February 26, 2014
Imagine maize, or corn, having cellular structures resembling those of humans, making them easier for scientists to manipulate.
Much more disconcerting to discover however, was why scientists were tinkering with maize. Non-reproducing seeds apart, they were developing ‘contraceptive corn.’ It was easier to nip births in the bud through food rather than pills. And only enough had to be eaten to cause irreversible infertility in both men and women. The problems of overpopulation would be solved.
When in 1999, Epicyte, a small US biotechnology firm patented and launched the “Terminator” seed (labeled rather repugnantly by the media), there was global outrage and massive protests were held by Latin American and Asian peasants demanding a ban. Epicyte was forced to bow to global pressure. Later it transpired that USDA had financed the Terminator seed’s development behind the scenes; the ‘Gene-Use Restriction Technology’ (GURT) in GM lingo.
The following year in 2000, 193 countries signed the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which recommended a de facto moratorium on the ‘Terminator.’ However, this didn’t stop Monsanto and DuPont from taking over Epicyte to commercially exploit the seed at more opportune times.
To calm misgivings, Monsanto stated on its website:
“After consulting with international experts and sharing many of the concerns of small landholder farmers, Monsanto made a commitment in 1999 not to commercialize sterile seed technology in food crops. We stand firmly by this commitment. We have no plans or research that would violate this commitment in any way.”
Not that anyone believed them. Egged on by Monsanto, Brazil is today threatening to break the moratorium. If that happens, the US will bully other nations to follow suit. Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, and Dow are also suspected of holding ‘Terminator’ patents.
The track record makes uncertain the suitability of maize seeds in local markets. In 2003-04, bad policies and corruption led to severe wheat shortages in Pakistan. MNCs suggested mixing ground maize seed with wheat, but that wasn’t favoured. Now, minds have changed due to the huge price difference. Wheat is Rs. 1330 for a 40 Kg sack, and maize Rs. 800-1000. It is alleged that many flour mills are mixing the two but are neither passing on the lower cost benefit to consumers, nor improving edibility.
Have your chapattis or naan from local tandoors been tasting like leather lately? That betrays a maize-wheat mixture, not pure wheat. This may be unsafe for those suffering from stomach ulcers or allergy to corn, and should be labeled accordingly to warn consumers. There’s a quick layman’s test to check it out, though. Roll some dough and let stand at room temperature; it’ll become quite hard compared to dough made from pure atta.
Provincial regulatory and food departments need to conduct regular laboratory tests, and compel DuPont, Pioneer, Syngenta, Monsanto and others to label their hybrid yellow maize seed according to whether its fit for human consumption or not. Modern milling and treatment is so advanced, even yellow corn can be bleached to look like atta. (Years ago, the US was shipping wheat designated in America as cattle-feed to Indian consumers!)
Previously, when all plants and food were naturally produced, it wasn’t necessary for consumers to understand what they ate. Today, in a world where crops, food, medicines, cosmetics, grooming products and even fabrics are produced with GM plants and saturated with chemicals, it is necessary for consumers to be informed for their own safety, (and especially now that in Khyber Pakhtunwa province, a proposed Seed Act 2014 has confused the issue by dangerously lumping all seed kinds together.)
The high-handed, covertly monopolistic bill that would destroy traditional farmers, aims to prevent them and domestic seed’s businesses from selling their surplus seed unless registered with the provincial authorities. Not only do they seem uninformed about GM hazards, a heated Twitter debate accuses Mr Jahangir Tareen, now with PTI, for his long-standing support of Monsanto and his role in this Bill that will benefit only multinationals.
But traditional seeds, hybrids and GM seeds are not the same thing. Traditional seeds are natural seeds, saved by hand. So are hybrids, except they are selectively cross-bred.
GM seeds, on the other hand, are wholly unnatural, an alien GM from an unrelated species, whether plant, animal, or microorganism, having been artificially transferred into them; something impossible in nature which created barriers to prevent exactly such a thing happening. Some feel that even hybrid and natural seed treated with insecticide or fungicide carry risks, and therefore should be considered ‘modified.’
Try obtaining traditional seeds for growing vegetables and fruit at home. Urbanites will have difficulty finding any, and settle for a seed-and-supplies store selling packaged hybrid seed. They grow fine, but the seeds they produce in turn, will not. That’s the problem with hybrids.
How are hybrids different from GMO/Bt and ‘Terminator seeds?’
On discovering every plant had hundreds or thousands of varieties, farmers began to combine desired features from different plants by cross-pollinating two dissimilar but related plants, until a new plant variety evolved that worked well in the local ecosystem. The slow, painstaking process took 6 to 10 plant generations — 3-5 years — until Darwin and Mendel found a method of producing hybrids within one generation.
This spawned the modern seed industry, promising farmers’ higher-yielding and uniform seeds. Agro-businesses were delighted. But in the South countries took away seed-saving employment from women.
There was another catch to hybrids that farmers weren’t told about. Although the first harvest was bountiful, their seeds were not. They did not necessarily inherit the strong features of the parent lines, and yield and quality would eventually fall.
Initially, farmers thought it was their own fault – perhaps not enough fertilizer or other care- returning again and again to buy hybrids. That was the whole objective of the seed industry – to create a highly profitable dependency. By the time they realized it, most farmers were ‘hooked’ and had forgotten the art of seed-saving, dealing death to biodiversity in the process.
The so-called Green Revolution seeds were hybrids. But the chemical industry and big landlords gained — not the peasants. And pests, pesticides and profits boomed because of monoculture.
A handful of multinational corporations control 75% of the global agrochemical market. Our lawmakers should realize that sterile-seed technology could eventually give them 100% control, wiping out a billion livelihoods by seed, or by terminating human life before birth.
This article was published in The Nation on 26 February, 2014