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Seeds of suicide

Vandana Shiva | 27th Mar 2013
A screenshot of Monsanto India’s website
A screenshot of Monsanto India’s website

“Monsanto is an agricultural company. We apply innovation and technology to help farmers around the world produce more while conserving more.” “Producing more, Con­ser­ving more, Impro­ving farmers lives.”

These are the promises Monsanto India’s website makes, alongside pictures of smiling, prosperous farmers from the state of Maharashtra. This is a desperate attempt by Monsanto and its PR machinery to delink the epidemic of farmers’ suicides in India from the company’s growing control over cotton seed supply — 95 per cent of India’s cotton seed is now controlled by Monsanto.
Control over seed is the first link in the food chain because seed is the source of life. When a corporation controls seed, it controls life, especially the life of farmers.

Monsanto’s concentrated control over the seed sector in India as well as across the world is very worrying. This is what connects farmers’ suicides in India to Monsanto vs Percy Schmeiser in Canada, to Monsanto vs Bowman in the US, and to farmers in Brazil suing Monsanto for $2.2 billion for unfair collection of royalty.

Through patents on seed, Monsanto has become the “Life Lord” of our planet, collecting rents for life’s renewal from farmers, the original breeders. Patents on seed are illegitimate because putting a toxic gene into a plant cell is not “creating” or “inventing” a plant. These are seeds of deception — the deception that Monsanto is the creator of seeds and life; the deception that while Monsanto sues farmers and traps them in debt, it pretends to be working for farmers’ welfare, and the deception that GMOs feed the world. GMOs are failing to control pests and weeds, and have instead led to the emergence of superpests and superweeds.

The entry of Monsanto in the Indian seed sector was made possible with a 1988 Seed Policy imposed by the World Bank, requiring the government of India to deregulate the seed sector. Five things changed with Monsanto’s entry: First, Indian companies were locked into joint-ventures and licensing arrangements, and concentration over the seed sector increased. Second, seed which had been the farmers’ common resource became the “intellectual property” of Monsanto, for which it started collecting royalties, thus raising the costs of seed. 

Third, open pollinated cotton seeds were displaced by hybrids, including GMO hybrids. A renewable resource became a non-renewable, patented commodity. Fourth, cotton which had earlier been grown as a mixture with food crops now had to be grown as a monoculture, with higher vulnerability to pests, disease, dro­ught and crop failure. Fifth, Monsanto started to subvert India’s regulatory processes and, in fact, started to use public resources to push its non-renewable hybrids and GMOs through so-called public-private partnerships (PPP).

In 1995, Monsanto introduced its Bt technology in India through a joint-venture with the Indian company Mahy­co. In 1997-98, Monsanto started open field trials of its GMO Bt cotton illegally and announced that it would be selling the seeds commercially the following year. India has rules for regulating GMOs since 1989, under the Environment Pro­tec­tion Act. It is mandatory to get approval from the Genetic Engin­ee­ring Approval Com­mit­tee under the ministry of environment for GMO trials. The Rese­arch Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology sued Monsanto in the Supreme Court of India and Monsanto could not start the commercial sales of its Bt cotton seeds until 2002.

And, after the damning report of India’s parliamentary committee on Bt crops in August 2012, the panel of technical experts appointed by the Supreme Court recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of all GM food and termination of all ongoing trials of transgenic crops. But it had changed Indian agriculture already.

Monsanto’s seed monopolies, the destruction of alternatives, the collection of superprofits in the form of royalties, and the increasing vulnerability of monocultures has created a context for debt, suicides and agrarian distress which is driving the farmers’ suicide epidemic in India. This systemic control has been intensified with Bt cotton. That is why most suicides are in the cotton belt.
An internal advisory by the agricultural ministry of India in January 2012 had this to say to the cotton-growing states in India — “Cotton farmers are in a deep crisis since shifting to Bt cotton. The spate of farmer suicides in 2011-12 has been particularly severe among Bt cotton farmers.”

The highest acreage of Bt cotton is in Maha­ra­shtra and this is also where the highest far­mer suicides are. Sui­cides increased after Bt cotton was introduced — Monsanto’s royalty extraction, and the high costs of seed and chemicals have created a debt trap. According to government of India data, nearly 75 per cent rural debt is due to purchase inputs. As Mon­santo’s profits grow, farmers’ debt grows. It is in this systemic sense that Monsanto’s seeds are seeds of suicide.

The ultimate seeds of suicide is Monsanto’s pa­tented technology to create sterile seeds. (Cal­led “Terminator technology” by the media, sterile seed technology is a type of Gene Use Restriction Technology, GRUT, in which seed produced by a crop will not grow — crops will not produce viable offspring seeds or will produce viable seeds with specific genes switched off.) The Convention on Biological Diversity has banned its use, otherwise Monsanto would be collecting even higher profits from seed.
Monsanto’s talk of “te­c­hnology” tries to hide its real objectives of ow­nership and control over seed where genetic engineering is just a means to control seed and the food system through patents and intellectual property rights.

A Monsanto representative admitted that they were “the patient’s diagnostician, and physician all in one” in writing the patents on life-forms, from micro-organisms to plants, in the TRIPS’ agreement of WTO. Stopping farmers from saving seeds and exercising their seed sovereignty was the main objective. Mon­santo is now extending its patents to conventionally bred seed, as in the case of broccoli and capsicum, or the low gluten wheat it had pirated from India which we challenged as a biopiracy case in the European Patent office. That is why we have started Fibres of Free­dom in the heart of Monsanto’s Bt cott­on/su­icide belt in Vidharba. We have created community seed banks with indigenous seeds and helped farmers go organic. No GMO seeds, no debt, no suicides.

The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust


Average: 3 (6 votes)

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Mimi's picture
by Mimi (not verified) on
You too are a businesswoman. Difference is you unrelentlessly throttle other farming methods to push for organic; while the private sector focuses on their own business. Co-existence is possible. Let farmers choose.
xodus99's picture
by xodus99 on
Honestly, this is the attitude of ignorance and disbelief that will take our country to become the next Capitalist, Corporate-law dominated feudal society. Getting back to the topic, the point is to ONLY push for organic, safe and healthy farming methods. That's all. The private sector continues to focus on their business because of people like you - ignorant, foolish. You people want to see India run by the government as a business, not a social community. Co-Existance is impossible with GMO. I would advise you to kindly experiment GMO products on your family before your blatantly advise it to the rest of the country. We don't want GMO, We don't want Monsanto in India. They've destroyed National Agriculture and continue to devastate Indian Farming and Agriculture. Of course, an idiot like you would not bother.
Dr Harpal Sangwan's picture
by Dr Harpal Sangwan (not verified) on
Dr Vandana is wrong in stating that Monsanto has IPR on Bt cotton. There is no protection on Mon 531 (Bollgard). The patent on synthetic Cry1Ac, which was not valid in India, expired long back in US itself. Mon 531 event was never patented by Monsanto even in US. "Bollgard" trademark applies in USA but not in India. Indian Trademark and Patent Office rejected Mahyco's application for trademark in 1997 as well as in 1998. Bollgard II event and Trademark protection were obtained in India and that is the reason Monsanto wants to phase out Bollgard. All Indian companies were hoodwinked and blackmailed by holding a threat of not licensing future technologies. Millions of rupees royalties are being spirited away annually. Any nationalistic company can use Mon 531 in Indian cotton varieties (similar to generic drugs).
KBN Rayana's picture
by KBN Rayana (not verified) on
vandana only discuss about seed. But not gross root problem of farmers and farming systems. The Monsanto BT cotton is fit under irrigative conditions. This needs level of moisture regiems. Where as indian farmers including Maharstra st., under rainfed, where germination fails to lead suicides. This seed fails to address agronomically in tropical countries.
xodus99's picture
by xodus99 on
There is an understanding between what is presented and what "you" want presented. Most of the comments here seem to come from employees of Monsanto. It is simple. Monsanto and Co. is an evil American Corporation focused on making profits. They don't give a damn about people or their health. I would advise that you please go and do some research instead of talking about "grass root" issues. Seeds are grass root. We don't need the help of a profit making, money craving Corporation from the US to build seeds for people in India. Indian Farmers have grown cotton since millennia. We have been successful with our work. GM Crops undermine the efforts of the entire Human Civilization to carefully work with Nature and form farming techniques. Instead, technology and research is being used for profit making and monopolizing everything.
Shailendra's picture
by Shailendra (not verified) on
It looks many seem to be acting like commission agents for Monsanto


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