Agribusiness versus poor farmers

Published: November 6, 2012
The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne

The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne

The stalemate between the Punjab government and a US-based agribusiness giant is indicative of the increasing complexity of interests involved in agricultural production. The Punjab government remains keen to gain access to genetically modified (GM) seeds, especially Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) cotton, yet remains reluctant to ensure intellectual property rights of Monsanto, the multinational corporation (MNC) which owns this technology. In the absence of adequate patent protection capacity, Monsanto is demanding that a fine of between $12 and $15 per acre be paid by the Punjab government. The Punjab government seems ready to make a one-time payment to Monsanto for the right to permanently market its seeds and then let farmers share these seeds amongst themselves. Monsanto, however, wants that farmers be compelled to purchase its seeds for each sowing season.

While sharecroppers and small-scale farmers increasingly rely on expensive pesticides and fertilisers, the majority of them still uses seeds from preceding harvests or borrows seeds from other farmers, instead of purchasing expensive seed varieties. Although there are now hundreds of companies in Pakistan, licensed to market seeds, they still account for about a third of the total market share. MNCs are thus keen to tap this market potential. Our Senate textile committee is in favour of promoting the use of BT cottonseeds to boost cotton production for the textile industry. International agencies such as the World Bank and the WTO also support the need for protecting intellectual property rights of multinational corporations and place faith in their high-tech solutions for boosting agricultural productivity.

However, environmentalists and development practitioners point to the adverse impacts of using GM seeds. Some of them insist that BT cottonseeds do not protect the crop from the sorts of pests most prevalent in Pakistan and may even be dangerous for consumers. Reluctance to using GM seeds is not confined to Pakistan alone. Via Campesina, the global, million-strong peasant movement for land, seed and food sovereignty, particularly in the Latin American countries, stresses how poor farmers produce ecologically sustainable and healthier crops, than a monoculture of crops using GM seeds.

In India, while these expensive seeds promised lucrative profits, multitudes of poor farmers experienced crop failures leaving them heavily indebted and compelling hundreds of thousands of suicides. Genetic modification of seeds is also deeply unpopular in Europe. French scientists have just released a study claiming that rats fed GM corn or exposed to its top-selling weedkiller suffered tumours and multiple organ damage.

After a damning report of a parliamentary committee on agriculture, the Indian Supreme Court recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of all GM foods and the termination of all ongoing trials of transgenic crops across India. Such developments need to be given attention by our Technical Advisory Committee of the National BioSafety Committee, which has recently allowed field trials of BT corn in the country.

Besides health safety issues, critics point out that BT corn is a highly-pollinating variety and its pollen can easily travel and contaminate adjoining crops using normal seeds, inhibit their seed germination and even make farmers with contaminated crops liable to patent infringement. The existing version of our Plant Breeders Rights Bill 2012 is primarily focused on acknowledging corporation patent rights instead of protecting farmers concerns. The drafters of this bill should have paid greater attention to how other developing countries, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Ethiopia and Vietnam, have sought to protect farmers’ traditional knowledge and biological diversity in their legislative measures.

There is little evidence on ground of attempts to bolster indigenous seed stocks to prevent the potential monopoly of GM seeds in our rural areas. This is an issue which NGOs and other development agencies working with poor farmers must particularly turn their attention to.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (4)

  • Khan Jr
    Nov 6, 2012 - 11:04PM

    BT cotton seed has been in use in Pakistan for nearly a decade. So it’s a bit late to worry about its environmental effects at this late stage. I imagine it was started here from smuggled Monsanto seed many years ago.


  • omairsaeed
    Nov 7, 2012 - 11:39AM

    Great article. Research has shown that genetically modified seeds, increased use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides has not only reduced the strength of the land but also increasingly contributes to global warming.
    If we are finally making policy decisions on agriculture, we need to think of the future and rely on sustainable strategies.
    @Khan jr: The author is talking about the policy decision being undertaken currently by the punjab government. Your right about the seeds being already present in the market, however I hope you understand that if the punjab government does strike this deal and distributes them among the farmers their increase will be multiplied many a times.


  • Genesis
    Nov 7, 2012 - 9:42PM

    The problems faced by the farmers is about the much touted claims of the GM industry and the claims made on those packets. GM crops maybe the seeds of change but they often conceal the truth.

    That the boll worm has developed resistance, against hybrid cotton crop’s self-producing toxins and have feasted on these crops, is not surprising. The GM industry admits that resistant strains can emerge. The claim that pesticides need not be used in large quantities now seems misconceived.

    Insects are smart. They have been around the world for over 500 million years and are the most varied form of life. After bacteria they constitute the second largest species. . Resistance is an innate characteristic and is a process akin to natural selection. If life can evolve with arsenic as scientists have recently found, Insects with their long evolutionary history can certainly enjoy the gastronomic delight of genetically modified crops whose long term consequences we are yet to be aware of. Gene manipulation is not going to faze the insects. No insects or ants and we would see our agriculture vanish. GM data is protected by patents and when scientists wished to access the data used by companies for approvals, nearly 40% of the pages were blacked out as confidential business information. The companies strictly control the research, and have withdrawn permission, as well as prohibiting publication of negative research. . They have often refused to provide independent scientists with seeds, or they’ve set restrictive conditions that severely limit research options.

    It is not about feeding or improving agricultural yields; it’s about building oligopolies in the selling seeds through patents, IPR’s and profits


  • Suheil Siddiqi
    Dec 22, 2012 - 10:43AM

    Cancer of Corruption, Seeds of Destruction: The Monsanto GMO Whitewash


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