New Internationalist

Merchants of death!

Issue 435

Commercial seed markets have fallen into the hands of ‘life science’ corporations. Sue Branford examines a lethal record.

In June of this year some 10,000 peasant farmers took part in a protest march in Haiti’s central plateau. At the end they symbolically burnt several bags of seed, part of a 60-tonne donation made by the giant US-based biotech company, Monsanto. After an earthquake in January killed 230,000 people and forced half a million to move back to the countryside, Haiti is painfully trying to rebuild its economy. Seeds, in particular, are in short supply, because peasant families were forced to use seeds saved for next year’s planting to feed the unexpected arrivals from Port-au-Prince. Why on earth would farmers want to destroy a gift so precious?

We can save our native seeds – creole seeds, as we call them – from one year to the other. But you can’t do that with Monsanto’s seeds. You have to buy new ones each year. But it’s worse than that. They are not right for our land

This was a question I put to Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, who heads Haiti’s largest and oldest peasant organization and has been at the forefront of Haiti’s peasant struggles for 35 years. I wasn’t surprised to find he had been one of the organizers of the march. He was predictably clear in his response: ‘It was, of course, a symbolic gesture. It was a way of saying a very firm “no” to Monsanto and to the government. Monsanto is trying to use the reconstruction effort to make us dependent on their seeds. We can save our native seeds – creole seeds, as we call them – from one year to the other. But you can’t do that with Monsanto’s seeds. You have to buy new ones each year. But it’s worse than that. They are not right for our land. Monsanto’s “gift” is, in fact, a strong attack on our farmers, our biodiversity and what is left of our environment.’

Tensions

The Haitian farmers’ firm stance is indicative of the huge tensions that have emerged over recent decades between the world’s peasant farmers and the small group of powerful corporations that are increasingly dominating world farming. It is fascinating to trace how this massive – and largely unreported – change has occurred.

It all began back in the 1920s with the development of hybrids, when plant breeders found that, by crossing two varieties, they could improve yields. Breeders could have improved yields in other ways, such as selective breeding. But even then they were quick to grasp the commercial advantages of hybrids: they lose vigour from one year to the next, so farmers have to buy them afresh each year, making huge profits for the merchants. Pioneer Hi-bred, the first company to market hybrid corn (maize), became the world’s largest seed company. Hybrids were developed for cotton, sunflower, sorghum, sugar beet and many vegetables.

After the Second World War, the same chemical processes that had been involved in the production of explosives and nerve gases were used to create synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The combination of hybrids and chemical inputs led to a huge increase in yields: the so-called ‘Green Revolution’. There was, of course, a downside: runoff from synthetic fertilizers polluted rivers and groundwater; pesticides poisoned and killed wildlife; the soil itself died and became more prone to erosion; and the plants grown in monoculture presented an easy target for pests.

Winners

As pests became a big problem, the winners were the manufacturers of pesticides. Profits rocketed for companies like Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto and Dupont (which eventually bought Pioneer Hi-bred). These earnings allowed them to fund the next big step in their bid to control world farming – the development of genetically modified crops.

This technology permits companies to introduce a gene that makes a crop resistant to a specific pesticide. At first, this seemed to be a big boon for farmers, for it allowed them to spray their fields early in the growing season, killing everything but the crop they had planted. And, of course, it was a huge commercial opportunity for the corporations, as they developed GM crops that were resistant to the pesticide they alone produced. The biggest winner was Monsanto, which produced a GM form of soya resistant to their herbicide, Roundup.

Renaming themselves ‘life science companies’, the pesticide manufacturers went on a spending spree. Since 1970, multinational companies have bought – or taken control of – over 1,000 once-independent seed companies. Monsanto has been particularly aggressive, targeting small seed manufacturers in key countries like Brazil. In 1996 Monsanto was not even among the top-10 global seed companies – today it has rocketed to first place.

Package

What can happen when farming comes under the control of corporate giants was brought home to me very starkly a couple of years ago when I visited India. In the 1980s the state government of Andhra Pradesh promised local farmers untold wealth if they embraced cash crops, particularly hybrid cotton. The farmers were encouraged to buy on credit a ‘package’ of high-yielding varieties of hybrid cotton, fertilizers and pesticides supplied by the corporations.

For a few years it seemed, indeed, as if some local farmers had won the lottery. But then the soils began to lose the fertility that had been built up over generations using traditional methods. Pests became more rife. A higher outlay on both fertilizers and pesticides was needed. All too often, a freak weather event wrecked their crops, leaving them with heavy debts and no income.

By the turn of the century, almost every rural household in the region was forced to sell cattle and land in a desperate bid to stave off bankruptcy. Overwhelmed by the ignominy of reducing their families to penury, farmers began to kill themselves, often swallowing the herbicide they had bought on credit. Some 150,000 farmers committed suicide in India between 1997 and 2005.

While the corporations may not be directly responsible for these deaths, there are other risks from their takeover. Corporations want to sell the same small range of hybrid or GM crops everywhere, allowing them to maximize sales and profits. This is leading to the extinction of a huge number of local crops, developed over thousands of years. It is a frightening prospect: with climate change, farmers will need to have access to as wide a diversity of crops as possible.

Reliance on a few standardized crops also leaves agriculture seriously vulnerable to sudden, debilitating diseases. Wheat is a case in point. For decades it has been bred by seed companies for the big wheat farmers, who want a high yield and protein content, together with fast growth provided by chemical fertilizers. But these wheat varieties tend to be vulnerable to disease. It was recently disclosed that about 90 per cent of the world’s wheat is susceptible to Ug99, a fungus that causes a devastating disease called stem rust. Stem rust was supposed to have been eliminated half a century ago, but it has recently re-emerged in virulent form in East Africa. If it spreads, some countries could face mass starvation. Farmers will be urgently seeking old, resistant varieties; it will be calamitous if none can be found.

After their bruising experiences with ‘technological packages’, farmers in Andhra Pradesh are seeking alternatives. There are now 50 organic and GMO-free villages in the state – part of the GM-Free India coalition. Peasant farmers in Haiti, too, are fighting back. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste says that he speaks in the name of 200,000 farmers, and they can get policies reversed. ‘We have found that direct action works,’ he says. ‘Some years ago we burnt an American pig in front of the agriculture ministry to protest against the destruction of our creole [native] pigs. That is our way of struggling, and we succeeded in getting the creole pigs back. That is what matters.’

Sue Branford is a journalist who worked for many years in Brazil. She is the author of several books and, among other things, is currently co-editor of Seedling, the magazine of GRAIN, www.grain.org

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