Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 8, 2004
Big business seeds Iraq's fields
New legislation says transnational corporations are the only place farmers can buy their seeds
By SUZANNE ELSTON
It is a ritual as old as civilization itself. In fact, seed saving made it possible for mankind to move from being hunter-gatherers to farmers more than 10,000 years ago. Rather than being dependent on hunting for survival, our ancient relatives created a renewable supply of food by harvesting seeds at the end of each growing season, and sowing them the following spring.
It was a pivotal point in our development as a species. It not only put an end to our nomadic existence, but it also allowed for the establishment of early communities that formed the foundation of modern civilization. No small feat for a tiny little seed.
Save the seeds
To emphasize the importance of seed saving, consider my favourite and most inspirational environmental quote from Dr. Rosalie Bertell:
"The purpose of the environmental movement is to save the seed. Whether it's a fish, or a bird, or a baby, they all come from the seed, all into future time," said Bertell. "And if we damage that seed, then there's no place else to get it."
Apparently not. Especially if you're a poor Iraqi farmer. A joint report by two international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), GRAIN and Focus on the Global South, reveals that new legislation in Iraq makes transnational corporations the only place where farmers can get their seed. The legislation, which the groups claim has been carefully orchestrated by the U.S., renders the ancient art of seed saving illegal.
"The U.S. has been imposing patents on life around the world through trade deals. In this case, they invaded the country first, and then imposed their patents. This is both immoral and unacceptable", said Shalini Bhutani, one of the report's authors.
The Iraqi legislation marks the latest victory by transnational corporations. To date, these companies have successfully managed to confirm their rights to establish seed patents over the rights of farmers everywhere to save their seeds and grow their crops in the most sustainable, affordable and environmentally responsible manner possible.
Earlier this year, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser lost his seven-year battle against biotech giant Monsanto. The case, which went to the Supreme Court, revolved around Monsanto's genetically-modified canola seed, Round-up Ready, that had blown onto Schmeiser's property from neighbouring farms.
Despite his best efforts, Schmeiser was unable to kill off the pesticide resistant plants. When he saved his seed from one year's crop to plant the next, it included some of Monsanto's patented seed. Monsanto's argued that saving the seed violated the company's requirement that farmers who use Round-Up Ready must buy new seed every year.
"We did not expect this to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada," said Schmeiser. "We were fighting for the fundamental right of the farmer to save his seed and use it year after year."
A noble battle, but one that is being lost on all fronts to the right of multi-billion dollar transnational corporations to make a profit. To return to the Iraqi situation, that right is literally putting the lives of millions at risk.
"This is a disastrous turn of events for Iraqi farmers, biodiversity and the country's food security," states a GRAIN news release. "While political sovereignty remains an illusion, food sovereignty for the Iraqi people has been made near impossible by these new regulations."
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that in 2002, 97 per cent of Iraqi farmers used saved seed from their own stocks from the previous year's harvest, or purchased seed from local markets. When the Iraqi law goes into effect, seed saving will be illegal. Instead, farmers will be forced to purchase proprietary "PVP-protected" planting material from transnational agribusiness corporations.
"If we damage that seed, then there's no place else to get it."
- Dr. Rosalie Bertell
U.S.'s new war
According to GRAIN, the consequences of this legislation are the loss of farmers' freedoms and a grave threat to food sovereignty in Iraq. In this way, the U.S. has declared a new war against the Iraqi farmer.
At the risk of diminishing the wretched plight of the Iraqi people, this legislation moves us even closer to the frightening world imagined by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky in the classic movie, Network.
"There is no America and no democracy," Chayefsky wrote. "There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and Du Pont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world now."
God help us.
GRAIN promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge. To read the report, Iraq's New Patent Law: A Declaration of War Against Farmers, or for more information about GRAIN's work, visit www.grain.org.
For more information about seed saving, check out The Seed Savers' Network at www.seedsavers.net and The International Seed Saving Institute www.seedsave.org.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is located at www.fao.org.
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