Interview with Vandana Shiva

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Renowned environmentalist Vandana Shiva was in Kathmandu for Mahesh Chandra Regmi Lecture series hosted by the Social Science Baha, an NGO for research on social sciences. At the lecture, Shiva, a winner of the 1993 Right Livelihood award, talked about seed and food freedom in the age of globalisation. Amidst the controversy around import of Genetically Modified (GM) seeds by the Chaudhary Group, Darshan Karki spoke to Shiva about Monsanto, protection of farmers’ rights and the discourse around high-yielding varieties of seed. Excerpts:


Why should countries like Nepal with a predominantly traditional agricultural base be concerned about the entry of a company like Monsanto in its territory?

Monsanto has a history in making war chemicals like Agent Orange (also called Herbicide Orange) which was used in Vietnam War, not in working with seeds or agriculture. In 1972, university scientists first discovered the recombinant DNA technology, in which you can take the gene from one species and transfer them into another. A few years later, the scientists who evolved those techniques put a ban on it themselves as they decided that they did not know its consequences. This is called the Asilomar Declaration. But the companies thought otherwise. This new technology made it possible to insert human genes into cows, cow genes into wheat as they are doing in England or scorpion genes into cabbage or bacterium genes, which is the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), into maize or cotton. Therefore, a group of companies like Monsanto got together and formed the intellectual property committee of industries. They thought if seeds could be patented, they could make trillions of dollars, as every farmer will have to pay them royalty. Just like in a zamindari system, the peasant works on the land and the landowner gets the revenue. In a life zamindari, which is what patents on life are, the seeds are the peasants and with a little tinkering, companies like Monsanto collect royalties.

Monsanto usually enters a country illegally. And most of the times, governments don’t accept them. Then they exert pressure on the government demanding that they be legalised. This is what happened in Brazil. Genetically modified (GM) soya was smuggled into the country and later the government had to legalise it. Now they collect $2.2 billion in royalties from the Brazilian farmers who have recently sued the company. In India, they entered illegally in 1998 with GM cotton. The government had not been approached. So I filed a case against them in the Supreme Court. They could not sell Bt cotton till 2002. But they started operating via other Indian companies or having licensing arrangements with them.

Last year we conducted a study and found that 60 Indian companies are locked in licensing agreements with Monsanto. They cannot sell any other seed but that of Monsanto. That is how other seeds disappear from the market and the farmers can only buy GM seeds. And companies like Monsanto say that farmers choose their seeds. I have an option to buy tap water or bottled water. But if the tap water is dry as in the case of India or Nepal or if it is contaminated with sewage, buying bottled water is not a choice I make. It’s a non-choice.  Similarly, Bt cotton is a non-choice for Indian farmers.

What have the consequences of Bt cotton been for Indian farmers?

Monsanto admitted in our parliamentary hearings that Rs 700 out of Rs 1,600 that the farmer pays for a 450-gram packet of Bt cotton is royalty. When Monsanto came in with the GM seeds, the seed costs jumped over 8000 percent from Rs 5 to Rs 4,000. Farmers are made to believe that the seed will be a miracle. When one seed fails, or a brand name fails they shift to another. But the other company is also Monsanto. The farmer does not know this, they are locked into debts and they commit suicide. There have been 284,000 farmer suicides in India since the seed sector got monopolised. Suicides started in the cotton belt and over 60 percent of them are still occurring in the cotton belt area.

The introduction of the intellectual property rights (IPRs) in agriculture seems to lie at the heart of this problem. Given most nations in the world are now part of the WTO and will eventually have to come up with a law for IPRs, what kind of laws could protect farmers’ interests?

The Indian Patent Act is a good example. Based on Article 3 (d) and 3 (j) India’s Patent Office recently rejected Monsanto’s claim on patent of a climate resilient plant. The Office argued that Monsanto did not make the original plant, the company did not invent the cold-stress gene introduced in it either and literature on it exists before.

Likewise, India has formulated its Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act under the sui generis provision of the Trade related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) agreement in the WTO.  The farmer rights clauses of that Act is what made Monsanto panic. It says that farmer’ rights to save, exchange, breed, sell seed can never be interfered with. Then companies tried to float a Seed Act in 2004 in India. It was a seed replacement and compulsory registration. Now the Act has been amended to include a strong liability component. When the company sells seed, claiming the yields will be a certain amount and if does not happen, the farmers will need to be compensated. Monsanto does not want this Act now. So the Indian laws now are a very good example for Nepal. They have been built to defend farmers’ rights and protect biodiversity.

On a different note, out-migration of men has led to growing feminisation of agriculture in Nepal. Many argue that high-yielding varieties and mechanisation of agriculture is needed. What do you suggest ?

There are many reasons why the linear design of technology by capitalist patriarchy cannot benefit women. First, ecological agricultural diversity does not have demand of labour in peaks as in monoculture farming. Second, these intensive-agricultural systems use lots of chemicals, which affect the women even more. The most important thing we need to consider while talking of feminisation of agriculture is how to use biodiversity to increase the incomes while reducing work burden of women. The way it works is

by not practising high-input agricultural farming. Instead, plant more perennials and fruits. People

forget that agriculture has been reduced from 8,500 species of plants we ate to eight globally traded commodities controlled by five giant corporations. These eight globally traded commodities require intensive inputs and make the poor farmer poorer as they need money to buy chemicals, seed. Anyone who says this is good for a poor woman is lying.  The second is, such agriculture is intensive in the use of resource. It sucks up the nutrients of the soil giving nothing back.

We need an agriculture that is conservation oriented, rebuilds the soil, conserves water and brings back biodiversity. We need to think of things women in Nepal can grow which reduce their work burden while empowering them. Women are the storehouse of knowledge of agriculture, skills of agriculture. This knowledge and skill, which focuses on conservation of earth’s resources, environment and nutrition for all, should be used as capital for agriculture to take a new direction.

From Kathmandu Post


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