In this Topic:

The US chemical giant recently bought the world’s largest seed company, Pioneer hi-bred. Behind Dupont’s new interest in seeds lurks an intention to profit from new technologies that present multiple threats to the environment and public health.

Food, agriculture and the globalisation of trade
The industrialised food production system is being pushed into the Third World by global institutions that now make the rules on trade, with the consequence of more being left without enough land or income to feed themselves.

Organic- The corporate takeover
The last decade has seen a phenomenal growth of interest in organic food, This has attracted the big corporations and international institutions, they are quickly moving in to take over the market and dictate the meaning of the term organic itself.

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Corporate Control



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Far from being treated with special reverence, food has been thoroughly commodified. The entire food supply chain from seed to supermarket is increasingly coming under the control of transnational corporations. The very seed itself is being industrialised.

For over 10,000 years since the dawn of agriculture farmers have saved seeds for the next years sowing. Locally saved seed is essential, it is this practice that created widely different crops from the same wild plant, and all the thousands of locally adapted crop varieties. But in order to profit, seed companies had to put an end to this practice.

Commercial breeders had to find ways to persuade farmers to buy seed. Once a farmer had bought the new seeds there was nothing to stop them from replanting saved seed the following season. Thus seed did not seem to have great potential for profit. With the development of hybrids starting in the 1920’s this changed forever. The reason was that seed saved for replanting from hybrids produce poor quality offspring that do not share the useful characteristics of the parent.

Farmers would be persuaded to buy the new hybrids due to their higher yields, what became known as hybrid vigour. However, as leading plant breeders knew at the time, the hybrid was not the only way to produce new high-yielding varieties. It was the seed companies' huge investment due to the anticipated profits that lead to this route being chosen. This was backed by government funded agricultural research on both sides of the Atlantic that handed over breeding materials to the seed companies.

The first company to market hybrid corn (maize), Pioneer Hi-bred, became the world’s largest seed company. Now with corn, cotton, many vegetables, sunflower, sorghum and sugar beet hybrid seed, it accounts for a large share of the world market and most of the profit. Had the development of viable hybrids of some crops proved less difficult, the industry would have marketed every crop. The development of commercial hybrids of wheat and rice have long been a target.

Chemicalisation of Agriculture
Beginning in the 1950’s factories and technologies that had been developed during wartime were adapted to the production of synthetic chemicals. One of the major uses for these new products would be in farming. The same chemical processes involved in the production of explosives and nerve gasses were used to create synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Only the few large chemical corporations that had access to these production facilities moved into agriculture. Since thenm the world’s food production has become more and more dependent on these petro-chemical based products.

The result has been an ecological disaster. Runoff from synthetic fertilisers has polluted rivers and groundwater, while pesticides have poisoned and killed wildlife. As chemical fertilisers are substituted for traditional methods of building fertility, the soil itself dies becoming more prone to erosion. The rows of uniform plants grown in chemical monoculture present an easy target to pests. This is why crop losses from pests have increased, just as have the doses of pesticides applied. The toxic effects on our bodies of the thousands of synthetic chemicals now in our foods are only just beginning to be understood and yet every year hundreds of new chemicals are released.

Chemical pesticides are being relied upon to make up for the lack of resistance in the modern crop. Today the very same companies that produce agrochemicals are producing these varieties. Beginning in the 1970’s these corporations began buying into the seed market by taking over seed producers. The last decade has seen a flurry of seed company buy-outs and consolidation as corporation engaged in biotechnology research realised that the seed would be the delivery system for profiting from this technology. Monsanto spent over $8 billion acquiring seed companies worldwide while Dupont bought out Pioneer Hi-bred.

It was the increased profit margins anticipated under new laws that would enable seeds to be patented that attracted the agrochemical producers into the seed market in the beginning. Patent laws had been originally introduced to allow inventors to collect royalties for a fixed term on the sale of products using their idea. The seed companies had wanted to have patent laws covering their seeds, so they could charge money or prevent the sale of seed saved from their new variety. Of course these seeds were not inventions as such, most of the breeding work on our crops has been carried out by ancient farmers, but gradually the seed companies have succeeded in getting these kinds of laws in place in Europe, North America and Australia.

Under initial laws known as PVP (Plant Variety Protection) farmers were still allowed to save seed. The industry continued lobbying and got it’s way under a new international treaty, known as UPOV (Union of Protection of New Varieties). The pharmaceutical and agro-technology interests then mobilised the United States government to export its patenting system to the rest of the world through the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Now under the Trade Related Intellectual Property (TRIP’s) laws all WTO members, most of the world’s nations, will be forced to enact some kind of seed patenting laws.

Before the last decade and the era of genetic engineering, plants and seeds were not usually patented. Only the US had patent laws covering new crop varieties. Now plant patents are not restricted to the seed of a single crop variety; instead they can extend across one or more plant species. Patents covering genes and genetic engineering and breeding processes have opened up a whole new avenue for profiting from the control of seed.

Sterile Seeds
The agro-chemical seed giants are investing heavily in creating plants that will not produce viable seed in order to force farmers to buy all their seed. They will then be able to make them pay a fee for access to the technological means of making the seed saved from their crops germinate or grow properly. This possibility is already not far away. The so-called Terminator technology is the best known but by no means the only such system to have been invented. Not all methods of achieving sterility being researched rely on genetic engineering.

Farmers’ movements around the third world are particularly outraged by such threats to farm saved seed. Since the Green Revolution in Asia beginning in the 1960’s new crop varieties along with pesticides and fertilisers have been heavily promoted in the South by governments, international agencies and industry alike. Some of this has been well meaning but the effect has been catastrophic on small farmers. The costs of seed and chemicals are often subsidised initially, sometimes they are offered freely. But the hybrids and new varieties need optimum conditions, irrigation, chemicals and fertilisers. Farmers are trapped in debt buying all these inputs and when crops fail are driven to bankruptcy. Thus small farms that provide for the people who live on them are lost and land is concentrated into the hands of larger better off farmers producing for market and export.

Farm saved seed of non-hybrid varieties (known as open-pollinated) is vital to small independent farmer’s livelihoods and survival, just as it is vital to those of us who aim to develop food producing systems free of corporate control. Sterile seed is a huge threat to the world’s food security.

Corporate concentration and control of our food supply continues unabated, facilitated by the laws of industry-compliant governments and international bodies. Supermarkets are the biggest of these corporate giants, they now account for over half the food sold in Britain (twice their market share of a decade ago), and are rapidly spreading their hold globally. Giant global corporations are extremely good at making cost savings. Food is cheaper than ever, but the result has been a decline in the quality of food.

Fresh food is no longer a product for the market but today is more often a raw material for the food processing industry. The rock-bottom prices offered by the supermarkets are generally offered on highly processed fatty, sugary foods, white bread, processed meats, cakes and biscuits. While healthy, chemical-free and locally produced food options are available only for those willing, or able, to pay extra for them.

The value of food cannot be measured in crude economic terms or defined by the demands of profit. People worldwide are resisting the corporate takeover of our food supply, particularly genetically engineered crops and foods. In the face of the political and economic hegemony known as globalisation, the challenge facing such movements is huge. Hand in hand with this resistance must go the development of viable alternatives, natural farming systems and a locally based food supply autonomous of industrial control.

Further Reading:

'The Massacre of Apple Lincoln'
by Pat Mooney
A tyranny of sameness is sweeping the earth. Why, because the chemical companies have discovered gold in genes.
'Colonising the Seed'
by Gyorgy Scrinis
Genetic engineering now makes possible the invasion into and control of the seed at the level of the gene.
'Hybrid rice in Asia: The unfolding threat.'
Until recently, rice was never commercially hybridised, there was no seed industry activity in rice. All of this is changing now and it will revolutionise rice farming in Asia.
'Wal-Mart’s arrival in UK is likely to spell disaster for local communities.'
by Andy Rowell
Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest and fastest expanding retailer. In order to become number one, Wal-Mart does its best to destroy the competition, and that’s not all it will destroy.
'Terminator technology: The threat to world food security'
by R. Steinbrecher and Pat Mooney.
The terminator rides to the rescue of long suffering multinationals who have been unable to hold farmers back from saving seeds.
'Apomixis: The Plant breeders dream.'
The agrochemical-biotech-seed corporations are investing heavily to develop this method of mass producing cloned hybrid seed much more cheaply. If they succeed there are frightening consequences on both biodiversity and the independence of farmers.


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