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Multinationals Rob Seeds of Poor: Vandana Shiva and Houston Catholic Workers Protest Patenting of Life Forms at RiceTec in Alvin, Texas

It seemed incredible. A corporation in Alvin, Texas, just an hour and a half by car from Casa Juan Diego, was trying to patent seeds that rice farmers had developed over centuries in India and Pakistan. Actually, they had already done so and were in the process of renewing the patent. Farmers in India and other poor countries would have to pay Rice-Tec in order to plant their own rice. Rice-Tec was claiming the seeds as their private property. How could this be?

As we demonstrated with the well-known visionary and author Vandana Shiva, who had come from India to protest this robbery of the intellectual property rights of Indian farmers, and with others who had come from various parts of Texas, with our grandchildren, and with Sue David, fellow Catholic Worker, we chanted, “We told you once, we told you twice, Hands off Basmati rice!” Basmati is one of the varieties of rice developed in South Asia over so many centuries, one chosen by Rice-Tec to make their own.

The Houston Catholic Worker has been publishing articles for a number of years about policies of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization which make food more and more expensive throughout the Third World. The result has been that the poor of the world, no longer able to grow their own food, cannot afford to eat. The insistence of these international organizations, directed by wealthy countries and multinational corporations, that poor countries grow cash crops for export and use the money from their exports to import almost all of their food, has caused irreparable harm: local agricultural economies have been destroyed and hunger and even famine have been the result in many countries.

Many may not actually be aware that “ten corporations control 32 percent of the commercial-seed market, valued at $23 billion, and 100 percent of the market for genetically engineered, or transgenic, seeds. These corporations also control the global agrochemical and pesticide market. Just five corporations control the global trade in grain.” These corporations, such as Monsanto and Cargill, were key players in shaping international trade agreements such as GATT and now the WTO.

Vandana Shiva, a woman from India who has been active in the naming and the rejection of these policies which produce for the consumer societies of the North while masses of people to the South struggle to have enough to eat each day increased our awareness. We doubt that the average American is aware that one of the major roles of the World Trade Organization is this very legitimization of the patenting of life forms from poor countries by multinational corporations.

Vandana Shiva has published two books with South End Press (Cambridge, MA) on these topics, which are clearly written and accessible to the average reader.Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the World Food Supply (2000) and Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge (1999). She also writes in the magazineThird World Resurgence, where these issues are explored from the point of view of the countries most affected by the policies.

The massive demonstrations in Seattle came as a surprise to many who were unfamiliar with the issues. The writings of Vandana Shiva, who has been very much a part of the anti-globalization movement which came together at Seattle, can do much to explain the concerns of those demonstrators from all over the world. As Ms. Shiva put it:

“Corporations that have made governments their puppets and that have created instruments and institutions like the WTO for their own protection are now being held accountable by ordinary people.” She describes the attitudes and hope that made the Seattle protests and the continuing protests around the world possible, speaking of “a community of creativity and courage that has dared to challenge globalization at a time when history is supposed to have ended.”

In Stolen Harvest, she points out the fundamental discrepancy in our understanding of questions regarding world hunger: “A corporate myth has been created, shared by most mainstream environmentalists and development organizations, that industrial agriculture is necessary to grow more food and reduce hunger. Many also assume that intensive, industrial agriculture saves resources and, therefore, saves species. . .” Ms. Shiva explains how the opposite is true: that agriculture and aquaculture based on chemicals, herbicides and biotechnology instead use up resources, destroy local agriculture and create hunger.

Shiva contends that “free” trade is rather based on robbery: “The completion of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1994 and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have institutionalized and legalized corporate growth based on harvests stolen from nature and people. The WTO’s Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement criminalizes seed-saving and seed-sharing. The Agreement on Agriculture legalizes the dumping of genetically engineered foods on countries and criminalizes actions to protect the biological and cultural diversity on which diverse food systems are based.”

According to Shiva, it is the Monsanto company that has done the most through its propaganda to convince the people of the world that everyone will die of hunger unless biotechnology is used to produce more food through industrial agriculture. Ironically, Monsanto is basically not a food company, but one that specializes in pesticides, fertilizers and hazardous chemicals (even though more recently they have renamed their chemicals as “agricultural” products to disguise the content), which could not be sold if traditional methods of farming were used.

Shiva debunks on a practical level another part of the myth, that food from biotechnology and patented seeds is cheaper than that grown in traditional methods, showing how higher costs of seeds, technology fees, and the increased use of chemicals involved in the cultivation of genetically engineered seeds leads farmers into serious financial troubles.

The problems with Monsanto’s tactics, when applied in poor countries are dramatically described by Shiva. One of the examples is Monsanto’s interest in killing weeds, which, it turns out, are an essential part of the food supply in South Asia and Africa: “In Indian agriculture, women use up to 150 different species of plants (which the biotech industry would call weeds) as medicine, food, or fodder. For the poorest, this biodiversity is the most important resource for survival. In West Bengal, 124 ‘weed’ species collected from rice fields have economic importance for local farmers. In a Tanzanian village, over 80 percent of the vegetable dishes are prepared from uncultivated plants. Herbicides such as Roundup (sold by Monsanto) and the transgenic crops engineered to withstand them therefore destroy the economies of the poorest, especially women. What is a weed for Monsanto is a medicinal plant or food for rural people.”

The mantra is: there will not be enough food for the world if industrial agriculture is not the method. However, the increase of famine and hunger all over the world in poor countries since these policies have been implemented belie the whole premise. In an article in Third World Resurgence (Aug.-Sept. 1996) Tewolde Berhan and Gebre Egzibher described the discussion at the 1996 Leipzig conference on the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Good and Agriculture. He pointed out that for many centuries local agriculture has existed without hazardous chemicals and with enough prosperity to feed the people:

“Everyone accepted that peasants and their predecessors throughout the last 10 millenia generated all the agrobiodiversity we have and took care of it and still do. But delegates from industrialized countries kept saying with unmistakable conviction that they do not know if in situ (in place) conservation works. Until they internalized it into scientific lore, the system which had generated all the agrobiodiversity which science is now trying to understand and manipulate was, to them, non-existent or at least not real. It is like somebody meeting you on the road and saying to you that you exist because he sees you, that you did not exist before he saw you, and that you will stop existing as soon as he goes past you. What megalomania!”

Ms. Shiva notes clearly that the “highest-level political and economic conflicts between freedom and slavery, democracy and dictatorship, diversity and monoculture are involved in the decisions about the world’s food supply.” She advocates democracy in food production, rather than control by a few multinational corporations. The way she and poor women of India are approaching the problem is by a campaign on Gandhi lines. His chant to the British was, “Quit India!” The women now say to the multinationals: “Quit India!”

The movement in India, following Gandhi’s ideas, to save seeds from the multinationals, which has been building for over a decade, is called Navdanya (the movement for saving seed). Shiva describes Gandhi’s approach and how it is being used again:

“In periods of injustice and external domination, when people are denied economic and political freedom, reclaiming freedom requires peaceful non-cooperation with unjust laws and regimes. This peaceful non-cooperation with injustice has been the democratic tradition of India and was revived by Mohandas Gandhi assatyagraha. Literally, satyagraha means the struggle for truth. According to Gandhi, no tyranny can enslave people who consider it immoral to obey laws that are unjust. As he stated in Hind Swaraj, ‘As long as the superstition that people should obey unjust laws exists, so long will slavery exist. And a non-violent resister alone can remove such a superstition.’

“On March 5, 1998, the anniversary of Gandhi’s call for the salt satyagraha, a coalition of more than 2,000 groups started the bija satyagraha, a non-cooperation movement against patents on seeds and plants. . . .

“The salt satyagraha embodied India’s refusal to cooperate with the unjust salt laws and was an expression of India’s quest for freedom with equity. The bija satyagraha is our refusal to accept the colonization of life through patents and perverse technologies, and the destruction of the food security by the free trade rules of the World Trade Organization. It is an expression of the quest for freedom for all people and all species, and an assertion of our food rights.

Navdanya‘s aim is to cover the country with seed banks and organic farming initiatives. Navdanya will not recognize patents on life, including patents on seed. It aims to build a food and agriculture system that is patent-free, chemical free, and free of genetic engineering. This movement will reclaim our food freedom.”

The movement for food democracy in India is a part of alliances with scientists, citizens’ movements in many other poor countries, and consumer movements.

We Catholic Workers found that protesting together with those who have developed this groundswell movement in the poorer countries may possibly be of some force in the multinationals’ keeping their hands off the goods of the people.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. 20, No. 7, December 2000