The most prominent feature of world farming in recent decades has been that of growing corporate control, and this has often been at the expense and interests of farmers. It is important to understand the wide-ranging adverse implications of this corporatization of farming for the sustainability of farming systems, for the welfare of ordinary farmers and for food-security of the entire world.
As the most basic role in agriculture is that of seeds, it is not surprising that corporate interests assigned the greatest importance to strengthening their control over the seeds sector.
Till about 60 to 70 years back the farming systems of most countries, particularly tropical countries, were characterized by a very rich diversity of seeds and crop varieties, the result of nature’s bounty as well as hundreds or even thousands of years of careful observation, selection and protection by farmers. Farmers had detailed knowledge about these diverse seeds and this had enabled them to maintain some self-reliance and autonomy despite all the exploitative practices of the earlier colonial system. To give just one example, India alone had thousands of rice –varieties.
The first step of the corporate sector to attack this autonomy was to try to replace the diversity of indigenous seeds with a much narrower genetic base of varieties which will necessarily have to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides to get good yields. This was done in the name of the so-called green revolution. This led to a very rapid erosion of bio-diversity in agriculture.
To give just one example, the harm done to biodiversity of rice, the most important food crop in India, by the introduction of new seeds during the early stage of the green revolution in India was described by an officially constituted task force on rice breeding chaired by Dr. R.H.Richharia in 1979, “ This narrow genetic base has created alarming uniformity, causing vulnerability to diseases and pests. Most of the released varieties are not suitable for typical uplands and low lands which together constitute about 75 per cent of the total rice area of the country.”
Thus top experts had confirmed had a very early stage that the new varieties being introduced were not suitable for most of our farming area and in addition were more susceptible to pests and diseases, yet this same strategy of farming was continued as it led to much bigger opportunities for corporate interests.
Once farmers became dependent on these seeds the next step was for the corporate sector to expand rapidly in the seeds sector. This process was helped by ‘gene robbery’, a term used by activists to refer to the trend of developed countries to collect the genetic wealth of bio-diversity of developing countries and then use this to obtain and sell their seeds and related inputs to developing countries at huge profits. Pat Roy Mooney, the senior expert on this issue who received the prestigious Right to Livelihood ward has written, “ Industrialized governments—often overruling the intentions of their scientists—have come to hoard germplasm and to stock seeds as part of the arsenal of international power diplomacy. Private companies in the North—although glad to receive free genes—are loath to divulge or share the adaptations they draw from these donations.”
The big seed companies expanded in two ways, first by buying the smaller seed companies at a rapid pace and secondly by also taking up the production, directly or through related companies, the production of chemical pesticides, herbicides etc. which were linked to these seeds.
Another step towards this increasing control was to improve the technology of genetic engineering in a big way to spread GM or genetically modified crops. This made it more convenient for bigger companies using more sophisticated technologies to increase their domination and the world seed industry and agro-chemical industry got heavily concentrated in a few companies. Multi-billion dollar deals were made to further enhance this concentration and control.
Similarly the concentration of marketing of important crops increasingly got concentrated in the hands of a few big multinational companies. Some companies directly or indirectly gained ownership of huge monocultures of plantation farming, while other resorted to contract farming on exploitative terms to have assured access to huge quantities of certain crops. Their methods were invariably more chemical input-intensive and capital intensive, causing more environmental ruin but contributing few satisfactory, sustainable jobs.
Yet another device used to increase corporate control was to introduce strong and unjust system of patents or somewhat similar intellectual property rights for seed and plant varieties. A new way of imposing this system on developing countries was to include intellectual property rights in the new trade regime of the WTO which was being introduced in place of GATT. Even though developing countries tried rather desperately to include some safeguards, the overall impact was to increase corporate control to yet higher levels.
Other aspects of the changing trade regime also led to very disruptive impacts on the livelihoods of small farmers of developing countries as under the new trade regime these small farmers had to face a lot of unfair competition from imports from developed countries whose farming and farm marketing systems were increasingly dominated by very powerful and huge agribusiness giant companies who also cornered a big chunk of the massive farm subsidies paid by their governments to the farm sector.
The power of food and farm MNCs increased a lot due to the strong support they got from their governments. Henry Miller, who was formerly in charge biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration, USA, has written “ In this area the US government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness has asked them to do and told them to do.”
Another trend for big business was to use corruption unabashedly to advance their interests. Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, former Vice-Chairman of the National Knowledge Commission who was also appointed by the Supreme Court to protect safety concerns regarding genetic engineering, was one of the foremost experts to hold very senior government positions while also opposing the onslaught of multinational companies on farming systems. He warned against the corrupt practices used by these companies to buy support of governments of developing countries. He wrote,” According to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Monsanto bribed at least 140 Indonesian officials or their families to get Bt. cotton approved without environmental impact assessment. In 2005 the firm paid $1.5 million in fine to the US Justice Department for the graft. This is one of the many penalties that Monsanto has paid in its country of origin in spite of its close ties with the US government and its various regulatory agencies.”
More recently farmers’ organizations have become more aware of the dangers of rapid corporatization of agriculture and this is why are resisting legislative and other measures of government which increase corporatization trends. It is in this wider context that the emerging opposition of farmers’ movements to corporatization of farming in several countries, particularly India, should be understood and supported.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.