Seeds, worldwide, are the basic material for food production. This basis is threatened by international seed companies which pressure the sector with the aim of privatising and monopolising it. More and more severe regulations affect the exchange of seeds or results in them being given away for free. Additionally, many regional species disappear due to the focusing of industrial agriculture on only a few sorts.
There are currently two ways for farmers to access seeds. One is storing them from one year to the next and exchanging them locally. In addition to this, some commercial systems that market “improved seeds” are certified by regulatory authorities. The latter is a complicated development, combining capitalism and some of the disadvantages of globalism which especially affects poor, small-scale farmers.
Monsanto, DuPont and Co: Corporate-controlled Seeds
According to a report by the ETC Group, during the last three decades, a handful of companies have gained control of one-quarter of the world’s annual biomass such as crops, livestock and fisheries. With particular regard to seeds, ten companies now control around 73 per cent of global proprietary seed sales – the two biggest being the US-American groups Monsanto (27 percent) and DuPont (17 percent), followed by Syngenta (nine per cent), Limagrain (five per cent) and Land O’Lakes (four per cent).
While the proprietary seed market accounted for 85 percent of the commercial seed supply in 2013, approximately three-quarters of the world’s farmers routinely save seeds from their harvest and grow locally-bred varieties. At least 1.4 billion people depend upon farmer-saved seeds and small farmers have created and are using millions of farmer-bred varieties, mostly food crops. In 2008, as the global food crisis deepened, the world’s largest seed companies were awash with profits. Record-high commodity prices and depleted grain reserves translated into soaring demand for seeds and other farm inputs. On the other hand, an additional 100 million people faced possible starvation because of it, as Ron Oswald, general secretary of the International Union of Food (IUF), has shown.
Some two thousand patents on the most important food plants such as sweet corn, soya, rice and wheat were sitting waiting approval at the European Patent Office as of 2008. Therefore farmers, agriculturists, breeders and ecologists worldwide have set up initiatives that strive to fight the privatisation of seeds, such as ‘No Patents on Seeds’, ‘Seed Sovereignty’ and ‘Save Our Seeds’.
Indian Farmers Must Compete with Transnational Seed Companies
Since the end of the Green Revolution in the late 1950s, India has suffered the worst agrarian crisis ever. This can be seen as a result of the political decision not to invest any longer in agriculture. Subsequently, and independently from seed regulations, the general control of the agrarian sector has become more careless. The prices of the input, especially those of seeds, rose by up to 500 percent, depending on the sort. One example is genetically modified cotton seeds sold by Monsanto and Mahyco (also partly owned by Monsanto), whose price rose from Rs7/kg (US Dollars 0.14/kg) to Rs3600/kg (US Dollars 74/kg), over 500 times its original price.
During the 1960s, the formal seed sector in India was dominated by the public sector. In 1961, the Ministry of Agriculture founded the National Seeds Corporation (NSC). In 1967 the Indian government established a National Seeds Project (NSP) with the assistance of the World Bank. The New Policy on Seed Development of 1988 challenged a new era of privatisation of the Indian seed sector and many private companies arose. This coincided with the fourth loan from the World Bank to privatise India’s seed sector and to open it up to multinational seed corporations.
In 2004, a new Seed Bill was introduced. Its main purposes were to make the previously voluntary registrations of varieties obligatory, to create a comprehensive National Register of Seeds, to regulate the import and export of seeds and to improve the market conditions for private seed companies. This has resulted in India harmonising its seed law with that of the EU and the US.
The ten transnational seed companies now operating in India are Monsanto, Bayer Crop Science, Syngenta, Advanta India Limited (formerly ITC Zeneca Ltd.), Hicks-Muse-Tate Inc., Emergent Genetics, Dow Agro, Novartis, Bioseed Genetics International Inc. and Tokita Seed Co.
As for Grain, Dr Devinder Sharma as well as many other organisations and authors pointed out that the case of the privatisation of seeds in India is two-fold. On the one hand, the Indian government, like the worldwide seed industry, claims that the bill was necessary for controlling the quality of the seeds. On the other hand there are farmers committing suicide because they do not know how to carry on due to the rising import of expensive seeds and various other constraints and obligations.
For instance, farmers cannot sell their seeds if they do not fit the standards of registration. Furthermore, they are not allowed to use a brand name and enter the seed trade. This is clear evidence of how the new Seed Bill favours the seed companies and disadvantages the farmers. Even though the latter produce around 80 percent of India’s seeds, they are now restricted to selling their own seed. Only formal breeders and big businesses can get their seeds registered. Farmers wanting their seeds registered face several difficulties: the process is bureaucratic, takes a long time and is extremely expensive. In addition, farmers’ seeds often fail to pass the required standards for various reasons – their seeds do fit local needs but not globalised standards. Also, if a farmer wishes to reuse seeds from a plant by Monsanto, he must pay to relicense them every growing season.
For this and other reasons, Greenpeace argue that Monsanto intends to control global agriculture to an unthinkable extent. Further critiques of the situation centre the fact that Monsanto does not sufficiently intervene regarding the child labour used by Indian sub-suppliers.
Fighters for the Rights
One person fighting the takeover of transnational seed companies is world-renowned scientist and environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva who stated that: “When I found (that) global corporations wanted to patent seeds, crops or life forms, I started Navdanya to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming.”
Among other things, Navdanya co-ordinates a biodiversity conservation programme to support local farmers, rescue and conserve crops and plants that are being pushed to extinction as well as making them available through direct marketing. The message is: grow it where you live. Other organisations fighting for Indian farmers include Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, the Karnataka State Farmers’ Association (KRRS), Bharat Krishak Samaj, Anthra and the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.
The “Monsantosation” Entails Deathly Effects
It is apparent that the globalisation of seeds has not benefited Indian small farmers. It is estimated that in 2009 alone some 17,368 Indian farmers killed themselves. That is one farmer every 30 minutes.
Although the main cause for this despair is attributed to drought, the privatisation of seeds means higher input costs, and GM seeds also have higher water requirements. So on top of drought and failing crops, farmers have to deal with expensive inputs. Trapped in a spiral of debt, some choose to take their own life.
Beyond India: Seeds of Discontent in China and North America
In addition to their hotly disputed role in Indian farmers’ suicides, there are other issues foreign seed companies have been associated with, not just in India but around the world. Deaths of cattle feeding on harvested GM cotton fields have been reported, and a range of illnesses have also been linked to GM cotton crops.
In China, a report by the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences highlights for example the adverse environmental impacts associated with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton crops. Bt cotton is genetically modified to resist attacks by bollworm, the primary pest of cotton.
Yet use of Bt cotton varieties has been associated with: decrease in parasitic natural enemies of cotton bollworm, increase in secondary pests after cotton bollworm has been controlled, with some of these becoming primary pests and actually damaging Bt cotton growth. And a resistance of bollworm to Bt cotton over time has also been shown. This means an increase, not a reduction, in pesticide use in the long run, meaning not just higher costs for farmers, but possible environmental and public health effects.
In North America, discontent within the very groups these private seeds are purported to help led to the US and Canadian National Farmers Unions, the American Corn Growers Association, the Canadian Wheat Board, organic farming and some 200 other groups lobbying for a ban on the introduction of GM wheat. As a result of the lobbying, attempts to introduce GM wheat were subsequently abandoned by Monsanto in 2004.
In their report, the Soil Association UK indeed highlights some widespread negative impacts of GM agriculture in the US and Canada.
- A lower profitability of GM herbicide-tolerant soya and insect-resistant Bt maize than in non-GM crops, due to higher costs of input and lower prices paid for GM crops;
- Contrary to claims, small increases in yields have only been realised in Bt maize, whereas the Roundup Ready soya yields are between 6-11 percent less than in non-GM varieties;
- Farmers are applying herbicides to GM herbicide-tolerant crops several times, not just once, as claimed by the seed manufacturers;
- Contamination of GM crops into non-GM fields is a widespread problem. The repercussions are multiple:
- Lack of crop segregation makes the whole food processing and distribution system vulnerable to contamination incidents. E.g. In September 2000, one percent of unapproved GM maize contaminated almost half the national maize supply, amounting to one billion USD in compensation for Aventis;
- All non-GM farmers struggle economically and practically in trying to grow GM-free crops with very few companies able to grow completely GM-free products in Canada and the US;
- Organic farmers whose crops have been contaminated are unable to sell their produce. E.g. almost the entire organic rapeseed oil sector was lost due to contamination in Canada’s Saskatchewan province;
- To add insult to injury, farmers whose crops have been contaminated by GM varieties may also face court proceedings by Monsanto and the likes, on the ground of patent infringement;
- With the introduction of GM crops and the contamination of non-GM crops, entire US agricultural export sectors to Europe and Asia have collapsed. A loss of export trade, the consequent diminishing market prices for GM crops and rising subsidies to GM farmers, are estimated to have cost the US economy some twelve billion US dollars, between 1999 and 2001 alone.
The privatisation of seeds at the hand of large biotech companies has created many more issues than they perhaps had envisaged: whether adopted by small farmers in India, China, or by their larger resource-rich counterparts in North America, these highly technological seeds are highly controversial. A lack of transparency over the procedures that deem products safe for commercialisation, such as in this case in China, also adds further fuel to the GM debate fire.
Depending on which side of the debate one sits on, the latest report on the state of the biotech sector can make for sobering reading. It states: “The global hectarage of biotech crops has increased more than 100-fold from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 181.5 million hectares in 2014 – this makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent times. This impressive adoption rate speaks for itself, in terms of its sustainability, resilience and the significant benefits it delivers to both small and large farmers as well as consumers.”
The report highlights how higher yields, increased productivity, greater sustainability of biotech crops are contributing to the growth of the sector. Yet such diametrically opposed views in the literature on the impacts of GM crops do seem hard to reconcile.
Such a seemingly relentless march towards a bioengineered-and-monopolistic-food-system future would indicate that the concerns of many farmers groups, environmentalists, public health organisations and consumers go mostly unheeded.
Whatever ones’ beliefs on the topic however, contradictory evidence on the impact of GM crops should warrant at a minimum a more precautionary approach within governments when assessing GM crop introductions.
Ultimately the degree of impact is likely to vary by case and context anyway. Some farmers do favour GM crops. Others choose to rely on conventional crop varieties, whether indigenous, organic or otherwise, and they should be able to do so without fearing contamination from GM-crops.
Whether in India, China, the US or Europe, farmers have a right to choose what is right for them, under the circumstances in which they operate, whether its GM-seeds or whether to use conventional or organic varieties and to save seeds from one year to the next. To respect such choices can ensure not just greater biodiversity and sustainability in agriculture but help reduce the ever increasing power by a handful of biotech giants who are clearly set on taking over our food system.
Authors: Gabriele Mante and Martin Parker/RESET editorial. Updated by: Annalisa Dorigo April 2015