August 28, 2013 Najma Sadeque
The first battle never really took off even after 66 years – restoring unduly appropriated land to the tiller – and a second more destructive and far-reaching battle is already upon us. Monoculture killed three-fourths of global biodiversity and soils: GM can only hasten extinction.
In recent decades, the sovereignty of many countries has been undermined by the bullying impositions of corporations backed by their own governments. This extends to forcing the adoption of so-called “level playing ground” rules that cannot apply to our socio-economic and environmental conditions: fictitious “equal standing” is simply not possible between unequals.
After a long struggle, during which time the US government tried to push sanctions against the European Union if it banned or discouraged GM crops (from USA), the EU finally prevailed. And last week, financial news agencies reported on hedge funds and insider traders dumping Monsanto stock, driving prices down. That includes Monsanto’s own CEO Hugh Grant selling off 40,000 of his own company’s shares, followed by other high-level executives. Worse is expected to follow.
The reasons were the same as elsewhere – the hazards that GMOs pose to human, animal and environmental health, Monsanto’s dangerous experiments that have lead to widespread GM pollution and cancer, and its predatory business practices. No longer welcome in Europe while facing rising opposition at home, Monsanto’s last hope for market lies in developing countries such as ours, where regulation is weak.
There is an interesting similarity to Monsanto’s powers of persuasion used in USA, India and Pakistan. Monsanto has long been ‘cosy’ with US Congressmen, getting its way entirely throughout, and helpfully eased through by former Monsanto executives vaulted to government.
In India, the push to introduce Bt cotton was also engineered from top officialdom, but it was not easy. India is a huge country with many fiercely independent states, all with a strong and informed say, turning the entire farmers’ communities and public interest groups against Monsanto. While it still prevails perforce in some areas with Bt cotton, it has failed with GM food crops; and given the 200,000 farmer suicides to-date, its days seem to be numbered.
Similarly, in Pakistan, the National Biosafety Committee and other regulators are under great pressure to approve GM crops. There was quite a hue and cry in 2011 when Monsanto was exposed to have written the biotech report, which was circulated for unilateral approval without being examined in-depth. But it takes two to clap hands; the head of PARC and the Vice Chancellor of Faisalabad University had thrown their full support behind GM crops.
There are 61 federal and provincial agricultural agencies (led originally by Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) and National Agricultural Research Centre (NARC), which were devolved to the provinces in 2010. Now PARC is trying to get an extraordinary position for itself at the federal level as an umbrella organisation over all other agencies from where it will be easier to impose decisions onto the provinces. For the same reason, foreign interests such as USAID, therefore, prefer working with all-encompassing federal institutions.
This effort is remindful of the recent furore over the Farmer Assurance Provision, recently signed into law by President Barack Obama. But it had little to assure farmers with and more with boosting big agro-chemical corporations, so that it earned the title of “Monsanto Protection Act”. A provision was anonymously and secretively slipped into a resolution, as part of the Agricultural Appropriations Bill. It turned out to be a special interest loophole about which most lawmakers were unaware when they signed it. Over a quarter of million outraged US citizens then signed a petition launched by the “Food Democracy Now” network demanding the President veto it.
Why were people so angry? The provision shielded big biotech companies like Monsanto from legal action, even if a particular product proved to be harmful to humans or the environment. For the period that the provision is in place, both the Department of Agriculture and the courts are rendered powerless to stop Monsanto from producing or selling the product, no matter how toxic. The Congress actually blocked the judiciary from doing its job! According to Al-Jazeera, the provision was partly drafted by Monsanto and sneaked in through their insider friends, bypassing the necessary review from Congress’ Agricultural or Judiciary Committees.
Later, the Chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Barbara Ann Mikulski, offered her apologies, claiming she did not put the offending text in and did not support it either. So, why was she so careless as to let it get through without it being discussed?
Fortunately, the provision is effective only until September 30, 2013. By then, activists will be fighting hard to prevent it being made permanent, just as activists here will have to ensure that PARC does not become the sole decision-maker and law unto itself like the corrupted agricultural regulatory authorities in the US.
Ijaz Ahmed Rao is one such committed activist-farmer, who took it on himself to keep farmers, government decision-makers, agricultural institutions, the media and concerned citizens informed of global and local developments, good and bad, through his press writings and extensive email network – not the easiest task in an area that does not arouse strong feelings the way power politics does.
A graduate of Charles Stuart University, Australia, and a professional farmer in Bahawalpur for the last 15 years, he became interested in agro-biotechnology early on when he found his preference for organic farming difficult to pursue without government technical backup and in difficult terrain dependant on toxic river water, highly-polluted by industrial and agro-chemical runoff. He hoped to find solutions in gene technology, and initially supported the introduction of GM crops in Pakistan. But experience, controversies and data from independent sources and events since 2007 changed his mind: he concluded the technology was overhyped and MNCs were misrepresenting facts.
Between a billion and two billion rupees – all taxpayer money – is spent annually on Pakistan’s agricultural agencies to do research and related work. And though they will offer a list of impressive projects, some in collaboration with “foreign” establishments, they do not include what smallholder peasants or farmers like Ijaz Rao really need or want, such as organic farming, something they could revive with Cuba’s help, today the global leader and teacher in advanced techniques.
“Large-scale GM trials have still not been conducted in Pakistan and the process is being bulldozed so that everything is approved before the new government realises what’s really going on,” adds Rao.
Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has, reportedly, refused to give in to the GM lobby. If that’s true, stakeholders may not immediately lose the battle over Pakistan’s agriculture after all.
The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.