Control by seed

Published: February 28, 2012

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group najma.sadeque@tribune.com.pk

To the rest of the world, Abu Ghraib is associated with inhuman torture, incarceration without trial and arrogant US unilateralism. To the farmers of Iraq, Abu Ghraib was better known for the national seed gene bank, started in the early 70s. In fact, Iraq’s most well-known wheat variety is known as ‘Abu Ghraib’. The country precious heritage is now all but lost.

Facing the same unsolicited adversary, Syria is under a similar threat. The Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) is situated there and still holds remaining samples of Iraq’s threatened seeds. It is worrying because the planned destruction of Iraq’s agriculture is not widely known. Modern Iraq is part of the ‘fertile crescent’ of Mesopotamia where man first domesticated wheat between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago, and home to several thousand varieties of local wheat. As soon as the US took over Iraq, it became clear its interests were not limited to oil. In 2004, Paul Bremer, the then military head of the Provisional Authority imposed as many as a hundred laws which made short work of Iraq’s sovereignty.

The most crippling for the people and the economy of Iraq was Order 81 which deals, among other things, with plant varieties and patents. The goal was brutally clear-cut and sweeping — to wipe out Iraq’s traditional, sustainable agriculture and replace it with oil-chemical-genetically-modified-seed-based industrial agriculture.

There was no public or parliamentary debate for the conquered people who never sought war. The conquerors made unilateral changes in Iraq’s 1970 patent law: henceforth, plant forms could be patented — which was never allowed before — while genetically-modified organisms were to be introduced. Farmers were strictly banned from saving their own seeds: this, in a country where, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 97 per cent of Iraqi farmers planted only their own saved seeds.

With a single stroke of the pen, Iraq’s agriculture was axed, while Order 81 facilitated the introduction and domination of imported, high-priced corporate seeds, mainly from the US — which neither reproduce, nor give yields without their prescribed chemical fertiliser and pesticide inputs. It meant that the majority of farmers who had never spent money on seed and inputs that came free from nature, would henceforth have to heavily invest in corporate inputs and equipment — or go into debt to obtain them, or accept lowered profits, or give up farming altogether.

The US has now completely revamped Iraq’s agriculture, uninvited and against the will of local farmers. It’s not for nothing international researchers have termed the deliberate annihilation of Iraqi agriculture the ‘ultimate war crime’.

It was in the early seventies that Henry Kissinger devised the chilling plan to control countries by replacing their self-sufficiency with food and seed dependency. A cartel controlled by the leading financial families of Britain, US, Holland and Australia, began to buy up all the world’s major sources of food and seed. The six leading grain companies — Cargill, Continental, Louis Dreyfus, Bunge and Born, Andre, and Archer Daniel Midlands/Topfer — completely dominate the world’s grain and cereals supplies. They include wheat, corn, oats, barley, sorghum and rye; also a strong grip on meat and dairy, fruits and vegetables, edible oils and fats, spices and sugar.

It was something that agricultural countries already arm-twisted by World Bank/IMF conditions, should have worried about. But most governments were ignorant or indifferent to ecology and biodiversity to realise how survival was being threatened. Alarmed by the inexorable onslaught of the agro-chemical multinationals, Indian activist Vandana Shiva began creating indigenous seed banks in 1987 and challenging seed patents, monopolies and genetically-modified seeds — so far she has created 60 such seed banks in India. So have many other groups in India.

Similarly, Nayakrishi in Bangladesh is rediscovering food plants that were thought lost forever. In the fore is Via Campesina, the global, million-strong peasant movement for land, seed and food sovereignty, particularly in the Latin American countries. Only a few small, scattered efforts exist in Pakistan. And even though farmers have demonstrated over and over again that biodiverse ecological agriculture produces more and healthier food per acre than monocultures, tens of times more cheaply, concentrated wealth and power continues to move the food and seed system out of the hands of peasants and villages and into the hands of a few corporations.

Monoculture — the planting of a single crop variety over thousands or millions of acres — has been systematically eliminating biodiversity all over the world, without many plants ever being documented. Despite the assault on them, there are still over 200,000 varieties of wheat left in the world today, thanks only to the world’s unheralded small farmers and movements. But it’s hard to tell for how long, since these and other plants varieties are being constantly wiped out by industrial agriculture. Mexico, the historical cradle of corn, has already had its maize varieties decimated during the development and implementation of the dubious ‘Green Revolution’ by US interests. Eighty per cent of Mexico’s corn varieties have been lost since the early 20th century.

Almost throughout Pakistan’s history, uninformed or indifferent governments coupled with feudal domination of farmlands have maintained the newly-entrenched system of dependant agriculture. But the final threat to our indigenous seeds came a decade ago, in the form of a globally-discredited chemical-turned-seed corporation that was given virtually open house to take over Pakistan’s agriculture, even sitting in as unofficial adviser in ministry meetings.

The Punjab provincial government’s recent rejection of Monsanto was not for ecological reasons and the dangers that genetically-engineered seeds posed for human health, livelihoods and agriculture at large, but because the terms were too steep — which still gives Monsanto a chance to renegotiate itself back into the fold.

The blind adoption of unproven or failing agricultural technologies on the unproven grounds that American scientists can always improve on nature, could leave Pakistan as devastated as Iraq without even needing an Order 81.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 29th, 2012.

Reader Comments (28)

  • Nagpuri
    Feb 29, 2012 - 12:37AM

    Can we have some balance please? No one is forcing any farmer to not stick to old one. What use is biodiversity if the yield is 1/10th and population is going hungry?
    You forgot to mention even US farmers are using same GM seeds.

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  • John B
    Feb 29, 2012 - 12:58AM

    An evil plot to destroy the world

    The author propagates the idea that agricultural corporations impose the crop variety on the nations.

    In the so called infamous order 81, Iraq parliament can repeal it any time.

    What the agricultural companies are asking is to protect their intellectual rights, and farmers have a choice of either using the corporate seed variety or they can use their traditional seed.

    Prior to corporate agriculture, the state(s) of the developing nations invested money in the development of high yield, drought and disease resistant varieties of wheat and rice hybrids through their agricultural universities and international research institutes. The food self sufficiency of Asia, which in 1960s was prone to famine and food shortages, where rice is the staple food is due to this effort and same goes for wheat surplus of northern belt of Asia.

    No company or any nation is twisting the farmers (actually, land owners) to use corporate seed. They do it by choice because of higher yield and if there is an alternate substitute naturally any “idiotic” farmer will naturally opt for high profit yielding variety.

    It is illogical to conclude that current hybrid/genetically modified crops wipes out species diversity. The day the mankind set a plough on the field, he has already interfered with species diversity, and selected particular species of cereal crop over the other. Sorghum which was once the staple of food of Asia is all but abandoned not by any evil design but by peoples choice.

    One cannot expect an agricultural companies to give the seed freely and it is not in their interest to make sure that farmers who buy these seeds go into debt or commit suicide.

    It does not mean seed banks and species diversity should not be protected. But who is going to cultivate the low yielding, drought prone crops over the hybrid/genetically modified varieties -either they are from state universities (so subsidized) or from private companies?

    The author is mixing too many things in one basket: is the author in support of species diversity over mono cultivation of a species or against high yielding US corporate seeds over low yielding indigenous seeds?

    Rice used to take 90-120 days to grow and took too much water. Now, the hybrid rice developed by Asian agricultural universities grow in 40 days and the farmers of south Asia abandoned the old crops. Was it not mono species selection?

    The author should clearly state why the corporate seed is not in the best interest of a farmer(nation), and why in particular US corporate seed is bad over indigenous or EU corporate seeds.

    Otherwise, the author is advocating “Evil plot to destroy the world” concept without any rational or logic, and feeds the already prevalent anti-US frenzy in PAK.

    Is genetically modified plant good or bad? Any rational scientist will say it is good and it is nothing more than the hybrid speciation either created in the universities or in nature. Irrational logic will come up with the notion that it is for world dominance.

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  • Malaiz
    Feb 29, 2012 - 4:31AM

    What an article! I come from Afghanistan, a country still in US’s grip. I don’t think anyone in Afghanistan has given a single thought to this issue. Thanks a lot for this enlightening piece.

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  • NRP
    Feb 29, 2012 - 4:47AM

    Dear author, what is your opinion regarding this story about Chinese wheat.
    http://tribune.com.pk/story/339769/super-wheat-new-varieties-may-increase-production-by-50/

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  • MarkH
    Feb 29, 2012 - 8:50AM

    If they’re undocumented yet wiped out, where do you get this information exactly? Are you out there working the fields? Are you the one that has to experience the need to supply people or they starve? Or are you in an office nitpicking and pointing fingers?
    Yes, why not tell everyone exactly how to feed those people. Pinpoint those undocumented yet discovered plants and mention their existence to the right people. In the US there are actually quite a few influential groups/people against wiping out any endangered plant or animal. It would stop almost over night. Or are you just the type that always needs some kind of monster in your closet to be happy?

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  • hshuaib
    Feb 29, 2012 - 10:36AM

    Reads like an episode from X-Files

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  • Feb 29, 2012 - 12:55PM

    Funny how foreign commentators (read: US Embassy Islamabad) are all out criticising a very important piece of investigative journalism. And Pakistan being an agricultural country, this should send shivers down the spines of Patriotic Pakistanis.

    To the writer, Ms Najma Sadeque: Don’t listen to them. Carry on with your much needed work.

    Inshallah PTI government will bring an end to this!

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  • Usman
    Feb 29, 2012 - 3:37PM

    Here we go again. Conspiracy theory at its best. Are we being trapped into using the same seeds that enables US to dump wheat into the oceans every year while our populations are facing famines every second year? The whole article is full of ridiculous assumptions especially the last two paras

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  • 454
    Feb 29, 2012 - 5:36PM

    Usman: What famine? There hasn’t been a famine in Pakistan in decades. Why are you spreading lies?

    If GM crops are dangerous ban them. But remember that you will loose out on high yielding crops. If only we had our own research facilities we could develop our own high yielding varieties. But we don’t so we should only import from friendly countries that love us for what we are and will give us the fruits of their hard work freely :)

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  • ukmuslim
    Feb 29, 2012 - 6:42PM

    according to few replies here, agreed no company or nation is forcing/arm twisting local farmers to buy their branded seeds.
    but this article helped me to recall a news published at the start of monsoon last year in indian state of maharashtra. only multinational companies’ seeds were available at 95% of states’ seeds stockist, agents and shops. so most of the farmers un-willingly planted the available variety of the crop. for rich and resourceful multinationals, there are many ways to increase their sales. this analysis makes sense to me.

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  • ukmuslim
    Feb 29, 2012 - 6:49PM

    it is easily understtod that commenters ridiculing this article never did farming in their lifetime. they have no clue at all what farming is or how hardship it is.

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  • Homa
    Feb 29, 2012 - 7:39PM

    Gmo foods are bad both for human consumption and for the planet. Go organic. Good article, raises important issues. Scientists should find ways of raising yields while keeping agriculture and seeds organic. Hybridization is okay but genetic alteration is bad. Scorpion and fish genes in tomatoes — ugh. More Seed banks should be created. Diversity should be preserved.

    @john b:
    You are being too harsh on the author.
    Farmers do not have a real choice anymore. Our food sources are being poisoned. As an aside, Here in the US, i bought pumpkin seeds from the supermarket the other day, and they all tasted bitter and had a strong medicinal after taste. I checked the packaging and it said “kernels product of china”. The seeds were clearly contaminated and i imagine probably grown in toxic soil or had been sprayed with something. Our food is being poisoned. Agriculture and food production have turned into expolitative commercial acts of greed managed by greedy mega coporations. We need to bring the sacredness back into food and agriculture.

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  • P N Eswaran
    Feb 29, 2012 - 9:33PM

    I think the author has a point though it has been severely criticized by many informed readers. As a well informed person, the writer should have projected the positives of GM and Monoculture and on the balance should have shown what she alleges. Unfortunately, the article reads as a conspiracy theory in keeping with the moods of Pakistan. However, Iraq is presently occupied with bombing and tribal and sectarian conflicts. They need to preserve this article when the get back to mundane activity of farming.

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  • Hasan Riaz
    Feb 29, 2012 - 11:01PM

    Salam,
    Being a student of agriculture sciences since last ten year in Pakistan I strongly disagree with author about situation in Pakistan. The author seems to be totally ignorant in understanding Pakistan’s agriculture dynamics. Pakistan has very large gene bank in National Agriculture Research center, Islamabad having seed germplasm of wide range of plants (cereal crops, pulses, food crops, medicinal plants..etc etc). GM seeds good or bad that’s debatable BUT writing for Pakistan in such a way is largely is because of lack of knowledge. One must do the complete homework about writing anything of Pakistan. Regards.

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  • Noor
    Mar 1, 2012 - 12:30AM

    I dont know why my comment was not included but anyways think people who are against this article should watch food, inc, a documentary showing the same scenario faced by us farmers

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  • John B
    Mar 1, 2012 - 2:32AM

    @Noor:
    Be honest. Food Inc has nothing to do with the issues on this article.

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  • Imran Ahmed
    Mar 3, 2012 - 12:26PM

    As a farmer concerned about the long term sustainability of agriculture I strongly support the article.
    There have been publications from India and the example from the American dust bowl where new industrial technology for agriculture has had catastrophic impacts on sustainability. It is recognised that high yield seeds can be poor value for money because the high yield comes at the cost of higher inputs, potential environmental impacts, genetic contamination of other flora, etc, consequently the costs can far outweigh benefits.

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  • Imran Ahmed
    Mar 3, 2012 - 12:39PM

    John B makes a very plausible critique of the article. We may lose out on potential benefits of technology and hybrid seeds by a blanket refusal to consider new ideas or by labeling multinationals such as Monsanto as evil ogres.
    What we do need is a logical and sensible agricultural policy which is not subject to multinational pressure or short term political issues. Our own local agri experts are not sufficiently qualified to make solo judgments with such far reaching implications. The issue is important enough to be debated by Parliament.

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  • zulu
    Mar 12, 2012 - 12:34AM

    Everyone please watch ‘The world according to Monsanto’ on youtube. Monsanto should be banned in Pakistan.period.
    The dangers of GM foods are well documented; you can easily google them.

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  • sara
    Mar 12, 2012 - 12:47AM

    All these people here criticizing the author seem to be on Monsanto’s payroll.

    As a commentator mentioned on another article, Monsanto is even worse than blackwater. Those who are unaware about this issue should google about the dangers of GMOs and the havoc Monsanto’s GM seeds brought in India causing thousands of farmers to commit suicide. There have been huge protests against Monsanto in Brazil and India.

    As a technologically backward country, we all love technology and assume that technology can bring no harm and will cause all of our problems to vanish just like a magic wand. But it is unfortunately not usually the case. Technology comes with its huge price. Tinkering with nature is not always safe. GM seeds are so recent that we are not even fully aware of their dangers. Monsanto has no interest in ensuring the safety of the seeds for health as stated clearly by them. all they want to do is sell their seed as much as possible. FDA of US has strong links with Monsanto with many ex executives on FDA board. For more info watch award winning documentary ‘Food Inc’ on youtube.

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  • sacred
    Mar 12, 2012 - 1:09AM

    Monsanto voted Most Evil Corporation of the Year by NaturalNews readers

    The answer, I suspect, is that Monsanto behaves like an evil corporation that pretends to be angelic. The Monsanto website is an orgy of touchy-feely corporate spin that tries to position the company as the savior of life on planet Earth.

    Learn more: http://www.naturalnews.com/030967Monsantoevil.html#ixzz1oqBoLCby

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  • aron
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:10AM

    John B: Are you on Monsanto’s public relations team? It sure seems so. No ethical and morally righteous person would ever defend Monsanto after learning about its past track record. Please read up everyone. Just google.

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  • Imran Ahmed
    Mar 12, 2012 - 1:07PM

    If we are going to indulge in ad hominem attacks and illogical criticism of individuals rather than on issues than please compare the wickedly inefficient, nepotistic, sub standard, user unfriendly practices of our own institutions such as Veterinary Research Institute, Seed Corporation, NARC and PARC with the less evil multinationals

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  • Mar 14, 2012 - 10:14PM

    I do not know why people having no scientific knowledge comment in a way as they have complete grip on this technology. Especially Miss SARA blasted Monsanto and other commentators… I m not here to advocate for Monsanto but I know what is GMO? Personally I am not in favor of GMO’s but I am not against it If terminator gene is not incorporated in Plant’s genome. Furthermore strong promoter 35S of Cauliflower mosaic virus is being used in GMO’s which is not good. GMO’s can only be allowed to introduce in NON-FOOD crops as we don’t consume that crop directly. As in case of cotton we consume Oil which does not involve genome of cotton. We must not give hell to such technology whose basic tech won the noble prize. A food for thought for those who can understand.

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  • hamza
    Mar 20, 2012 - 11:44AM

    Mr Hasan Riaz: just because something won a noble prize doesnot mean it is safe with no bad side effects.

    I would reiterate Ms sara’s point that we get so carried away by technology forgetting the huge costs associated with it.

    And yes, Mr Imran Ahmed, please watch ‘The world according to Monsanto’ on youtube and also ‘Food Inc’ before forming any opinion on this issue.

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  • Hasan Riaz
    Mar 21, 2012 - 8:11PM

    Mr. HAMZA…. Being Pathological Complainers we can never progress. We must use every technology for positive output. Your argument lacks scientific backing… In Science you can not refer any youtube video as a “reference”… If someone here is not related to this GM science then I would strongly suggest him/her to stay out of discussion because SCIENCE doesn’t work in this way… REGARDS

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  • Zak
    Apr 22, 2012 - 2:06AM

    @Hasan Riaz:
    Not EVERY technology has a positive output!
    You have to remember that the average reader here does not have the time and access to peer reviewed publications or documents for them to critique or evaluate.

    Many videos on Youtube DO quote scientific studies and statements from the scientific community.

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  • Hasan Riaz
    Apr 22, 2012 - 6:16PM

    If u r living in Pakistan and a university student then u can easily access peer reviewed publications. There is no solid research against the use of GM crops otherwise it would have been banned in USA. By the way they r more civilized and caring about their people.

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