|Talking about Seed||
In 2011, US based multi-national seed giant Monsanto tried to establish its market in Nepal, but the attempt could not succeed largely as a result of widespread protests from students, environmentalists and social activists. Two years on, USAID is backing Monsanto’s entry through the country’s most powerful business group.
Although imported Monsanto seeds were being sold at retail shops throughout the country for the last several years, rolling a red carpet for the company that has been internationally discredited and blamed for farmer suicides in India reeks of moral corruption.
Few years back, farmers picketed outside Singha Durbar demanding action against companies alleging that they were sold ‘fake’ hybrid maize seeds, which resulted in bad harvest and affected their farm productivity. Among the list of companies whose seeds farmers were using was Monsanto. If the allegations are true, the government should ensure such companies are blacklisted and protect Nepal’s food sovereignty, soil productivity and farmers’ livelihood.
After initial outcry in the social media over sale advertisements by Chaudhary Group which is selling Monsanto seeds under its own franchise, the company issued a press-release clarifying that the advertised Monsanto Maize Seeds did not include GMOs but hybrids of international standards. Really?
In an even more bizarre turn of events, CG called a press conference last Friday and said that they have no Monsanto seeds in stock and that the advertisement was a management blunder.
GMOs and Hybrids
GMOs are organisms with human induced genetic alterations that have potentially devastating effects on bio-diversity, environment and human health. National Agro-biodiversity Policy 2063 prohibits GM crops which tempts us to assume no GMOs are entering. However, reported use of GMO seeds in several districts has raised serious concern. If Indian experience is anything to go by, we should all be worried.
In the late 1990s, Monsanto had illegally launched its open field trials of Bt-Cotton in India. By the time Indian court issued a verdict on the issue, it had not only disturbed the agriculture pattern, but reports of farmers committing suicide under stress of debt were making international headlines.
Another reason why we should be wary about allowing Monsanto is we do not have sufficient technology to determine long-term impacts of its products, including GMOs, on human health and our soil. Nor do we have effective regulatory bodies to monitor those impacts. So to allow entry to this bio-tech giant under any pretext could be detrimental, not only for Nepal’s food sovereignty but also for public health.
When it comes to how seeds are used by large corporations, the difference between GMOs and hybrids is blurred. Hybrids tend to better perform in the first generation, but often at the cost of high doses of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as more irrigation. Since the gap between this potential yield and actual yield using local varieties is not starkly different, better agronomic practices and choosing locally developed and tested hybrids is a safer option with more sustained return.
Most importantly, the hybrid seeds cannot be saved for next sowing season, because in the next generation the genes will segregate into many new combinations, and must be purchased every year. So, dependency on multinational product with uncertain market value will make farmers vulnerable. Besides, the dependency will not end in potentially highly priced seeds, it will also pull farmers into a vicious cycle of dependency on pesticides, herbicides and other agro-inputs from the company.
Unlike GMOs or hybrids, locally available heirlooms of Open Pollinated Varieties (OPVs) exhibit fairly consistent characteristics and produce seeds that will grow into plants more or less like their parent plants. They also have fair amount of resistance against local pests and insects. OPVs are also key to maintaining genetic diversity of plants and sustainability of agriculture.
Many of us would believe that hybrid crops mean higher production and lower food insecurity. But food security has never been just about simple production-consumption equation. Determining what crops we produce, in what quantity and for what purpose is equally important. Commercial cultivation to supply farm products for food and beverage industries like instant noodles, chips and biscuit industries, breweries and distilleries, as well as animal feed for poultry farms are equally responsible for food shortage. This results in high import and market inflation.
Another thing we have not been told by those trying to boost maize cultivation is, whether the proposed maize seeds are intended to boost supply for human consumption or for poultry and animal feeds. Sources at the Ministry of Agriculture claim that government’s ongoing maize mission is basically targeted at substituting large imports of feeds for growing poultry industries. Besides, the variety that the company is trying to promote is only suitable for Tarai. So, to claim Monsanto seeds are a tool to fight chronic food insecurity in Nepal is at best a mistaken belief, at worst a lie.
When farmers fail to breed and save seeds, food sovereignty of the country is compromised. It is one of the most important emerging security challenges few developing countries are taking seriously. In the neighboring Bihar, when Nitish Kumar took over as Chief Minister in 2005, agriculture sector was in shambles with depleting grain and vegetable production.
Shortages of seeds and other farm inputs had forced farmers out of farm jobs, resulting in high food imports. Nitish started a food sovereignty campaign by setting up seed banks. Today, Bihar is mostly self sufficient in all kinds of seeds and earns revenue by supplying them to other states. So, it is not an exaggeration to say that seed sovereignty is closely linked with national security.
Those tempted to give Monsanto benefit of doubt would do well to remember, agriculture patterns once disturbed by their farm trials will be heavily dependent on their agro products. Also, we may have lost our valuable local seed varieties by then. So the sensible thing to do is to preempt the impending danger rather than regret later.
What is yet unclear is, why is Monsanto, a multi-billion industry, eager to enter a country whose seed market is so small and whose GDP is almost equal to its annual net sales? Why is CG desperate to tie-up with a company of such international disrepute, when there are better options of seed sourcing? Is USAID aware that the company it is backing in Nepal has lawsuits filed against it in the US Supreme Court? Is the government overlooking a private company doing what parliamentary committee’s direction forbid it from doing last year?
There are other technical inconsistencies that make Monsanto-CG dealing suspicious, one reason being ways in which farm trials are conducted. Can a variety trialed in winter season be recommended for rainy season as is the case of most maize hybrids? Are results from one season trial sufficient to clear the seed for commercial use? Agriculture experts differ in their opinion.
A scientist at National Maize Research Program claims the maize hybrid varieties registered in 2010 were not tested by government. When I talked to Coordinator of National Maize Research Program, Dr Keshab Babu Koirala, about this, he told me “we do not have necessary technology to test GMOs.” So we can neither say for sure whether the varieties proposed are hybrids or GMOs, nor can we ascertain their impacts. There are other questions the government has no answers to regarding GMO. But in the meantime, it is sufficiently clear that the proposed variety of Monsanto seeds have not been test cleared.
Seeds are both means of production and products at the same time. This uniqueness makes farmers retain a parcel of produce as the means of production the next season. Hybridization technology breaks that chain by isolating seeds from farmers, making them dependent on bio-tech companies. Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) on patented seed varieties also infringe upon farmers’ right to livelihood, substituting it with greedy corporate interests.
Luckily, Nepal still has a vibrant local seed market. We have diverse genetic base of crops and large number of open pollinated varieties. We also have freedom over which variety of seeds we want to use. We still have vibrant and integrated organic farming practices, unscathed by chemical driven monoculture. We have our own food system, and agriculture here is a profession with shared cultural values. Substituting it with a market-run cultivation culture, controlled by multinational corporations whose sole end is to earn profit, even at the cost of destroying crop diversity and threatening national food security, makes no policy sense.
Modernization of agriculture must not lead to unchecked commercialization that disregards local needs. We should all be worried about what David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession. Resisting Monsanto may be need of hour, but, certainly not the only task.
By Binod Acharya, Tea and Coffee Board