The Privatisation of Seeds

Year in and year out farmers are losing the seeds from their own plants, and are forced to purchase them anew from seed providers. Monsanto has monopolized the seed market which has significantly limited the variety of plants available on the market. The consequences of which have had fatal effects on both our environment, and the farmers that harness crops from it.

Autor*in RESET , 06.05.13

The seed industry is more concentrated today than it ever was before. The ten largest seed corporations dominate three quarters of the commercial seed market. The top three of these, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, represent more than half (53 percent) of the market.  Even more striking are the figures of genetically modified (GM) seeds – according to Greenpeace, Monsanto sold 90 percent of GM seeds worldwide in 2009.

There are however regional differences. While agriculture in industrialized countries is predominantly sourced from commercial seed providers, many developing countries are still relatively independent of these, for now. The portion of commercial seeds present in Indian agriculture is approximately 30 percent, and Africa as a whole has less than 10%.

Although one third may not sound like a game-changing figure, the commercial seed market and Monsanto in particular have had a devastating effect on Indian farmers. Cotton farmers especially have been strained as Monsanto controls 95 percent of the cotton seed market through its genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

How did We Get Here? From the Farm to the Corporation

Behind the growing domination of commercial seeds in developed and developing countries is a story of agricultural changes, targeted company merges and take-overs, the use of patenting and legal frameworks.

To understand how a handful of agro-businesses were able to gain mass control over something as basic as seeds in agriculture, we have to look back. Traditionally seeds made a full circle, after harvest a portion of the seeds were preserved for the following year and the cycle was never interrupted.

Agriculture began to become industrialized at the beginning of the 1950s and this only intensified in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, production processes became increasingly mechanized and rationalized. In many regions of the world the so called ‘Green Revolution’ was introduced with the aim of significantly increasing crop yields and warding off a crisis of widespread food insecurity.

To comply with these new modes of intensified industrial agriculture, farms needed to become larger and preform more specialized tasks. Agriculture as we know it has significantly changed from what it previously was, as have the markets within it. Specific markets for stockbreeding, seeds, animal feed, fertilizers, and pesticides emerged. In such a system, farmers no longer produce their crops autonomously, but merely become members of a production chain.

As agricultural mega corporations, like Monsanto and co, entered on the stage, middle-sized farms and businesses were forced to exit. These transnational corporations were able to expand by buying out others, or merging their businesses. As a result the competition in the agricultural economy began to dwindle, and with it the variation of seeds on offer and fair pricing for them. Additionally, the corporations that are responsible for producing seeds are in many cases also the providers of the pesticides that accompany the seeds they sell. Both the seeds and the pesticides are aimed at raking in the greatest possible profit, and this scheme is applied best by Monsanto.

What are the big corporations like Monsanto offering? Farmers become hooked hearing that with high performance seeds they will be able to gain much greater crop yields, which will grow robustly and with enhanced resistance to pests, as well be efficiently and cost effectively harvested with machines. To really take business to the next level, further increase their yields and maximize their profits, there are hybrid seed varieties.

As Genius as it is Fatal: Hybrid Seeds

Since the inception of agriculture, farmers have always saved a portion of their harvest to select seeds with which they could sow for the next growing season, or trade with their neighbor. In many countries across the world this reuse of seeds remains common practice. However from the perspective of seed engineers and providers, replanting the gains of their seeds or trading these seeds would mean losing potential customers. And that is what makes hybrid seeds so ingenious.

The first harvest of hybrid varieties, with the optimal irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides, yields may increase by 15 –  30 percent. However the second generation of these seeds does not yield the same thing, instead it develops into a multitude of plant forms. Therefore re-planting hybrid seeds is not possible and farmers are forced to repurchase seeds every season. For the seed distributors this is truly genius, their business is protected and engineered into the very product they sell.

It is said that hybrid seeds are applied to gain high yields, produce more pest and disease resistant crops, which are, technically speaking, much more easily harvested. Critics however find that these results may also be realized with natural seed varieties, and are concerned with questions of the quality of the crops being produced, the high costs required to produce them, the dwindling diversity of crops in existence, and the growing dependency on large seed corporations for hybrid plants.

Hunger instead of ‘Progress’

In the USA and countries across Europe a handful of large corporations have formed a firm grip on the market. The monopoly control they have gained is problematic for the following reasons according to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD):

  • The monopoly power leads to the concentration of research and development being invested into only a small number of seed varieties
  • Concentrated market control may also prevent other firms from entering the seed economy which may be able to offer alternative products and business model
  • The competition stifling effects of a dominated market place may lead to massive hikes in the prices for seeds. Since the introduction genetic modification of organisms the prices for cotton seeds in the United States has risen three to four fold. Substantial increases in the price for cotton seeds can also be seen in developing countries.

The picture of market power, hybrid seeds and rigorous patenting of seeds has had fatal consequences in countries located in the global South.

Monsanto in India

Vandana Shiva is an Indian activist, author, and founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology and argues that Monsanto’s monopoly of seeds in India has become the root cause of the increase in farmer suicides. In an article published on Aljazeera, Shiva argues that “Monsanto and its PR men are trying desperately to delink the epidemic of farmers suicides in India from its growing control over the cotton seed supply. For us it is the control over seed, the first link in the food chain, the source of life which is our biggest concern. When a corporation controls seed, it controls life. Including the life of our farmers.”

Monsanto has had a presence in India since 1988 when the World Bank introduced a new Seed Policy that required the government to deregulate the seed sector, one of the many measures accompanied by the Structural Readjustment Policies. Shiva identifies five significant changes that have arisen since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market:

  • Indian companies became bound to Monsanto through joint ventures and licensing arrangements, which enabled it to secure a strong grip over the sector
  • The Monsanto seeds were defined as ‘intellectual property’, which meant that Monsanto could collect royalties – these are an agreed-upon percentage of the gross or net revenues earned or a fixed price of the harvests.
  • Furthermore the seeds which were once a renewable resource became non-renewable because the natural, open-pollinated cotton seeds were replaced by patented hybrids and GMOs.
  • Cotton, which could previously be grown in harmony with other crops, became a monocrop which was more vulnerable to pests, diseases, drought and crop failure and more dependent on expensive pesticides and fertilizers.
  • And lastly Monsanto began to subvert government regulatory processes and even gained access to public resources to promote non-renewable hybrids and GMOs through ‘public private partnerships’ or PPP.

Shiva goes on to say that “the creation of seed monopolies, the destruction of alternatives, the collection of superprofits in the form of royalties, and the increasing vulnerability of monocultures has created a context for debt, suicides, and agrarian distress.”

For years she has been opposed to Monsanto’s monopoly power in India. Thanks to having bullied, and bought out their competition, it almost wholly controls the cotton production. As a result Indian cotton farmers do not have an alternative to Monsanto’s genetically modified plants.

However for the majority of farmers the seeds are more than they can afford, and the yields lie substantially below expectations. Further problematizing the situation are the new diseases which have been cropping up and damaging the cotton plants, or completely ruining the harvest.

In contrast to the traditional cotton plants that are suited to weather and soil conditions of the regions in which they grow, the genetically modified plants have not adapted to the climate. Additionally costly, health-damaging and environmentally unfriendly fertilizers and pesticides need to be used in order to protect the mutant crops.

A vast number of Indian farmers have been financially ruined and indebted thanks to Monsanto, some have even turned to suicide seeing no other way out. Nearly 75 percent of rural debt in India is attributed to purchased inputs according to the Government of India. As farmer debt grows, so does Monsanto’s profits and it is in this system that their seeds have been given the name “seeds of suicide”. Shiva notes, “the price per kilogram of cotton seeds [has gone] from 7 to 17,000 rupees…Monsanto sells its GMO seeds on fraudulent claims of yields of 1500 kg/year when farmers harvest 300-400 kg/year on an average.”

For years large seed corporations have flooded the markets of developing countries, in which the presence of commercial seed providers was small. Whilst infiltrating these economies, they have played to the hope that through seed growth and genetic engineering miraculous solutions to global problems, such as climate change, can be found. However the data supports a different story, according to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) approximately half of the 868 million people suffering from hunger worldwide are resource-deprived farmers who farm on small plots of fertile land.

Despite this, massive seed corporations invest a meager 1 percent of their research and development budget into seeds that are appropriate for the climate of many developing countries. Simultaneously, they are able to prevent competitors from catering to these markets by acquiring strict patents on genes which are stress and heat resistant, which in turn assures that any corporations wishing to enter the market need to first align themselves with them.

Olivier De Schutter, who compiled a report titled ‘Seed policy and the right to food’ for the Right to Food program of the United Nations, stated that to combat poverty and hunger in the global South it is important that small scale, subsistence farmers have access to seeds. Through informal networks and local structures these can be sold, traded and appropriately developed for the climactic, ecological and cultural needs.

Biodiversity under Threat

As a result of a monopolized seed economy and the limited engineering of seed varieties, the overall loss of plant diversity has significantly increased. Over the course of the 20th century, according to the FAO, approximately 75 percent of crop diversity has been lost. Before the Green Revolution in India there were roughly 50,000 rice varieties, and within twenty years this number dropped to a mere 40 – 40 from 50,000. Many of the new hybrid variations being created would not be able to keep up considering they share many genetic characteristics.

It sounds like a lot of loss looking at these figures, but is it really so important to preserve crop diversity? It is, because diversity entails countless genetic characteristics which may serve as viable options to be grown in the face of climate change. Let us not forget that our environment is drastically changing and with it our agricultural practices, or at least what we plant, may need to change as well. If climate conditions change it may be that an old variety of plant might be more suitable. For example, in the 1970s a large amount of rice harvests in India were destroyed by a virus. However, of the 6,273 remaining rice varieties there was one which was resistant to the virus.

A major UN and World Bank sponsored report which compiled the knowledge of 400 scientists and was endorsed by 58 countries concluded that genetically modified crops have little to offer to the challenges of poverty, hunger, and climate change. Better alternatives are available, and the report championed organic farming as the sustainable way forward.

It’s Time to Get Busy

It is a cause for concern that a handful of seed corporations dominate the seed market, and, subsequently, the foundations of our food production system.

If you want to become more active on this issue, why not start with signing some petitions?

Care2, a petition site is calling on Monsanto to intervene in the crisis of farmer suicides by providing financial assistance to farmers suffering from otherwise inescapable debt, sign if you want it to as well.

The online activism organization Avaaz is leading a petition against Monsanto expanding its patent right, read more about it here.

If this topic interests you, you may be interested in seeing Dirty White Gold a documentary by Leah Borromeo which aims to shed light on how the global fashion industry and international consumer habits contribute to the lives and deaths of Indian farmers by examining the cotton supply chain.

Bitter Seeds, directed by Micha Peled, follows the story of a teenage girl whose father took his life because of insurmountable debt. It poignantly shows Monsanto’s dishonest dealings with farmers and their consequences.

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