The Black Hills of South Dakota in the United States are famous for two gigantic monuments, each sculpted out of a mountain. One, still to be completed, is in honour of Crazy Horse, Indian leader belonging to the Lakota tribe, who led his peoples in fierce battles for their right to land and livelihood against the intruding European settlers. A short distance away, on land stolen from Crazy Horse and his peoples, is Mount Rushmore, the "shrine of democracy", complete with the towering faces of four US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln - gazing serenely into the distance.
Today, American farmers are fighting for both democracy and their livelihood against the corporate overlords. Feudalism has returned to farming in the US and Canada, according to a report published by the Center for Food Safety.
Farmers buying GM seeds are required to sign technology agreements that relinquish to Monsanto their right to plant, harvest and sell the GM seeds and also leave them vulnerable to harassment from the company, such as having their property investigated, litigations and out of court settlements.
Farmers not buying GM seeds are not spared, as Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser learned when he found his fields contaminated by Monsantos GM canola, and has had to spend years locked in a harrowing battle with the company accusing him of infringing its patent rights in a legal system thats on the side of the corporation. He was not alone in being persecuted by Monsanto, although he was unique in not giving up the fight to the very end.
To-date, Monsanto has filed 90 lawsuits against American farmers involving 147 farmers and 39 small businesses, with an estimated $15m gained from judgments granted in its favour. Since 1999, some 500 farmers have been investigated and harassed by Monsanto every year. The Center for Food Safety has set up a hotline for farmers (p.48).
The fight against corporate feudalism is not restricted to North America. Farmers across the globe have been battling for their livelihood and their traditional democratic right to plant, harvest, and sell the seeds of their choice against Monsanto and its subsidiaries pushing GM crops through hype, half-truths, lies, and even bribery, uncovered recently in Indonesia (see SiS25).
Indian farmers have been driven into debt and suicide after three successive years of failed harvests from planting GM cotton since three varieties were approved for commercial growing in 2002. Independent researchers and film-makers have documented the failures, and exposed Monsantos trail of propaganda, including a doctored report attempting to exaggerate the yields of its GM cotton, thereby substantially reducing the compensation it owes to farmers for crop failures in Andhra Pradesh. A coalition of ngos called on the Indian Prime Minister to withdraw Bt cotton, referring to its imposition on farmers as a "scientific fraud".
Since March 2005, however, the countrys Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee (GEAC) has approved 22 new varieties of Monsanto-derived Bt cotton seed for commercial growing, twelve in the central states, four in the south, six for the first time in the fertile northern state; and eleven new varieties for large-scale trials in the fertile northern states.
In May 2005, the ngos and farmers organisations in Andhra Pradesh claimed a significant victory. The GEAC discontinued the commercial cultivation of all three Monsanto varieties approved in 2002 in the state. This victory in Andhra Pradesh may spur opposition in other parts of India where the GM cotton has still to be withdrawn.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, the United States has put in place a new legislation under "Order 81", which gives protection to "new and improved plant varieties", paving the way for patenting plant varieties, and for introducing GM crops into the country. It will effectively bring the countrys agricultural sector under the control of corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta; and at a time when Iraq is experiencing a food crisis. Iraq, once self-sufficient in agriculture, has seen its food production collapse since the first Gulf War; and more than half of the population is now affected by food insecurity. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is ostensibly helping rebuild Iraqs farming sector under the Agriculture Reconstruction and Development Program for Iraq, but critics say it is really to help corporations capitalize on market opportunities.
Scientists, like farmers, have fallen prey to corporate feudalism; and there is a disturbing trend within the scientific establishment against democracy. The latest high profile victim Ignacio Chapela is fighting for tenure at the University of California at Berkeley - once the hotbed of radicalism and independence now beholden to Novartis simply because he and his graduate student had published scientific findings uncomfortable for the biotech industry. Please help his campaign (http://www.tenurejustice.org/pages/donations.html). (Note: Chapela has just been granted tenure, to the delight of all his supporters. This is a most significant victory against corporate feudalism. We thank him for all the hard work and the hardships he has endured on our behalf.)
Behind the persecution of scientists who dare to tell the truth are the many scientists who have given up the fight, or have willingly chosen to serve the corporate agenda.
As Michael Meacher, ex-environment minister and UK Member of Parliament points out (p.5), "companies have learned that small investments in endowing chairs, sponsoring research programmes or hiring professors for out-of-hours projects can produce disproportionate payoffs in generating reports, articles, reviews and books, which may not be in the public interest, but certainly benefit corporate bottom lines." A recent study found that of the five scientific committees advising the UK government on food and safety, 40 percent of the committee members had links with the biotech industry, and at least 20 percent were linked to one of the Big Three: Monsanto, AstraZeneca, or Novartis.
Meacher told a public conference on science, medicine and the law that we need independent science and scientists who take the precautionary principle seriously, and called for sweeping changes in science funding and scientific advice to the government that will ensure the protection of independent science, and hence, the public.
As Europe is finalising its Framework Programme 7 for the next round of public research funding, the Independent Science Panel (ISP) has submitted a comment to the European Commission, demanding maximum transparency and democratic input in deciding funding and research priorities, support for independent science and scientists and explicit funding criteria that includes ethical and safety considerations.
The ISP also wants a redistribution of research budget away from industry- and technology-driven areas like genomics and information technologies towards sustainable agriculture, ecology and energy use in sustainable systems, and holistic health. This is particularly relevant as the "gene gold" predicted for the human genome project is rapidly turning to dust (this issue) and the safety of mobile phones and newer generations of telecommunication technologies are increasingly called into question (SiS25). At the same time, evidence is mounting that the most environmentally destructive and energy intensive aspects of our food production system can all be addressed by sustainable alternatives (see especially the multiple uses of forests featured in this issue). More than 200 organisations and individuals from 32 countries have endorsed the ISP comment so far, including many university professors and researchers that some of you will recognize. Add your name here http://www.i-sis.org.uk/ISPF7.php
The relentless march towards corporate feudalism across the globe is another major reason why no one can afford to do nothing. Please support the Sustainable World Global Initiative to make our food production system sustainable, to ameliorate climate change, to guarantee food security and food sovereignty for everyone, and most of all, to dismantle the corporate empire: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/SustainableWorldInitiativeF.php
Article first published 24/05/05
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