Spreading a Bad Seed - The Greed of Agri-business
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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... Turmoil engulfed the Galactic Republic. Use of potentially deadly engineered organisms in outlying star systems was in dispute. The sinister Trade Federation threatens to block trade of smaller planets that attempt to stand in its way.
Well, sometimes truth is even more unbelievable than the movies. What we're talking about here didn't happen so long ago or so far away either. It's happening now on our very own planet! Turmoil is engulfing our world as nations debate over the use of genetically modified seeds and crops on their lands. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) pose a potential serious threat to ecological systems and health. That's why countries all over the world from the United Kingdom to India to New Zealand to Zimbabwe are banning the planting of GM seeds until further testing can be done. Big and powerful multi-billion dollar companies like Monsanto have invested a lot of money into GMOs and they intend to see them used all over the world. Unfortunately, our planet's equivalent of the Trade Federation, the World Trade Organization (WTO), protects the rights of companies like Monsanto. Under the WTO's Trade Related Intellectual Property (TRIP) Rights Agreement which took effect in January 1995, all signatories to the WTO are obliged to recognize any patent on plant varieties, which includes GMOs, or risk sanctions for obstructing trade. This is a huge problem here in developing countries like Zimbabwe, because as powerful European countries still debate over the issue, Monsanto is turning to the powerless third world nations to spread their GMOs.
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"As a developing country we must be especially careful (about the new push for genetically engineered seeds and life)," points out Charlene Hewat, Secretary General of E2000, a large Zimbabwean Environmental group. "Developed countries see us as a dumping ground for their pesticides and hazardous wastes, and a testing ground for new experiments."
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This is exactly what happened here in Zimbabwe over the past few years, as Monsanto sunk to low levels and spread their product around the world. Zimbabwe officials and citizens have recently learned that in 1996, Monsanto illegally smuggled genetically modified cotton seed in for trials in Zimbabwe. They did this with the help of the Commercial Cotton Growers Association (CCGA), who has been pushing for local use of the technology for a number of years. Neither Monsanto nor the CCGA declared the seed as a GMO when seeking the import license from the Department of Agriculture. This is in clear violation of Zimbabwe's Plant, Pests, and Diseases Act, which calls for all foreign material brought into the country to be labeled clearly and monitored by the government.
When the government discovered Monsanto's genetically engineered BT Cotton in the fields, the crop was almost ready for harvesting. After harvesting, entire fields were destroyed, reminiscent of the hundreds of acres of cotton fields that were burnt in Karnataka in Southern India when Monsanto tried similar sneaky tactics to bring BT Cotton into India.
A U.S. company illegally smuggling genetically engineered seeds in to test them on other people's land?! As Andrew Mushita from Community Technology Development Trust put it, "It was a cruel move on Monsanto's part." What penalties do you think Monsanto received for such a blatant violation of the law? NONE. Unfortunately, developing countries like Zimbabwe depend on foreign investment and can't afford to offend powerful Western corporations like Monsanto. Meanwhile, on the other hand, if the arguments that surround Genetically Modified Organisms go Monsanto's way, the WTO could in fact punish Zimbabwe for blocking the crop, claiming it as an obstruction to free trade. Poor, developing countries merely trying to protect their biodiversity and their local farmers could be blocked from all necessary imported goods and medicines, and from foreign investment. As we saw happen on the planet Naboo in Episode I, economic sanctions can bring much hardship to a country.
In response to an alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched a band of Jedi knights, the guardians of truth and justice in the Universe, the youth of the world, to spread awareness on the matter and make a difference. As young Anakin Skywalker's mom said, "The biggest problem in this universe is that nobody helps each other." I pray that you will bring sanity and compassion back to our planet. Share your concerns on the final agreements of the World Trade Organization in this week's Making a Difference Section. Let's change this universe. The force is with you.
Why are countries all over the world so hesitant to allow GMOs to be planted on their soil?
Monsanto's genetically modified cotton is made by directly inserting the Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) gene into the cotton seed which is a natural pesticide that wards off cotton growers' most hated insect, the bollworm. Critics warn that planting seeds with the Bt gene on a large scale is producing a bollworm that will gradually become resistant to the toxin. Agriculturists have already noticed poorer soil conditions on lands where Bt seeds have been planted. In Zimbabwe's case, a big worry is "biopiracy". Zimbabwe's cotton varieties are known to be among the finest in the world. Under WTO's protection, Monsanto could take advantage of Zimbabwe's rich varieties that are the result of hundreds of years of local work and knowledge. Monsanto could inject the seed with the Bt gene and then patent the cotton as its own, even though local farmers in Zimbabwe were responsible for most of the innovation. The Bt cotton that was tested in Zimbabwe yielded much poorer quality cotton than the traditional strains. Another worry is that the pollen from fields planting the GM cotton could infect neighboring fields, and soon Zimbabwe's rich biodiversity of cotton would be in threat.
Though the government has yet to take any severe action to punish Monsanto or other companies like it, some action has been taken by the government and local non-profit organizations to vocalize concern over the company's role in the Bt Cotton growing in Zimbabwe. At a conference on agricultural biotechnology in September of 1998, 350 governmental and non-governmental delegates pointed a collective finger of disapproval at Monsanto.
Monsanto Lambasted in Zimbabwe by Government and Non-governmental Delegates
Check out April's Making a Difference section for more details on the possible threat posed by this new science.
Making a Difference - Eating Pesticide Potato Chips
Case Study - How Global Policy Debates like the WTO Can Affect Even the Smallest Rural Villages
Just this week I've had the chance to work with a wonderful organization called IT Zimbabwe (check out my dispatch in the next update!). They are helping the rural community of Chivi deal with issues of food security. "The rural communities like Chivi don't live in a vaccuum," explains Blessing Butaumocho from IT Zimbabwe. Though they are currently concerned with regional issues of food security, the effects of WTO's agriculture agreements can have huge consequences for them as well. "These communities unfortunately have an uninformed view of the current global debate on genetically modified foods... we're kept in the dark even though it is our very own biodiversity at stake."
Cargill International, which was recently taken over by Monsanto, has a huge office in Masvingo in Central Zimbabwe. Blessing explained to me what kinds of consequences these huge multi-national companies can have on the local village level. "These fertilizer companies have been going out to the rural communities and spreading their words. Unfortunately, all the work we've done in mobilizing and increasing awareness and communication within the communities is now being abused by these companies. They come to the seed fairs that communities organize and start marketing their products. They begin by giving the seeds for free like presents, modified maize seeds, cotton, it really could be anything. Who knows, maybe it's a product they're still testing, maybe it will harm the fields, or the pollen will harm the traditional surrounding crops. The next year, when their traditional crops have failed and they need to replant the modified crops, the companies are no longer offering the seeds for free. Now the farmers are forced to pay the little money they have just to buy the seeds they have become dependent on-it's a trap.
Another way the companies take advantage of the seed fairs is by coming in to the community to see what the community has. They take the rich diversity of seeds the farmers have been traditionally saving for centuries. It's possible now they could modify those seeds in their laboratories and patent it, then go back to the very communities they originally received them from for free to sell the seeds that they now own!"
Kevin - Constitutional Comparisons
Monica - Frustration Fuels Motivation - Education in Zimbabwe Through the Eyes of a Student Activist
Monica - An Interview With Ian Douglas Smith, It's All a Matter of Perspective
Monica- Teen Pen Pals Dream of Hollywood and Big Changes for Zimbabwe
Kavitha - Developing Countries, Big Daddy Corporations and the World Trade Organization
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