19 October 2009

Monsanto: Making Microsoft Look Good

Following my recent post about Bill Gates helping to push genetically-modified and patented seeds towards needy African farmers, Roy Schestowitz kindly send me links to the follow-on story: Gates attacking anyone who dares to criticise that move:

Microsoft founder Bill Gates said on October 15 that environmentalists who are adamantly opposed to using genetically modified crops in Africa are hindering efforts to end hunger on that continent.

Gates was speaking at the annual World Food Prize forum, which honors those who make important contributions to improving agriculture and ending hunger. He noted that genetically modified crops, fertilizers, and chemicals could all help small African farms produce more food, but environmentalists who resist their use are standing in the way.

“This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two,” Gates told the forum. “Some people insist on an ideal vision of the environment. They have tried to restrict the spread of biotechnology into sub-Saharan Africa without regard to how much hunger and poverty might be reduced by it, or what the farmers themselves might want.”

This is, of course, a clever framing of the debate: if you're against patented GMOs it's because you're an "idealist" (now where have I heard that before?), with a hint of Luddite too. The same post - which writes from a very Gates-friendly viewpoint - quotes him as saying:

On one side is a technological approach that increases productivity.

On the other side is an environmental approach that promotes sustainability.

Productivity or sustainability — they say you have to choose.

It’s a false choice, and it’s dangerous for the field. It blocks important advances. It breeds hostility among people who need to work together. And it makes it hard to launch a comprehensive program to help poor farmers.

The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability — and there is no reason we can’t have both.

Do genetically-modified seeds bring increased productivity? There seem doubts; but even assuming it's true, Gates sets up a false dichotomy: one reason GMO seeds aren't sustainable is because they are patented. That is, farmers *must* buy them year after year, and can't produce their own seeds. It's a situation that's relatively easy to solve: make GMOs patent-free; do not place restrictions on their use; let farmers do what farmers have done for millennia.

And look, there you have it, potentially: productivity and sustainability. But we won't get that, not because the idealistic environmentalist are blocking it, but because the seed industry wants farmers dependent on their technology, not liberated by it. It is sheer hypocrisy for a fan of patents to accuse environmentalists of being the obstacle to productivity and sustainability: that would be the industrial model of dependence, enforced by intellectual monopolies, and espoused by big companies like Monsanto, the Microsoft of plant software.

I wrote about the human price paid in India as a result of these patented seeds and the new slavery they engender a few months back. The key quotation:

Tara Lohan: Farmer suicides in India recently made the news when stories broke last month about 1,500 farmers taking their own lives, what do you attribute these deaths to?

Vandana Shiva:
Over the last decade, 200,000 farmers have committed suicide. The 1,500 figure is for the state of Chattisgarh. In Vidharbha, 4,000 are committing suicide annually. This is the region where 4 million acres of cotton have been grown with Monsanto's Bt cotton. The suicides are a direct result of a debt trap created by ever-increasing costs of seeds and chemicals and constantly falling prices of agricultural produce.

When Monsanto's Bt cotton was introduced, the seed costs jumped from 7 rupees per kilo to 17,000 rupees per kilo. Our survey shows a thirteenfold increase in pesticide use in cotton in Vidharbha. Meantime, the $4 billion subsidy given to U.S. agribusiness for cotton has led to dumping and depression of international prices.

Squeezed between high costs and negative incomes, farmers commit suicide when their land is being appropriated by the money lenders who are the agents of the agrichemical and seed corporations. The suicides are thus a direct result of industrial globalized agriculture and corporate monopoly on seeds.

Here's an excellent, in-depth feature from Vanity Fair on the tactics Monsanto uses in the US. A sample:

Some compare Monsanto’s hard-line approach to Microsoft’s zealous efforts to protect its software from pirates. At least with Microsoft the buyer of a program can use it over and over again. But farmers who buy Monsanto’s seeds can’t even do that.


Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready seeds are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for re-planting, or to sell the seed to other farmers. This means that farmers must buy new seed every year. Those increased sales, coupled with ballooning sales of its Roundup weed killer, have been a bonanza for Monsanto.

The feature is from last year, but I don't imagine the situation has got better since then. Indeed, the picture it paints of Monsanto is so bleak and depressing that I'm forced to admit that Microsoft in comparison comes off as almost benevolent. Given Monsanto's size, methods and evident ambitions, I fear I shall be writing rather more about this company in the future.

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Sassinak said...

How is Mosanto coming along on the development of improved, pollution-resistant children ? Can we pick the eye color yet?

Glyn Moody said...

@Anabel: once they've been granted *all* the appropriate patents, I'm sure they'll start working on the product....

Peter said...

I'm not a GMO expert though I'd imagine once a country buys into patented GMOs as their way of doing things, it would be very hard to later change and go in a different direction. It's like vendor lock-in for agriculture.

Glyn Moody said...

@peter: exactly, especially given the aggressive legal tactics that are being used.

Enro said...

"make GMOs patent-free; do not place restrictions on their use; let farmers do what farmers have done for millennia"

Err… are you aware that most GMOs are hybrids, an agricultural technology that was invented in the beginning of the 20th century in the US, which provides very good crop but fails to deliver after replanting? Patents and other legal restrictions have little to do in the story!

Glyn Moody said...

@enro: as you say, one part of the problem is an old technology. What concerns me for the purpose of this post (and this blog) is the new part, which is based on gaining intellectual monopolies on genomic sequences, charging higher prices (leading to suicides in places like India) and using legal threats based on "infringement" of these patents to enforce this business model.

Crosbie Fitch said...

They have their own DRM equivalent, see GURT.

It's not surprising that there's a supplier preference for crops that don't produce a usable seed.

Just as it's not surprising that publishers of copyright covered works would have a preference for copies that could not be reproduced, i.e. DRM.

If they could produce food that was toxic to anyone who hadn't paid their monthly antidote subscription (Food Nutrition Protection), then they would do so.

Corporations are immortal psychopaths, and they're taking over the planet. It's not that they're vindictively misanthropic, it's just that this is how their DNA has made them and they farm and consume society as we've farmed and consumed our environment. It's nothing personal, they're just surviving in the best way they know how, even if they are ultimately detrimental to the very thing that gives them sustenance.

We have the legislative capability to change corporation's DNA, but unfortunately, even given the near self-destruction of the banking industry, we lack the power to do so. The corporations now control the legislature and they won't give it back.

Enjoy the ride in the handbasket.

Glyn Moody said...

@crosbie: thanks for the acronym GURT - I knew the concept, but not the name.

Sassinak said...

@crosbie: don't eat that patented active bacteria yogourt then. Remember, you need bacteria (ex. bifidus and co.) to help digest food and protect you from unfriendly bacteria. Don't replace the flora you own with the new, improved strain those guys are selling ya. (Even in canned baby formula, ugh!)

Anonymous said...

And did you catch the news item recently (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8305918.stm) where a professor at Imperial College points out that, relative to the 1.5kg of normal gut flora, you'd have to drink about 50,000 pots of "neutraceutical" yogurt to produce a competitive mass?

Elsewhere, the US advertising standards regulators discounted one of the vendor's "clinical" trials because the test subjects were required to drink two pots a day - i.e. twice the "normal" consumption.

In the old days, they used to tar and feather snake-oil peddlers and run them out of town on a rail...

Glyn Moody said...

@robin: no, I'd not seen that - thanks. Don't you just love scientific facts like that?

teacherpeter said...

@Mr. Moody,
What is the origin of your hateful vendetta against Bill Gates?
He's right, straight up, gloves off. He is 100% right. To deny Africans the resources to get sustainable food is selfish and coming from a ridiculous place too, considering the USA and much of the West in general uses genetically modified foods almost exclusively. Why should we deny this, which works so well for us (for the most part), to our African brothers and sisters?
You're advocating the continued neglect of an entire continent full of poor, hungry people simply because you think that Bill Gates is too corporate to have good intentions. Nothing you have said has been even close to a good point. I understand that this isn't a news blog, but an opinion blog, but still, keep your blind rage and racial intolerance more well-hidden.
When I read this news, and yes all of it, I couldn't imagine the kind of monster that would oppose such a humanitarian effort. Bill Gates and Mosanto are NOT dumping seeds in order to sell them later at inflated prices... The Africans couldn't afford this, and Bill knows it. His investment would be lost. If this were his plan it'd essentially raise him to "comic book supervillain" status. Puh-lease.

Glyn Moody said...

@Peter: I have no vendetta against Mr Gates, but having followed him as a journalist for nearly 30 years, I've learned not to take things at face value.

As to the current point, if you read some of the other comments and links here and on my related posts (http://opendotdotdot.blogspot.com/2009/10/gates-gives-300-million-but-with-catch.html) you'll see that genetically-modified seeds are not a panacea: traditional seeds and methods generally work better because they are based on thousands of years of experience.

In fact, there's increasing evidence they don't even do what they claim to do in the West (which is partly why Europe remains sceptical - they're hardly used here at all.) They're only widely used where the US agrochemical industry has been able to impose its will.

Worse, becoming dependent on Western technology is hardly a benevolent act: hundreds of thousands of farmers in India have committed suicide because of changes in their farming, largely driven by Western companies that wish to sell their inappropriate products. Doing the same to the African continent is hardly a matter of good intentions.

I'm not advocating the neglect of the continent: on the contrary, I'm suggesting we offer *real* solutions that help them, and don't just bolster corporate profits at companies that are trying to replace age-old seeds commons with patented products.

It's interesting that Gates has started taking a highly combative line against people who advocate using just such traditional approaches rather than his preferred high-tech methods.

teacherpeter said...

I think Bill Gates isn't attempting to be overly defensive; I just took it as passion for what he's doing. That being said, I have noted your points and understand your opinion, but I, at the very least, believe his INTENT is good. The idea, I read elsewhere, is to create seeds that can grow in Africa's arid climates and weak soil. This would be a good thing, and this would have to be the result of genetic engineering. To get any kind of sustainability to the African masses, THIS would be the solution. I can also sense your intent, which is to use natural seeds and methods, but they would be fruitless (literally). Africa's desertification is such that it could be 100% desert by 2150, or maybe even 2100. The only solution to this is engineered seeds that can slow this down. The problem is that, unfortunately, natural seeds being used in Africa are doing great damage to the land over just a few years. Tree seeds that could actuall grow and thrive in Africa are an important part of Bill's plan to, if I recall. This is because of the growing problem of deforestation in Africa. I recommend you read more on this problem in Taking Sides: African Issues.
Interestingly, some African experts claim that foreign aid is killing Africa because Africa is growing dependent on it and is unable to do anything themselves. While what Bill is doing may seem like another case of this, we can be free to hope that his intent is to introduce these seeds so that Africans can plant and replant every year themselves, creating a sustainable agricultural system for Africa.
I do agree that seeds that produce crops with usable seeds should be engineered and it is suspicious that this hasn't been opted for, but I don't think this is Bill's fault. I guess my response would be to have anyone propose an alternative that would work. There simply is nothing else to do.