very destructive to the environment (because the GE crops also took huge amounts of chemical fertilizers and insectides), and to people and their livestock.


Somebody from India raised the point that India and most other countries including the U.S.  don’t have GM food crops!! I wonder how many people think that?

The fact is,   we have had crops that are genetically modified crops in India since the 1960s – in what initially was called the Green Revolution.  They were known as genetically engineered (GE) or HYV (High Yielding Variety) seeds and scientists promised they would give high yields and solve India’s food problems.   There are many techniques of genetic manipulation that were discovered as early as the 1940s.  Over the years they’ve become more expansive, intrusive and irresponsible in their implementation.   BUT THEY ALL INVOLVE SOME FORM OF GENETIC MANIPULATION OF THE PLANTS.

There was a bitter lesson in store for India from the use of the GE crops in the 70s.  It produced bigger yields but only for the big, rich commercial farmers.  But 70% of farmers in India, the small guys who need their farm produce to feed their families, got poorer and produced less, got into debt and often lost their farms.  More so, the commercial farms with big yields also completely destroyed the ground and soil and water with the persistent use of vast amounts of chemicals that the GE crops need.

It is very important for people to understand the trickery of big commercial seed companies in trying to introduce the term ‘GM’ like it is a new term.  For it is simply history repeating.  It is a repackaging of the same old monster — the GE crops, and this time with a promise to inflict unimaginable damage on life on a much larger scale.

If people don’t know that then the multi-trillion dollar global GM industry giants (like Monsanto) with their money and resources have done a good job of public hypnosis and it is therefore that much more important that those of us who have worked in this field, like I have, speak out !

The new hype now seems to be about GM crops.  The big companies selling the seeds and of course the chemicals the seeds need like fertilizers and insecticides, are trying to pretend it is something new altogether.  BUT IT IS NOT!

GM – stands for Genetically Modified.  GE – stands for Genetically Engineered.  They are the same thing!!  Look at the words.  Look at what the words are saying.  Look at what each of them involves.  The USDA definition for GE is “Manipulation of an organism’s genes by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques.” And the USDA definition for GM is “The production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods. Some countries other than the United States use this term to refer specifically to genetic engineering.”  GE and GM  —  are same.  Call it a ‘Lift’ or call it an ‘Elevator.’  We are talking about the same thing.

GE messed around with genes in the plants.  And so does GM.  IT IS ALL GENETIC ENGINEERING, USING BIOTECHOLOGY TO PLAY AROUND WITH GENES!!  Only that in GE crops the genes that they messed around with were mainly within plants.  For the GM crops – they have bigger plans!  They plan to mess up all forms of life altogether.  They can take any gene from any living thing and insert it into any living thing.  Could they take a gene from a pig and put it into a tomatoes? – hey why not!   Maybe some people like fried tomatoes smelling of bacon with eggs! Bacon actually without the bacon can be very healthy —  right?  Or a bacony tomatoe sandwhich !!  Think of what a selling novelty that would be!

This is unleashing Frankenstein on the human species and on the earth.  It will completely wreck thousands of years of evolution of life forms!!  Right now this is like nuclear warfare at a genetic level.  Can you imagine – there are no natural boundaries left between species.  Think of the possibilities, animals could get plant diseases and vice versa.  The complete destruction of life!!

The companies making and market GM only care about money!! They will say and do anything to sell their product because they sold their souls long ago!

Be informed! Take control! Don’t let these big, money making, soul-less machines buy your brain, your life and your choices!

Leave a comment


  1. I would like to hear some mathematics from someone as knowledgable as yourself. Roughly measure up the amount of cultivable land. Now, work out the amount of rice and/or wheat + vegetables one can grow with it. Divide by the world population. Please use this math only from an organic farming point of view. Please elaborate how many people you can feed in 2020. I’ll wait for the math problem to resolve.

    • Here are some readingS: Why the Green Revolution was not so green after all, The myth of the green revolution, India’s failed food system. Can organic farming feed India? Yes — if we have efficient systems of delivery, storage, distribution, cut the corruption out. And studies have been done repeatedly on that. Here’s an excerpt from this article, “A seven-year study from Maikaal District in central India involving 1,000 farmers cultivating 3,200 hectares found that average yields for cotton, wheat, chili, and soy were as much as 20 percent higher on the organic farms than on nearby conventionally managed ones. Farmers and agricultural scientists attributed the higher yields in this dry region to the emphasis on cover crops, compost, manure, and other practices that increased organic matter (which helps retain water) in the soils. A study from Kenya found that while organic farmers in “high-potential areas” (those with above-average rainfall and high soil quality) had lower maize yields than nonorganic farmers, organic farmers in areas with poorer resource endowments consistently outyielded conventional growers. (In both regions, organic farmers had higher net profits, return on capital, and return on labor.) “

  2. Anu

     /  October 24, 2012

    @ Dilip — Why do you seem to be so frustrated with the findings. Why do we all want to seek a easy way out of the problems. The findings here are so true and in best of the interest.

    I agree the natural farming may not serve the food crisis o ever increasing population of human species but then who’s responsibility is it to control ? Instead of promoting the foreign giants government should work on ground promoting organic by providing good irrigation, natural fertilizers, and educate farmers. Well saying this – it seems to be a distant dream which might die as an infant.

  3. Actually, the world today produces much more food than it needs. Mountains of food are systematically being destroyed to keep prices up, or are left to rot when prices are low. The food that finally finds a way to the poor is often obstructed by conflicts or siphoned away by corrupt officials. Land that could grow food is used to grow commercial crops. People go hungry not because there is a lack of food, but because food, like income, is distributed unequally.

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