More on Monsanto

Taken from today’s Republica, November 17, 2011:

Monsters Inc.


A newdspaper columnist recently wrote about how it is important to spend some time understanding Nepali politics at a deeper level before organizing any kind of grassroots-based activism to call out central-level politics. This was a call made in response to the Facebook community, mostly youths, organized few months ago in Kathmandu calling for ‘Nepal Unite’ to put pressure on the constituent assembly to write the constitution—in time. I thought it was a very important call; one that was critical and constructive.

The government must have been caught under the complexities of ‘doing politics’ that the columnist hinted at in his call: how a partnership must have been forged between the government, USAID and Monsanto to promote the use of hybrid maize seeds in Nepal. Although the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives has recently denied any such partnership, a quick look at the USAID website that confidently announces the Faustian pact, forged after consulting 50 public and private “stakeholders” including Monsanto representatives, and recruiting 20,000 farmers and conducting “pilot projects” in Chitwan, Nawalparasi and Kavre (read: fertile experimental sites due to lax regulation), points quite to the contrary.

This lack of clarity, transparency, and exclusive nature of the Monsanto-deal-or-no-deal shrouded in mystery is but only one instance of the Nepali government and the Nepali state’s ways of ‘doing politics’. It has become such a frustratingly insular sphere that public deliberation is cast aside as nuisance and any genuine attempt to access such sphere as a matter of citizenship right is met with deaf ear and dismissive glare.

Monsanto is world’s biggest agro-chemical company that controls 90 percent of seed patents from agricultural biotechnology as well as one-fifth of global proprietary seed market. It claims that by introducing hybrid corn to farmlands it is committed to sustainable agriculture by producing more crops, conserving resources, and protecting farmers’ livelihood. However, the truth is something else. Monsanto’s criminal history and the blasé unwillingness it shows to be accountable to such history have left it with a tainted reputation. Before making the shift to agri-business, Monsanto was a chemical/plastic company during the 1930s through the 1970s.

It was a major producer of PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls), harmful potential carcinogen. Reports started emerging in the mid-1990s from Anniston, Alabama, where Monsanto operated its plant, of dying and deformed local fish and other aquatic lives in a local creek, and severe health hazards in the local community turning healthy neighborhoods into ghost towns as mercury and PCBs were released to the local river system as well as dumped unceremoniously in antiquated landfills for nearly 40 years during its operation.

The government-backed promotion of Monsanto’s hybrid maize seeds could have a catastrophic effect on our livelihood by altering our traditional food system into an industrial food complex.

Later, Monsanto made a seamless transition into an agro-business company only to create more havoc wherever it went, selling hybrid and GM seeds, pesticides, herbicides etc. Around 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in India from mid-1990s up until now: 4,000 suicides per year in Maharashtra alone, i.e. 10/day.

While farmers’ debt has been identified as the major cause of suicide all over India, such debt is only reflective of the proliferation of ‘suicide economy’ as the Indian government allowed transition of farmer-saved traditional seed-based farming to corporate-seed-based industrial/monoculture farming, which need fertilizers and pesticides sometimes as high as 15 times more than normal, and everything, including seeds, have to be bought annually.

Crops thus produced are reported to have fallen in yield and commodity value. In other words, they turn independent farmers into Monsanto-dependent clients who are disposed of their control over farm, and have no access to a market that is socially just. It is more than just a coincidence that Maharashtra is the state with the highest acreage of Monsanto-introduced genetically modified Bt cotton in India, a GM crop variety. The Maharashtra government, along with many other state governments such as Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, responded by taking Monsanto to court.

Likewise, 10,000 farmers from Papaye to Hinche in Haiti took to the streets last year burning Monsanto seeds as a way of symbolically fighting for local seeds and defending food sovereignty. The protest, a culmination of several farmers-led social movement, bore slogans such as “long live native seeds” and “Monsanto’s GMO and hybrid seed violate peasant agriculture”. This was a protest against Monsanto’s “gift” of 60,000 sacks of hybrid seeds to Haiti as part of post-earthquake “rebuilding”.

Reports of crop failure after planting hybrid Monsanto corn seeds in several districts in the Tarai in Nepal last year are still fresh in our minds and our farmers’ minds; justice and compensation are now suspended in the air. These are just a few of many such cases around the world, which has by now become a general knowledge. Hamstrung by its own history, it was only natural that Monsanto’s impending entry to Nepal through the introduction of hybrid maize seeds would instead sow the seeds of doubts in our minds; doubts that have now turned into an organized campaign.

Over the last few weeks, many people from myriad walks of life—farmers, journalists, scholars, musicians, entrepreneurs, environmental activists, forest user groups among so many others—have come together, largely through emails, phone calls, conference calls, Skype and word of mouth, led primarily by the highly impressive ‘STOP Monsanto in Nepal’ Facebook group formed a month ago. It would be premature to think of this organizing simply as an immature angry outburst.

What it is, is a coalition of resistance that is highly informed, organized, and patient, and is demanding for the right to have a voice in making decisions that could potentially transform, harmfully and dangerously in this case, the conditions of our livelihood by effectively altering our traditional food system into an industrial food system, the levers of control of which lie at the hands of a distant corporation; with the introduction of the hybrid maize as the first step towards that transition.

But as reassuring as it is to see a resistance being formed against this, such activist-led organizing has also become a powerful moment that crystallizes and lays bare a lack of substance and vision in the politics of our so-called ‘Civil Society’, that by definition exists to help correct government (and market) failures, and the political parties, especially the Maoists, the self-proclaimed vanguard party of the peasants.

The civil society (NGOs included) is conspicuous by its absence; it is probably busy ‘re-defining’ itself through its opportunistic silence (“let’s organize another seminar!”). While the faction of the UCPN (Maoist) still dreams of ‘revolution’, it does not find Monsanto’s entry in Nepal appealing enough to strike the fancy of its revolutionary zeal to defend the peasants from the clutch of the “capitalists/ imperialists”, dressed in this case in the Monsanto cloak. And in the process, give concrete meaning to the party’s ‘internal contradiction’’.

Monsanto coming to Nepal is yet another case of hungry capital constantly finding new site for making surplus profit for itself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making money. Except this one comes with dangerous strings attached, of which, its own history, with a searing ring of truth, bears witness. By introducing a farming method that effectively destroys the basic principles of ecosystem management, it produces killing fields, quite literally, that kills the soil organisms responsible for maintaining soil’s natural fertility, depletes yield in the long run, destroys crop diversity and its natural ability to resist pest, and eventually kills the farmers, the primary producers, who rely on the soil and its yield for livelihood by mercilessly robbing them off their control over soil, seeds, crops, and yield—most of Nepal’s farming after all is for sustenance.

The onus then is not just on few people who are critically aware of Monsanto’s history, but on everyone who are concerned about farmers’ livelihood, farmlands’ ecological health, our biodiversity and our health for working together to stop this from happening. Learning can be harnessed locally as well as from successful and failed resistance against Monsanto that has taken place elsewhere—everywhere from India to Haiti to the US.

All that the current anti-Monsanto campaign is demanding is that the government and USAID be more inclusive, more transparent, and more democratic in making decisions, both now and in the future, that could change the conditions of our livelihood; that we need to have our say in such decisions, because all of us including the farmers are stakeholders here. Not just the 50 people in the September 12 meeting.

Before the farmers who feed us die of hunger, before the fields that give us life become killing fields, and before we leave our future generation with unhealthy food and barren fields, our civil society, in myriad guise, and political parties, of all stripes, should let go of the myopic politics and greed, and fearlessly add voice to the growing resistance. It is not too late; there is no more opportune moment to give new meaning to what ‘doing politics’ (‘rajniti garney’) means by responding to citizens’ call. It’s a call to conscience!

Limbu, a student of urban politics, is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto


From The Kathmandu Post, November 14, 2011:

Emptiness of big claims


Big guys like to talk big, like Hugh Grant, the Chairman, President and CEO of Monsanto. It seems he, and many others in the biotechnology field, have taken upon themselves the arduous task of ensuring that billions get food on their plates with their “better seeds,”  “better seed technologies,” and “effective crop management”. They know that the task is going to be even more arduous in the foreseeable future because of the growing scarcity of resources, increased climate vulnerabilities and increased world population.

The standard narrative runs like this: circa 2050, we will have 9.5 billion mouths to feed. By then, a lot more land will have been taken over by housing and other infrastructure projects. Add to these the fact that global warming will have made a vast area of land, especially in arid zones around the world, ill-suited for agricultural production. Simply put, to use Grant’s words, “we must produce more with less” (A Call to Agricultural Action, Forbes, November 10, 2011). That’s where the overconfident Grant comes in with his arsenal of technologies. That’s why he talks about “better seeds” and “better seed technologies.” He also talks about delivering these technologies to farmers through a collaboration of “technology providers, agronomics experts, and community organizations.”

But, most of these technologies have not lived up to their promises. For instance, Monsanto and several other biotech transnational companies have been promoting genetically modified seeds of corn, canola, cotton and soybean since 1996. Genetic modification is carried out by inserting genes from one species to another. So far, most of the genetic modification has been carried out by inserting genes from bacteria. These genetic modifications have focused on two traits: insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. By reducing pest attack and by decreasing competition from weeds over the soil nutrients, these seeds were supposed to give better yields.

In 2009, Doug Gurian-Sherman of the United States-based Union of Concerned Scientists carried out meticulous examinations of these claims made by the biotech industry and biotech researchers regarding genetically modified seeds. By then, the biotech industry and its researchers had already carried out thousands of trials for over two decades, and 13 years had already passed since the first bout of commercialisation of some genetically modified crops in 1996. Gurian-Sherman’s Failure To Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2009, shows that their claims have remained false; both in terms of intrinsic and operation yields. Intrinsic yield is the highest production that can be achieved in ideal conditions. Operational yield is the actual yield achieved in real life environments. So far, genetic modifications have not led to increase in intrinsic yield in any of these crops. There is however a consistent increase in the operational yield of these crops. But this increase, most often than not, was the result of conventional breeding practices and not that of genetic modification. The claims of higher productivity have remained rather hollow and an endlessly recycled but generally unsubstantiated faith.

If at all, the spread of genetically modified seeds have led to an increase in the use of herbicides and chemical fertilisers, in addition to leading to higher costs in farming. There has been a dramatic decline in the genetic diversity of plants and animal species since the use of modified seeds began.

Ensuring food security for a growing population in the context of declining resource availability definitely requires producing “more with less,” as Grant argued in his Forbes essay. But for that, we have to look beyond the claims of the biotech industry.

A major reason that the biotech industry, as well as other modern agricultural interventions, have failed in harvesting better production is because it has equated farming with the factory system of production, where different inputs are assembled into crops, fruits and vegetables. A factory is not a living entity but a conglomerate of inert materials. The assumption that agriculture and its production could be modeled after the modern factory system led to an erroneous notion that, somehow, the incredibly complex soil ecosystem is irrelevant in the production process. But soil is an incredibly complex entity with billions of microbes and tens millions of other organisms actively involved in the breaking-down of organic matter and constant recycling of nutrients. Good seeds play a great part, but the longer-term ability to sustain yield requires that we pay serious attention to enhancing the health of soils.

I wrote earlier about a 30-year long farm system trial carried out by US-based Rodale Institute which showed that organic farming leads to better yields (Better Ways than Monsanto, October 31). Most of the encouraging results in increasing land productivity have come from practices that emphasise the health of soil. Plants and animals are the secondary derivative of what goes on in the soils. Perhaps, it was for nothing that soil was once treated as mother earth in most cultures around the world.


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