and the Privatization of Seeds
by Anuradha Mittal and Peter Rosset
Dollars and Sense magazine, March / April 2001
In 1998, angry farmers burned Monsanto-owned fields in Karnataka,
India, starting a nationwide "Cremate Monsanto" campaign.
The campaign demanded that biotech corporations like Monsanto,
Novartis, and Pioneer leave the country. Farmers particularly
targeted Monsanto because its field trials of the "terminator
gene" - designed to prevent plants from producing seeds and
so to make farmers buy new seed each year - created the danger
of "genetic pollution" that would sterilize other crops
in the area. That year, Indian citizens chose Quit India Day (August
9), the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's demand that British colonial
rulers leave the country, to launch a "Monsanto Quit India"
campaign. Ten thousand citizens from across the country sent the
Quit India message to Monsanto's Indian headquarters, accusing
the company of colonizing the food system.
In recent years, farmers across the world have echoed the
Indian farmers' resistance to the biotech giants. In Brazil, the
Landless Workers' Movement (MST) has set out to stop Monsanto
soybeans. The MST has vowed to destroy any genetically engineered
crops planted in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where the state
government has banned such crops. Meanwhile, last September more
than 1,000 local farmers joined a "Long March for Biodiversity"
across Thailand. "Rice, corn, and other staple crops, food
crops, medicinal plants and all other life forms are significant
genetic resources that shape our culture and lifestyle,"
the farmers declared. "We oppose any plan to transform these
into genetically modified organisms."
INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE I: THE GREEN REVOLUTION
For thousands of years, small farmers everywhere have grown
food for their local communities - planting diverse crops in healthy
soil, recycling organic matter, and following nature's rainfall
patterns. Good farming relied upon the farmer's accumulated knowledge
of the local environment. Until the 1950s, most Third World agriculture
was done this way.
The "Green Revolution" of the 1960s gradually replaced
this kind of farming with monocultures (single crop production)
heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
The industrialization of agriculture made Third World countries
increase exports to First World markets, in order to earn the
foreign exchange they needed to pay for agrochemicals and farm
machinery manufactured in the global North. Today, as much as
70% of basic grain production in the global South is the product
of industrial farming.
The Green Revolution was an attempt by northern countries
to export chemical- and machine-intensive U.S. style agriculture
to the Third World. After the Cuban revolution, northern policymakers
worried that rampant hunger created the basis for "communist"
revolution. Since the First World had no intention of redistributing
the world's wealth, its answer was for First World science to
"help" the Third World by giving it the means to produce
more food. The Green Revolution was to substitute for the "red."
During the peak Green Revolution years, from 1970 to 1990,
world food production per capita rose by 11 %. Yet the number
of people living in hunger (averaging less than the minimum daily
caloric intake) continued to rise. In the Third World - excluding
China - the hungry population increased by more than 11%, from
536 to 597 million. While hunger declined somewhat relative to
total Third World population, the Green Revolution was certainly
not the solution for world hunger that its proponents made it
out to be.
Not only did the Green Revolution fail to remedy unequal access
to food and food-producing resources, it actually contributed
to inequality. The costs of improved seeds and fertilizers hit
cash-poor small farmers the hardest. Unable to afford the new
technology, many farmers lost their land. Over time, the industrialization
of agriculture contributed to the replacement of farms with corporations,
farmers with machines, mixed crops with monocultures, and local
food security with global commerce.
INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE II: THE NEW BIOREVOLUTION
The same companies that promoted chemical-based agriculture
are now bringing the world genetically engineered food and agriculture.
Some of the leading pesticide companies of yesterday have become
what today are euphemistically called "life sciences companies"
- Aventis, Novartis, Syngenta, Monsanto, DuPont, and others. Through
genetic engineering, these companies are now converting seeds
into product-delivery systems. The crops produced by Monsanto's
Roundup-Ready brand seeds, for example, tolerate only the company's
Roundup brand herbicide.
The "life sciences" companies claim that they can
solve the environmental problems of agriculture. For example,
they promise to create a world free of pesticides by equipping
each crop with its own "insecticidal genes. " Many distinguished
agriculture scientists, corporate bigwigs, and economists are
jumping on the "biotechnology" bandwagon. They argue
that, in a world where more than 830 million people go to bed
hungry, biotechnology provides the only hope of feeding our burgeoning
population, especially in the Third World.
In fact, since genetic engineering is based on the same old
principles of industrial agriculture - monoculture, technology,
and corporate control - it is likely to exacerbate the problems
of ecological and social devastation:
* As long as chemical companies dominate the "life sciences"
industry, the biotechnology they develop will only reinforce intensive
chemical use. Corporations are currently developing plants whose
genetic traits can be turned "on" or "off"
by applying an external chemical, as well as crops that die if
the correct chemical - made by the same company- is not applied.
* The biotechnology industry is releasing hundreds of thousands
of genetically engineered organisms into the environment every
year. These organisms can reproduce, cross-pollinate, mutate,
and migrate. Each release of a genetically engineered organism
is a round of ecological Russian roulette. Recently, Aventis'
genetically engineered StarLink corn, a variety approved by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture only for livestock consumption,
entered the food supply by mixing in grain elevators and cross-pollinating
in the field.
* With the advent of genetic engineering, corporations are
using new "intellectual property" rights to stake far-reaching
claims of ownership over a vast array of biological resources.
By controlling the ownership of seeds, the corporate giants force
farmers to pay yearly for seeds they once saved from each harvest
to the next planting. By making seed exchanges between farmers
illegal, they also limit farmers' capacity to contribute to agricultural
THE FALSE PROMISE OF "GOLDEN RICE"
The biotech industry is taking great pains to advertise the
humanitarian applications of genetic engineering. "[M]illions
of people - many of them children - have lost their sight to vitamin
A deficiency," says the Council for Biotechnology Information,
an industry-funded public relations group. "But suppose rice
consumers could obtain enough vitamin A and iron simply by eating
dietary staples that are locally grown? . .. Biotechnology is
already producing some of these innovations." More than $10
million was spent over ten years to engineer vitamin A rice -
hailed as the "Golden Rice" - at the Institute of Plant
Sciences of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
It will take millions more and another decade of research and
development to produce vitamin A rice varieties that can actually
be grown in farmers' fields.
In reality, the selling of vitamin A rice as a miracle cure
for blindness depends on blindness to lower-cost and safer alternatives.
Meat, liver, chicken, eggs, milk, butter, carrots, pumpkins, mangoes,
spinach and other leafy green vegetables, and many other foods
contain vitamin A. Women farmers in Bengal, an eastern Indian
state, plant more than 100 varieties of green leafy vegetables.
The promotion of monoculture and rising herbicide use, however,
are destroying such sources of vitamin A. For example, bathua,
a very popular leafy vegetable in northern India, has been pushed
to extinction in areas of intensive herbicide use.
The long-run solutions to vitamin A deficiency - and other
nutritional problems - are increased biodiversity in agriculture
and increased food security for poor people. In the meantime,
there are better, safer, and more economical short-run measures
than genetically engineered foods. UNICEF, for example, gives
high-dose vitamin A capsules to poor children twice a year. The
cost? Just two cents per pill. (You can support the UNICEF Vitamin
A project by calling 1-800-FOR-KIDS or visiting <www.unicefusa.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS AND GENETIC ENGINEERING
In 1998, Monsanto surprised Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser
by suing him for doing what he has always done and, indeed, what
farmers have done for millennia- save seeds for the next planting.
Schmeiser is one of hundreds of Canadian and U.S. farmers the
company has sued for reusing genetically engineered seeds. Monsanto
has patented those seeds, and forbids farmers from saving them.
In recent years, Monsanto has spent over $8.5 billion acquiring
seed and biotech companies, and DuPont spent over $9.4 billion
to acquire Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world's largest seed company.
Seed is the most important link in the food chain. Over 1.4 billion
people - primarily poor farmers - depend on farm-saved seed for
their livelihoods. While the "gene police" have not
yet gone after farmers in the Third World, it is probably only
a matter of time.
If corporations like Monsanto have their way, genetic technology
- like the so-called "terminator" seeds - will soon
render the "gene police" redundant. Far from being designed
to increase agricultural production, "terminator" technology
is meant to prevent unauthorized production - and increase seed-industry
profits. Fortunately, worldwide protests, like the "Monsanto
Quit India" campaign, forced the company to put this technology
on hold. Unfortunately, Monsanto did not pledge to abandon "terminator"
seeds permanently, and other companies continue to develop similar
From the United States to India, small-scale ecological agriculture
is proving itself a viable alternative to chemical intensive and
bioengineered agriculture. In the United States, the National
Research Council found that "alternative farmers often produce
high per acre yields with significant reductions in costs per
unit of crop harvested," despite the fact that "many
federal policies discourage adoption of alternative practices."
The Council concluded that "federal commodity programs must
be restructured to help farmers realize the full benefits of the
productivity gains possible through alternative practices."
Another study, published in the American Journal of Alternative
Agriculture, found that ecological farms in India were just as
productive and profitable as chemical ones. The author concluded
that, if adopted on a national scale, ecological farming would
have "no negative impact on food security," and would
reduce soil erosion and the depletion of soil fertility while
greatly lessening dependence on external inputs.
The country where alternative agriculture has been put to
its greatest test, however, is Cuba. Before 1989, Cuba had a model
Green Revolution-style agricultural economy (an approach the Soviet
Union had promoted as much as the United States). Cuban agriculture
featured enormous production units, using vast quantities of imported
chemicals and machinery to produce export crops, while the country
imported over half its food.
Although the Cuban government's commitment to equity and favorable
terms of trade offered by Eastern Europe protected Cubans from
undernourishment, the collapse of the East bloc in 1989 exposed
the vulnerability of this approach. Cuba plunged into its worst
food crisis since the revolution. Consumption of calories and
protein dropped by perhaps as much as 30%. Nevertheless, today
Cubans are eating almost as well as they did before 1989, with
much lower imports of food and agrochemicals. What happened?
Cut off from imports of food and agrochemicals, Cuba turned
inward to create a more self-reliant agriculture based on higher
crop prices to farmers, smaller production units, urban agriculture,
and ecological principles. As a result of the trade embargo, food
shortages, and the opening of farmers' markets, farmers began
to receive much better prices for their products. Given this incentive
to produce, they did so, even without Green Revolution-style inputs.
The farmers received a huge boost from the reorientation of government
education, research, and assistance toward alternative methods,
as well as the rediscovery of traditional farming techniques.
While small farmers and cooperatives increased production,
large-scale state farms stagnated. In response, the Cuban government
parceled out the state farms to their former employees as smaller-scale
production units. Finally, the government mobilized support for
a growing urban agriculture movement - small-scale organic farming
on vacant lots - which, together with the other changes, transformed
Cuban cities and urban diets in just a few years.
WILL BIOTECHNOLOGY FEED THE WORLD?
The biotech industry pretends concern for hungry people in
the Third World, holding up greater food production through genetic
engineering as the solution to world hunger. If the Green Revolution
has taught us one thing, however, it is that increased food production
can - and often does - go hand in hand with more hunger, not less.
Hunger in the modern world is not caused by a shortage of food,
and cannot be eliminated by producing more. Enough food is already
available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a
day worldwide. The root of the hunger problem is not inadequate
production but unequal access and distribution. This is why the
second Green Revolution promised by the "life sciences"
companies is no more likely to end hunger than the first.
The United States is the world's largest producer of surplus
food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, however,
some 36 million of the country's people (including 14 million
children) do not have adequate access to food. That's an increase
of six million hungry people since the 1996 welfare reform, with
its massive cuts in food stamp programs.
Even the world's "hungry countries" have enough
food for all their people right now. In fact, about three quarters
of the world's malnourished children live in countries with net
food surpluses, much of which are being exported. India, for example,
ranks among the top Third World agricultural exporters, and yet
more than a third of the world's 830 million hungry people live
there. Year after year, Indian governments have managed a sizable
food surplus by depriving the poor of their basic human right
The poorest of the poor in the Third World are landless peasants,
many of whom became landless because of policies that favor large,
wealthy farmers. The high costs of genetically engineered seeds,
"technology-use payments," and other inputs that small
farmers will have to use under the new biotech agriculture will
tighten the squeeze on already poor farmers, deepening rural poverty.
If agriculture can play any role in alleviating hunger, it will
only be to the extent that we reverse the existing bias toward
wealthier and larger farmers, embrace land reform and sustainable
agriculture, reduce inequality, and make small farmers the center
of an economically vibrant rural economy.
Anuradha Mittal and Peter Rosset are co-directors of Food
First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy, in Oakland,
corporations & the Third World