by Najma Sadeque
Is our future to be controlled by corporate government?
After all, that’s what happened in Iraq. Once Iraq was bombed to rubble and taken over, what was USA’s first step? They were prepared well in advance for imposing comprehensive hegemony. In 2004, Gen Paul Bremer, the military head of the Provisional Authority, slapped a hundred laws reducing Iraq to a vassal state sans sovereignty.
Agriculture has always been key to American foreign policy, and the most destructive of new laws concerning Iraq’s agriculture. From its birth, USA has been collecting foreign seeds – with or without host country’s permission – from wherever in the world its navy and diplomats went. Iraq falls in the ‘fertile crescent’ where wheat was first domesticated 8,000 to 13,000 years ago, and still boasted several thousand varieties of indigenous wheat. A gold mine for agricultural MNCs relying on global seed variety for fresh germplasm when their genetically-modified versions run out of steam.
The most shattering of Bremer’s laws was Order 81. It cleared the immediate import of corporate, patented, hybrid and GM seeds from the US, mainly Monsanto’s, while banning the saving of indigenous seed. That was not all. The Americans made unilateral changes in Iraq’s 1970 patent law. Previously plant varieties were never allowed to be patented: henceforth they could. Overnight the livelihoods of 97 percent of farmers relying on free saved seeds and inputs were destroyed. It led international researchers to condemn the deliberate annihilation of Iraq’s agriculture as the ‘ultimate war crime’.
Today, besieged by unprovoked war, Syria faces a similar threat. The Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria held samples of Iraq’s seeds including threatened varieties. No one knows, yet, whether they still survive or have been similarly lifted away.
Americans forget that before Thomas Jefferson became a US President, he collected and bred new seeds on his own plantation. He actually supervised drafting of the first US patent laws; they however excluded animals, plants, and other “products of nature”. The role of patents was to ensure inventors making a worthwhile living while contributing to society, not for companies to create monopolies. If a patent granting monopoly was contrary to the public interest, he said, the public interest should take precedence. This is no longer quoted.
Furthermore, biotechnology in USA was the outcome of 50 years of post-World War II research at universities and medical colleges sponsored by the federal government – that is, taxpayer-funded. Great advances and discoveries were made without any patent protections whatsoever. Later, instead of these remaining public goods, corporations were allowed to privatise them through unwarranted patents on developments paid for by taxpayers.
Since life patents began to be awarded, the free exchange of information and collaboration came to a stop, while resultant monopoly products soared in prices. Individual scientists no longer benefit from patents, but the corporations and shareholders who make fortunes from monopolies. Monsanto’s transgenic plants control extends to subsequent generations and authorises them to prevent farmers from saving their seed.
Researchers find that patents actually kill innovation as well as competition by closing up vast areas of unexplored knowledge for 20 years or more at a time. Since new patents keep being taken out overlapping similar previous ones, the monopoly in effect is ongoing and permanent.
When corporations and other interests don’t piggyback on warfare to entrench themselves, they mostly spend hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress and the White House. At any given time there are a minimum of 10,000 registered lobbyists in Washington. While the same system doesn’t exist here, lobbying is just as alive and kicking, Monsanto having been at it for over a decade. In 2006, a more responsible Agriculture Ministry in Pakistan warned that an agreement with Monsanto would bind farmers with unbearable terms and conditions. Today’s agriculture ministry is unhealthily cosy with Monsanto, and wants unilateral control over agriculture in all of Pakistan.
The US government, responding to corporate pressure, seeks to force all countries to accept US-style patent laws. For example, the US government threatened to end science and technology agreements with India, unless Indian patent laws were extended to cover pharmaceutical and agricultural products. Despite lobbying at the highest levels, Monsanto was forced out of India and Europe.
People need to realise that there are at least 80,000 edible plants on earth of which some 300 were major sources of food. Today, large-scale industrialised agriculture has led to merely 20 major crops being grown to produce 90 percent of the world’s food, although GM is useless for dryland and flood agriculture. This has destroyed biodiversity and local farmer specialisation, making corporate intervention easier controlling 75 percent or more of the world’s seeds, agro-chemicals and food. Is our future to be controlled by corporate government like the US is?
This article was published in Pakistan Today on 24 August, 2013