Corporate monopoly over seeds is not the answer to the global food crisis, but rather an unacknowledged cause of it.
In October 2007, the World Bank’s forward-looking annual World Development Report for 2008 was titled “Agriculture for Development”, pointing to the need for effective investment in agriculture. Ironically, when 2008 came around, people across many developing countries were forced to spend significantly more in order to buy food. This was due to the inflationary pressures first created, mainly, by the global oil crisis, and then by the rise in global food prices. In recent months, though the global prices of oil as well as food have fallen from their peak, the global food crisis has not gone away. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that more than 32 countries in Asia and Africa are currently still facing critical food insecurity. The underlying causes suggest that another international crisis – that involving global finance – is now exacerbating the situation surrounding food, particularly by reducing real incomes as well as the quantity and quality of food consumed in developing countries. In response to these international crises, the largest global emergency efforts in human history are currently being made, but these responses remain dangerously skewed.
Some assume that the rise in food prices benefited farmers, even as it hurt consumers. However, this has not always been true. In the case of most developing countries, the vast majority of farmers are not producers with net surplus; as such, both farmers and consumers have suffered, as they rely on food purchases for much of their consumption. The case also applies in Southasia, against this backdrop of the food price rise and the escalating food crisis. Given that Southasia must devise strategies that address the region’s food-security challenges, the first task needs to be to re-examine the causes of the current global food crisis.
Understandably, multilateral organisations have taken the issue seriously. Several of them – including the FAO, World Bank and the Asian Development Bank – have already published several reports on the issue. These have highlighted various demand- and supply-side factors that contributed to the rise in food prices and the food crisis: limited investments in agriculture, the continuing economic and population growth in developing countries, the negative impact of climate change on food production, and the growing demand for bio-fuels. Certainly, Southasians must take into account these aspects while making concerted efforts to address the global food crisis, and to ensure long-term regional food security. But they also need to understand that the analyses made by these agencies have tended to neglect one crucial aspect, which has both direct and indirect linkages with the global food crisis: the growing corporate control over the world’s seed system.
The global seed industry, with an annual market of USD 17 billion, has expanded globally to wield massive power, all of which is held by less than a dozen multinational seed companies. Known as the ‘gene giants’, the market share of these companies has enabled them to affect prices, reduce competition and set their own corporate standards for the use, reproduction and sale of seeds across the globe. Yet the reports that have been released on food security are all ominously silent on the matter of corporate monopolies over seeds.
Clearly such an oversight cannot be put down to lack of data or research, or even of evidence. The neglect of the seed multinationals in these studies is either due to pressure or deliberate intention to secure and promote a policy objective prescribed by certain vested interests that want entrenchment of corporate monopolies over seeds. For example, the FAO has stipulated that “smallholder farmers cannot afford high input prices which have almost doubled in price compared with August 2007.” But it has not advised technology-rich countries and gene giants to take apart seed monopolies. A number of global reports published by these agencies underscore the importance of using quality seeds for better production. But when it comes to how such need can be fulfilled, FAO-developed policy (for just one example) emphasises the need to “ensure sustained access to competitive, transparent and private sector-led markets for quality inputs” – the exact notion that identifies farmers as consumers of seeds and not as producers. This shows that multilateral agencies have been supporting corporate monopolies over seeds and corporate-led unjust market systems.
This is certainly not a promising trend. It reveals that the purpose of the so-called farmer-friendly agriculture development initiatives of these agencies – in spite of their talk of public-private partnerships for increasing the productivity and sustainability of smallholder farming – is actually to support the radical private-sector-led liberalisation process and to strengthen the seed system that makes farmers reliant on corporate seed markets. However, will such a radical liberal approach contribute to the achievement of food security goals in developing countries if there is lack of safety nets and promotional measures for the protection of farmers’ rights to seeds? Or will such an approach merely lead to the entrenchment of corporate monopolies with serious implications for food prices and long-term food security? These serious questions have not been adequately examined by the global agencies. This is undoubtedly due to their assumption that more liberal policies must be pursued to encourage the private sector in economic activities, including plant breeding and seed development. Ultimately, safety nets and promotional measures, together with policy and institutional mechanisms for the protection of farmers’ rights, are essential.
At base, this also means that the organised interests of the ‘gene giants’ are stronger than the political will and capacity of the global agencies. Such a dynamic has been made possible by a group of powerful, technology-rich countries, led by the US, even as they impact on developing countries such as those of Southasia. It is because of their pursuit of industrial farming and control over the world seed market that this group of countries has made it policy to defend the interests of the gene giants at any cost – be it through the multilateral agencies they fund or the strict enforcement of international trade rules they have designed, primarily to suit the interests of the multinationals themselves.
This is accomplished through an extensive regime that has been created during the course of the corporate seed business’s evolving history. The defining elements of these approaches involve modern biotechnologies and intellectual property rights (IPRs), such as patents and plant breeders’ rights over so-called invented seeds. While the discovery of the DNA double-helix structure in the 1950s promoted the application of techniques by which to tinker with genes, enabling breeders to develop genetically modified seeds, it was the introduction of multilaterally binding IPR rules under the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 that strengthened the corporate sector to entrench monopolies over the use, reuse and sale of such seeds.
Not that a counter-argument is lacking, of course. The proponents of corporate monopolies over seeds argue that the corporate seed system is contributing significantly to the attainment of the UN-sponsored Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of hungry people in the world, by ensuring wider supply and availability of quality seeds that guarantee higher yields. But such arguments deliberately ignore four critical aspects. Perhaps more critically, these are elements that are also not being brought into consideration by the multilateral agencies who claim to have taken bold initiatives – or at least undertaken incisive research – with regards to the global food crisis.
First, with the rapid and unjust application of modern biotechnology and IPR in agriculture, corporations are securing unprecedented power vis-à-vis worldwide farmers. For example, in 2006, six multinational companies – Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, Aventis and Grupo Pulsar – owned 74 percent of the existing patents on the major food crops, including rice, wheat, maize and sorghum. Relentlessly, these companies are transforming farmers from seed owners to mere licensees and consumers of IPR-protected new seeds. This is not merely a source of disincentive for farmers to conserve plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, but is also in opposition to ‘seed sovereignty’, the critical realisation of the need to guarantee farmers’ ownership over seeds. If only companies have ownership over seeds, after all, farmers would be rendered increasingly vulnerable to external and internal market shocks, as has happened in case of recent global crisis. Moreover, as the current trend shows, the focus will be given only to those varieties that guarantee commercial benefits – not to those that need to be conserved for the protection or conservation of ecosystems, species and genetic levels of diversity, the basis of today’s modern plant breeding and, indeed, all agriculture.
Second, it is impossible to ignore the fact that IPR-protected seeds are expensive. This is due to monopolistic pricing mechanisms that are enforced on the pretext of the need to make up costs incurred by research-and-development investments and by obtaining patents and plant breeders’ rights. Third, in cases when genetically modified seeds are used, strict corporate monopolies restrict farmers to use, reuse and sell them. This basically means that farmers are forced to pay exorbitant amounts for new seeds for every season of crops or harvests, in direct contravention of the traditional farming system. Fourth, amidst the absence of adequate environment-impact assessments and conservation initiatives, the corporate-led seed system has promoted industrial farming based on transgenic seeds and mono-cropping. But there is now evidence even across many developing countries such as China, India and the Philippines that such farming has led to the loss of traditional varieties of seeds, with severe implications in the context of biodiversity conservation, climate change and food security.
Despite more than two decades of policy and institutional efforts, food security remains both an unfulfilled promise and an urgent need for Southasia and the world at large. Indeed, with an estimated surge of 40 million in 2008 alone, there are now almost one billion hungry people in the world, nearly 17 percent of the world population. The global trends suggest that among many other demand- and supply-side factors, the corporate control of the global seed system needs to be a central concern for policymakers and peoples of our region. As Southasians are increasingly being integrated into the global economy by liberal trade policies – and, at the same time, are currently facing one of the most challenging times in history with regards to food security – the time has come for them to extend their focus to the judicious use of biotechnology and IPRs.
One crucial need is to implement legal measures for preventing the application of biotechnology and IPRs from becoming a trade route that would lead to irrational monopolies over seeds. Encouragingly, India has already taken some legal initiatives to weaken such strict monopolies, and to protect the rights of local farmers and stakeholders. Notable in this regard is the implementation by New Delhi of the Plant Variety Protection and Farmers’ Rights Act of 2001, which enables farmers to develop new seeds and register them for ownership. It also allows them to save, exchange, reuse and sell the IPR-protected seeds in a non-branded form. Nepal, too, has made some careful moves. With its commitment to enact a home-grown law on the protection of plant varieties at the WTO, the Kathmandu government, together with civil-society groups and national seed enterprises, is currently exploring options on protecting farmers’ rights over seeds, such that food security is not threatened in the long run. These noteworthy exercises aside, however, in other countries of the region, particularly Pakistan and Bangladesh, pressures to create conducive policy environments for the seed multinationals are mounting, despite some civil-society protests.
It does seem that, unlike the multilateral development agencies, Southasian governments and concerned stakeholders are increasingly serious about the negative implications of the modern biotechnology and IPRs. But there remains a need to raise a collective voice against unfair acts of omission or commission by the multilateral agencies, gene giants and the technology-rich countries. Any lack of unity could well result in increased proliferation of multinational seed companies in Southasian countries, which could portend doom for the farmer households that continue to make up the majority of Southasia’s population.
In order to prevent such an unwanted scenario, are the SAARC members willing to generate political will, so that the vested interests of the ‘gene giants’ and their proponents are kept at bay? Are SAARC governments willing to collaborate on the development of regional positions on common issues such as biotechnology and IPR, so that at some point they can collectively negotiate at the WTO to amend IPR rules? With such questions in mind, the next SAARC Summit – scheduled for Male during the second half of this year – would do well to set an agenda to discuss specifically the issues of biotechnology and IPRs. In so doing, issues concerning their judicious use and implications for food security and development in the region need to be thoroughly assessed, in order that a prudent regional position can be crafted for negotiations at the global level.
~ Kamalesh Adhikari is research director at South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics & Environment (SAWTEE), Kathmandu.