A Brief prepared by Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek and Roots for Equity
Seed was born free. It has multiple functions: it is the reservoir of genetic resources, it is the basic unit for our food, it holds life in its core, essential for maintain human and all life on this planet. Commodification of seed is commodification of life!
Following are some points elaborated to highlight why Sojhla for Social Change, Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek (PKMT), Roots for Equity and other people’s and civil society organizations have been opposing in general the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Act (TRIPs) and specifically the Pakistan Seed (Amended) Act 2015, and the Plant Breeders Rights Act 2016.
Farmers Collective Rights over Seed and Patenting of Life Forms
Seed, a genetic resource is a gift of nature and belongs to no one person or corporation but is owned collectively. But there is no doubt, that it was farmers who over many millennia experimented, re-generated, sorted, propagated and saved seeds. It was the collective knowledge of farmers and rural communities that allowed hundred of varieties of grains, vegetables, fruits, and flowers to be domesticated for human civilization. Farmers saved seed from one generation to the next, a process that went on for millions of years. There were thousands of varieties that were developed by farmers, but even though we farmers came out with new varieties we respected and followed the rules of nature, and shared the genetic resources openly with all. We, who have our history based in the Indus Valley Civilization, were the first to domesticate seed and through our knowledge and experience pass the best of genetic resources to our generations. Therefore, we farmers believe that first seed is free; it is a carrier of life and being a living thing it cannot be shackled, it cannot be owned by individuals or companies. If at all, it is the collective property of farmers; we have been its custodians, its guardians. We have respected our position of custodians and hence shared it fully and openly with all those who wish to use it as food, as a source of health, as a source medicine and of life.
Risks to Biodiversity:
It needs to be pointed out that with the advent of Green Revolution in the 1960s, seed has been forced out of our care and custody and turned into a commodity. With corporate control over seeds, with promotion of hybrid varieties and now genetically modified seeds we have lost much of the indigenous varieties in just 50 years; genetic diversity which was saved through hundreds of millennia were lost in less than half a century!
If we allow genetically modified seeds to take over our food and agriculture this will further the process of destroying biodiversity. Hybrid varieties and genetically modified seeds are based on monoculture and uniformity; they belie the intricate interwoven complexity of all forms of biodiversity with each other. Seed has been turned into a machine whose worth is weighed by productivity. But seed’s function is not only productivity: its function is in promoting various forms of life, of which human intelligence has as yet not grasped enough to turn it into a only an addition, subtraction formula. Plant life is very complex, it’s a food chain as well as shelter for millions of other life forms from birds to reptiles, to insects and millions and millions of microorganisms. Uniformity in plant life negates diversity of life, and is fast leading to various forms of ecological disasters.
It needs to be added, that high yielding varieties are at least not an irreversible biological change in the plant, and over time genetic material can be retrieved from these seeds. But GM seeds are formed through a biological process that is irreversible. The GM seed can carry out reproduction with natural seeds; this means vast, irreversible contamination of our genetic resources. Once GM seeds have spread in nature, it’s like having a child with genetic abnormalities – one cannot take away the defect and it will keep on producing itself, contaminating and polluting natural varieties in the environment.
Corporate Control over Food and Agriculture
Agro-chemical corporations and seed corporations have worked hard to create a legal policy framework based on which seed can be called their property. This is because seed has an amazing characteristic – even only a single seed can generate hundreds of replicas and hence it is impossible to create control over seed – this is only possible through a legal system that allows these mega-corporations to control and own life. With control over seed by profit-driven corporations, a nation loses the ability to control its food production. The corporations can choose the price at which a seed would be sold. They can easily refrain from marketing seeds in any particular country; in these times of conflict and war – seed control is only one more added dependency. Today farmers cannot decide what they would like to grow; they have to depend on what seed the corporations provide in the market and have little choice but to grow that. Please note that today, nearly all vegetables in Pakistan are grown from corporate controlled seeds and each one of them is heavily doused with toxic pesticides. This is the food that all citizens are forced to consume –rich or poor.
It is important to note that a majority of seed is now in the hands of only four big corporations: Bayer, BASF, ChemChina and Corteva; in a handful of years, these four corporations have monopolized the seed sector. These four seed corporations control 60% percent of seed sales, globally. Just ten years ago, in 2009 there were at least 100 seed companies. Only in the last 2-3 years, there have been huge mergers such as Bayer purchasing Monsanto to be the largest seed company today. In 2017, DuPont had merged with Dow to form the US Corporation DowDupont; this year the company has separated its agricultural wing and named it Corteva agriscience.
Cost of Production
For the farmers, hybrid and GM seeds mean extremely high cost of production. Seed companies have created a ‘package deal’. This means that if you buy a particular brand of seed, you also have to buy prescribed pesticides, weedicides and herbicides. So the farmer is forced to purchase a whole range of branded products. And there is no guarantee even after that the farmer will still be able to reap a profitable harvest.
It must be well understood, that these GM and hybrid seeds cannot grow without the added chemical fertilizers. The fertilizers are like magnet to pests, and hence our food is drenched with vast doses of highly toxic chemicals as pesticides, weedicides, and/or herbicides. Today, there is no small farmer who is not indebted! It is now like a dog chasing his tail: farmers keep on investing in hybrid and GM seeds hoping to have a high yield so that they can pay off their debts and every season get further indebted.
There is no lack of evidence that GM seeds have failed not only in Pakistan but across the globe. Some years ago a USDA GAINS report had claimed that almost 95% of cotton in Pakistan is grown from GM seeds. These seeds had been introduced in Pakistan in the early 2000s – in the past years it is well known that cotton harvest is going down and we are now importing more and more cotton from international markets. Not only genetically modified BT Cotton seed failed to control pest attacks, it has also led to attacks from other pests often termed as ‘super bugs’, which now need higher application of pesticides.
Water and Land
A critical point to be addressed include the use of external inputs with genetically modified and hybrid seeds. These seeds are highly dependent on external inputs and high levels of water. Please note Pakistan is a semi-arid zone, and is dependent on rains and its glaciers. Irrigation water is in short supply, a fact which is well known; hence the concentrated push for construction of dams. It is often said that in the coming decades water will be the base for major wars. Irrigation water has been a source of conflict not only across border, but also within the country among our provinces, responsible for much bitterness and acrimony. And we are wasting this precious scarce resource on promotion of seeds that have created multiple levels of dependency for our farmers. Today, the government of Pakistan’s policy including the government of Punjab is to push for agricultural trade liberalization with emphasis on increasing exports. So in essence when we use these profit-driven seeds (loosing vast quantities of extremely precious foreign exchange) we are not only using vast quantities of our dwindling water resources, we are also exporting water.
It is no secret that Pakistan has adopted corporate farming as an ideal policy shift. But what is the cost being paid for this shift? Water scarce countries, or countries facing vast land degradation are rushing to acquire land in Pakistan. Already, a UAE-based corporation Al Dahra has acquired land in Sindh and is growing fodder, a variety, which is highly water dependent. Similarly, China has also voiced interest in the agriculture sector. Much of the attraction is to use GM technology in Pakistan and grow food grains for exports.
Pollution, Safe, Nutritious Food and Health
Control over seeds is not only a matter of dependency on seeds provided by the corporations it’s also about the toxicity that has now become part and parcel of our food systems. If somebody sprays chemical on our food plate we would not eat it – but we are blind to the fact that these GM seeds are bred with toxics from the day they are planted in the soil to almost end of harvest. And to make it worse, among the GM seeds, the BT seeds have been so malformed that poison has been put in the very seed and hence the poison spreads across the plant. Do Pakistanis not have the right to demand for safe and nutritious food?
This high degree of toxic contamination has had a heavy toll on human life and all living things. Today society is rife with a wide range of debilitating diseases, much of which can be laid to toxic food and environment created by industrial agriculture. Apart from the physical and emotional toll disease and sickness takes on an individual and household, it also needs to be mentioned that medical treatment is almost impossible for a vast segment of the Pakistani society. Cancer treatment runs to more than 17-20 lakhs, and even then it’s not necessary that human life be saved.
It is important to recall the spate of legal cases against Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup Ready which contains glyphosate, now been termed by WHO’s agency IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) as potential to cause cancer in humans. In one case more than $2 billion dollars in punitive damages have been levied on Monsanto for causing cancer in a husband and wife who had been using the chemical on their land.
Malnutrition is now the order of the day. Almost half the children in Pakistan suffer from malnutrition. It is important to understand why! The most basic reason is that what is produced today in our agricultural fields does assuage hunger but is unable to provide nutrition, especially micronutrients. Our indigenous varieties were not only totally dependent on internal inputs (such as animal manure and compost, low water quantity) but put down deep roots in search of nutrition for the plant and thereby extracted the minerals from the soil naturally. The roots of hybrid and GM plants take their food from urea and other chemical fertilizers so amply applied on the behest of salesmen of corporations, and hence lack micronutrients.
Apart from spreading death and disease among humans, the heavy use of chemicals on industrial agriculture has also wiped out vast variety of flora and fauna. A very common example is of butterflies and honeybees. These small insects are critical for spread of pollen, and in addition created rich food – honey- for humans. Similarly, hundred of species of birds have been lost due to the spray of pesticides and use of chemical fertilizers.
The fine balance of our splendid ecosystems and the environment has been destroyed. Today farmers, not only in Pakistan but in farmlands globally, face hunger and poverty, debt, disease and death – with seed being major factor has been chained by grotesque profit seeking corporations, who value money more than social well being of life and the planet.
There is no doubt that the present legal framework surrounding seeds is based on the TRIPs agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO has developed a whole range of legal structures to promote neoliberal trade regimes, of which TRIPs is one. The TRIPs agreement is based on the fact that first the northern countries’ corporations hold monopoly over the seed sector, and second, seed is hard to commodify. The only way to ensure that the seed is shackled and wrested out of farmers’ control is to create laws, which take away the centuries old collective rights of farmers.
It is clear that government officials are not in favour of the policies and legal framework that WTO is imposing on Pakistani law with respect to seed laws. The dissent has been clear in the past 25 years, after the creation of WTO in 1995. The dissent is based on honouring the rights of farmers, the countries best interests with respect to warding off dependency in its food systems both to protect the producers and consumers, and finally to save the country from the clutches of further dependency.
Please note that in the context to the approval process of GM Maize, all major stakeholders in the agriculture sector, which include farmers, food processors and national seed companies, have stood against commercial introduction of GM maize. GM maize is especially controversial because of its cross-pollination dangers. There is no doubt that GM maize would contaminate indigenous germ-plasm which is an irreversible process, and would result in wiping out local maize varieties from the country. The Secretary, Ministry of National Food Security and Research has pointed out that GM maize provides no significant yield increase and no reduction in our cost of production or the import. Further: “ this introduction may result in enhancement of import bill and also our exports may suffer.”
It should be noted that after commercialization of GM maize, there is no legal framework and SOPs on co-existence of GM & non-GM corn to protect farming community and consumers. Moreover, there is no mechanism for educating farmers on GMO-crops. The co-existence of GM and non-GM is a big challenge where 95 percent of farmers own less than five acres. In this scenario, there are high chances of cross-pollination of GM and non-GM crops.
Further, news items have also elaborated on strong opposition from defence institutions on GM technology for food crops. Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) personal had participated in a consultative meeting. According to a representative of the military’s Strategic Planning Division (SPD), GM crops should be approved on a case-to-case basis,and GM maize should not be approved for commercial planting in Pakistan.
Please note that various countries have serious concerns with GM crops. For instance, in 2017 the European Union (EU) has communicated serious concerns about GMO rice. Similarly, China has banned import of Rapeseed and Mustard meal from Pakistan in 2013 due to GM contamination in certain consignments. This ban has not been lifted as yet and we have lost this market. Russia and many Central Asian countries do not allow any GM crops. Gulf countries have also prohibited GM crops.
The above makes it clear that for farmers, citizens and society, a healthy food production system is critical of which seed is foundation. Hence, we are committed to stand and save our seeds. Currently, the Seed (Amended) Act 2015, and the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act 2016 are under consideration based on a petition filed by numerous people’s rights organizations at the Lahore High Court. We have faith that the judicial system will weigh the case from all aspects and give weight to the rights of the people, the farmers, and to our national self-interest rather than external corporate interests!