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Posts classified under: 2002

The Stolen Harvest

Heather Ryan

In the last thirty years the concentration of market forces internationally has reached dizzying proportions. The agricultural sector is no exception, as just five corporations control the entire global grain trade. This has led to increasing vertical consolidation of the food economy. Most of the world’s seed industry is split between two monolithic companies, Monsanto and DuPont. These two companies and a small handful of others intend to genetically engineer and patent the entire food sector, hoping to control the global food economy.

Prior to the Seattle street protests at the World Trade Organization’s ministerial in 1999, this maverick takeover by corporations of the global economy happened without accountability to the public. Seattle shut down the trade talks and shook corporations to their core, letting them know that grass roots activism, not just trade, had become globalized.

The protests were evidence of the growing resistance movements building internationally around issues such as genetic engineering (GE.) Ironically, the US public, while living in the biotech breadbasket, has been the last to wake up to the current global food crisis. While US activists, policy makers and scientists have been laboring for several years behind the scenes on these issues, it is the growing people’s movements in Europe, spilling over into US consciousness, which has begun to stir up public comment.

It is crucial that people become more aware of the links that are connecting us all on the planet at this time. The same market forces that are bringing to bear the bankruptcy of small farmers in the US are extinguishing small farmers in Africa. In the Philippines, activists are struggling to keep genetically engineered crops out of their country, and to elevate the status of farmers’ knowledge and experience on par with scientists’ input. Activists in Brazil are also fighting successfully to keep GE out of their country, and to provide support and technical assistance so small farmers can farm organically.

In India, farmers have been waging a successful battle to preserve seed diversity and keep genetically engineered seeds out. In Karnataka and Andra Pradesh, farmers’ unions have destroyed Monsanto’s GE cotton crops. Activists in the north founded Navdanya, a movement to establish seed banks and practice non-compliance with corporate agricultural monopolies throughout India.

A few books have emerged that adequately explain how market forces are impacting local economies. Stolen Harvest: the Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (South End Press, 2000) by Vandana Shiva is one such book. Shiva brings her background as a scientist and her role as an ecofeminist philosopher to bear as a powerful voice in the debate against globalization.

Shiva founded her own research institute, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy in the Himalayas in northern India in the early 1980s. From there she publishes numerous books and articles and wages legal battles on behalf of the Indian people.

One of her most recent victories happened last year in the European courts. She and other activists had filed for a revocation of patents owned by W.R. Grace on the neem tree, a tree central to Indian culture and valued for its medicinal properties. They were awarded the revocation, earning a strong victory in the fight against biopiracy.

Biopiracy is the theft by first world multinationals of plants and indigenous knowledge held in common by Third World people. US patent laws allow corporations to claim living organisms as inventions. International trade agreements have enabled this system of ownership to become global policy. Farmers have cultivated varieties of crops for generations. They deserve the right to be able to share and trade freely seeds and knowledge with other farmers. Without this right, corporations will ultimately control our food supply.

US-based Ricetec has patented Basmati rice, a grain indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. Ricetec claims a variety of basmati rice as their own invention without acknowledgement to Indian farmers. Shiva is currently waging her battle to preserve basmati in commons for the farmers of India.

One of the central themes in Stolen Harvest is the case for respecting all life. Shiva asserts that traditional agriculture provided food for worms and soil bacteria as well as fodder for cows. Her respect for life attracted the following note from the Dalai Lama, “All sentient beings, including the small insects, cherish themselves. All have the right to overcome suffering and achieve happiness. I therefore pray that we show love and compassion to all.” She provokes the debate, what is our responsibility to other species? It is false, she postulates, to subscribe to a theory that we must destroy nature and deprive other beings of their right to food in order to feed ourselves. Traditional methods of agriculture, though unprofitable for large corporations, actually feed people and replenish nature. The current system of chemical inputs and monoculture crops deplete the soil and switches fields from crops that actually feed local populations to cash crops that are cultivated for export to first world countries.

The theory that we need industrial agriculture to feed the world is a myth propagated by multinational companies to create profits. As it turns out, small organic farms are actually more productive than large monocultures. True food security will be achieved only by retaining local farmers, and making sure people have control over the means of producing food in their communities. An increase in yields, should biotechnology be able to deliver this, will not ensure hunger cessation. Most large monoculture farms exclude many of the local food crops that were grown to feed people, and instead are growing food for export.

Food security will also be achieved through preserving indigenous seed varieties, seeds that have been cultivated over centuries to be specifically adapted to regional climates and growing seasons. Seed diversity has declined rapidly since the spread of the Green Revolution. Corporations have propagated a narrow range of varieties in broad regions around the globe. This uniformity of food variety leaves the planet vulnerable to widespread loss due to disease or crop failure.

Companies have developed genetic engineering technologies to further dominate the agricultural seed market. By patenting GE seeds, and then buying up the seed companies, corporations can then regulate what seeds are available to farmers. US corporations are developing seed sterility technologies, dubbed “terminator technology,” to make seeds create sterile offspring. This has been created to protect corporations’ investment, and to ensure that farmers will be dependent on corporations to have seed every year. Current seed legislation prevents farmers from growing seed for sale to other farmers, thus enforcing dependency on the corporations.

Genetic engineering has been proffered as a panacea to the growing global farming crisis. Farmers in the United States, lambasted by the drastic reduction in farm subsidies levied by farming legislation in 1996, were vulnerable to the biotechnology purveyors who promised higher crop yields and easier weed abatement. Accompanying these hollow promises were higher “technology” fees and stringent contracts that gave biotech companies immunity for any crop failure or incurred environmental damage from employing this new technology. The contracts also forbade the farmer from saving or sharing seed, and gave corporations the right to trespass for three years hence to ensure protection of their proprietary investment.

It wasn’t long before farmers were left holding the biotech bag. Beyond the immediate shortfalls of yield drags for engineered soya and insect resistance to the toxin emitted by engineered corn, international markets were drying up and buyers were turning to traditional harvests or organic ones. In the midst of ballot initiatives and petition drives, it seems the fastest way to halt the spread of genetic engineering is to educate buyers.

Unwitting American farmers, however, were left paying the true costs. Even worse, shipments of genetically engineered grain were diverted from European ports to be dumped on Third World peoples. In India, the indigenous mustard oil supply suddenly became uniformly contaminated. All sales of mustard oil were banned, causing thousands of small growers, pressers, and sellers to lose their livelihoods. Overnight, genetically engineered soybean oil flooded Indian markets. Although soybeans are not endemic to Indian culture, they were being pushed as the superior alternative. Laws were passed banning unpackaged oil.

In response, women organized in the streets of Delhi. Working with Shiva, activists distributed organic mustard oil in protest of the oil ban. Women demanded culturally appropriate food free from genetic engineering contamination.

The mad cow crisis that has erupted in Europe sends a clear warning bell to all who think industrial agriculture the way of the future. Shiva contrasts a vivid picture, positing the sacred cow of Indian cosmology beside the mad cow of Western agriculture. The cow, to Indian peoples, is a physical and spiritual representation of abundance. The cow is integral to traditional farming practice, providing labor and fertilization in the fields. In western societies, the cow has been reduced to a machine, either for milk or meat production. To accelerate growth, cows have been fed the remains of slaughtered animals. It is this disrespect of nature, of crossing natural boundaries, that Western industry does with impunity. Genetic engineering, by inserting the DNA from different species, promises to wreck similar havoc if allowed to continue.

Shiva has persisted, in the face of incredible opposition, to provide a voice on behalf of Third World peoples. Her clear writing style coupled with deep perception affords us brilliant material with which to equip ourselves in fighting for our planet and our lives. We owe a debt of gratitude to Shiva and to all peoples who, in defense of our planet, refuse to give ground.

Stolen Harvest, Personal interviews with V.Shiva, World Hunger: 12 Myths by Lappe and Rosset.