editorial - SchNEWS, 28 January 2005
"The US has been imposing patents on life around the world through trade deals. In this case [Iraq], they invaded the country first, then imposed their patents. This is both immoral and unacceptable."
- Shalini Bhutani, GRAIN.
"Seeds are the software - and we have the seeds."
- Anonymous corporate seed company executive.
With agriculture providing the main source of income for two and a half billion people the effects of biotechnology are immense. Farmers across the world are being locked into a cycle of dependency on biotechnology companies, who of course just want to help them to feed the world.
Take the specialized GM seeds which only prosper if you spray em with the right agrochemicals. Who makes those chemicals? Well, the dodgy firm that sells the seeds of course. Just like Microsoft and Windows - remember now, "Seeds are the software...".
One of the bio-tech giants, Novartis, applied for twelve patents on altered genes that would create 'addict' seeds with 'junkie' genes that will not perform well without chemical supplements'. As campaigner Vandana Shiva points out, this allows "the seed industry to realise one of its longest held and most cherished goals: to force all farmers into dependence on the companies every year".
The rise and rise of the biotech industry has come hand in hand with the rise of intellectual property rights or 'patents' in the seed industry. The Trade-Related Intellectual Property laws are the weapon the World Trade Organisation uses to force governments to enforce patent rules. Patents give a right of monopoly over an invention or discovery, for example in the field of manipulating the genes of seeds. These monopoly rights make patents a powerful tool for those in search of power, profit and control, as they allow companies to buy 'ownership' of staple food crops. The US based chemical giant DuPont has filed over 150 applications for patents on genetic resources in their attempt to dominate agricultural production. The effects of these patents on seeds is that farmers can lose the rights to their own original stocks and the cumulative knowledge they have built up over centuries to a few giants whose reach knows no limits.
We can see this colonisation in full effect in Iraq. After the so-called 'transfer of sovereignty' last June, Paul Bremer, chief of the occupation authority, left behind 100 orders which had to be incorporated into Iraqi legislation, having the status and force of binding laws. Among them is Order 81 which amends Iraq's original patent law to favour the vultures of the West, with disastrous consequences for the farmers of Iraq.
For generations Iraqis have been freely exchanging farm-saved seed. An estimated 97% either use saved seed from a previous year's harvest or purchase them from local markets. This has now been made illegal under the new law. The law is presented as being necessary to ensure the supply of good quality seeds in Iraq and to facilitate Iraq's accession to the World Trade Organisation. What it will actually do is allow the penetration of Iraqi agriculture by the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow Chemical, the corporate giants that control seed trade across the globe. Eliminating competition from farmers is a prerequisite for these companies to open up operations in Iraq, and the new law has achieved that. The Iraqi peoples' right to food sovereignty, the right to define their own food and agriculture policies, is fast vanishing.
However, actions against these corporate giants have seen impressive successes. After a campaign of direct action , bio tech giant Bayer have more or less given up hope of growing their genetically modified greens in the UK. Only a few months ago, Monsanto's patent on the wheat variety Nap Hal was revoked after Greenpeace took them to the courts. Monsanto had claimed to have invented the special properties of the wheat used for chapatis, which was in fact developed by generations of farmers in India! The practice of seed swapping is also being kept alive at seed fairs, which are lifelines for farmers, and guarantee they always have seeds for the next season. They also safeguard the rich diversity of crops that feed all of us. In Peru, for example, local farming communities keep more than 250 varieties of potatoes. In Kenya farmers swap more than 150 different varieties of local farm seeds at annual seed fairs. In Brighton the fourth Seedy Sunday community seed swap will be happening at the Old Market on Sunday 6th February at the Old Market, Upper Market St., Hove 10am-5pm. Check out the full programme for the event at http://www.seedysunday.org or pick up copies in Infinity Foods.
rices? what rices?
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?
"It's a commercial secret, I have patented the growing process. Now ORF MY LAAAND!"
Syngenta is already the world's largest agrochemical company and the third biggest seed company. That's not enough for them, though, now they are looking to extend their control beyond patenting seeds and species and tighten their grip on the global food chain. They want to patent the flowering process and 'plant architecture' of rice in 115 countries. The scope is massive and their patent could extend beyond rice to all flowering plants including those we still haven't found or classified. Syngenta would then be able to claim "ownership" of the flowering processes of most of the world's major food crops. This terrifying situation would be a threat to world food security and could limit agricultural research. Kathy Jo Welter of the ETC group says "Effectively, the completed rice map provides a template for most of the world's major food crops. Syngenta is arguing that since it can identify certain gene sequences in rice, it can monopolize the same sequences when they turn up in other species."
So can we trust them with the keys to the worlds food supply? Syngenta already has a dodgy history with genetically modified rice. It developed the GM "Golden Rice" which they touted as a technological fix for the vitamin A deficiency much of the world's population suffers from. Syngenta sent out lots of shiny PR releases about how they were trying to feed the world, ignoring the fact that most food shortages are caused by economic factors, and problems of supply rather than there just not being enough food in the world, or rice being not good enough. Syngenta reckon it has no commercial interest in Golden Rice, which is now being developed by the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. Nice name, but like all good front groups it has lots of dodgy business groups funding it. Syngenta still holds the patent, so if Golden Rice is ever commercialised they will get a golden shower of royalties!
* Action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, http://www.etcgroup.org
* Monsanto has been recently been fined $1.5million by the US Department of Justice for trying to bribe the Indonesian authorities to bypass controls on the screening of new genetically modified crops. Between 1997 and 2002 it bunged officials $750,000. - SchNEWS (28th January 2005)