Anyone hearing about central India's ongoing epidemic of farmer suicides, where growers are killing themselves at a terrifying clip, has to be horrified. But among the more disturbed must be the once-grand poobah of post-invasion Iraq, U.S. diplomat L. Paul Bremer.
Why Bremer? Because Indian farmers are choosing death after finding themselves caught in a loop of crop failure and debt rooted in genetically modified and patented agriculture -- the same farming model that Bremer introduced to Iraq during his tenure as administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American body that ruled the "new Iraq" in its chaotic early days.
In his 400 days of service as CPA administrator, Bremer issued a series of directives known collectively as the "100 Orders." Bremer's orders set up the building blocks of the new Iraq, and among them is Order 81 [PDF], officially titled Amendments to Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety Law, enacted by Bremer on April 26, 2004.
Order 81 generated very little press attention when it was issued. And what coverage it did spark tended to get the details wrong. Reports claimed that what the United States' man in Iraq had done was no less than tell each and every Iraqi farmer -- growers who had been tilling the soil of Mesopotamia for thousands of years -- that from here on out they could not reuse seeds from their fields or trade seeds with their neighbors, but instead they would be required to purchase all of their seeds from the likes of U.S. agriculture conglomerates like Monsanto.
That's not quite right. Order 81 wasn't that draconian, and it was not so clearly a colonial mandate. In fact, the edict was more or less a legal tweak.
What Order 81 did was to establish the strong intellectual property protections on seed and plant products that a company like the St. Louis-based Monsanto -- purveyors of genetically modified (GM) seeds and other patented agricultural goods -- requires before they'll set up shop in a new market like the new Iraq. With these new protections, Iraq was open for business. In short, Order 81 was Bremer's way of telling Monsanto that the same conditions had been created in Iraq that had led to the company's stunning successes in India.
In issuing Order 81, Bremer didn't order Iraqi farmers to march over to the closest Monsanto-supplied shop and stock up. But if Monsanto's experience in India is any guide, he didn't need to.
Here's the way it works in India. In the central region of Vidarbha, for example, Monsanto salesmen travel from village to village touting the tremendous, game-changing benefits of Bt cotton, Monsanto's genetically modified seed sold in India under the BollgardÂ® label. The salesmen tell farmers of the amazing yields other Vidarbha growers have enjoyed while using their products, plastering villages with posters detailing "True Stories of Farmers Who Have Sown Bt Cotton." Old-fashioned cotton seeds pale in comparison to Monsanto's patented wonder seeds, say the salesmen, as much as an average old steer is humbled by a fine Jersey cow.
Part of the trick to Bt cotton's remarkable promise, say the salesmen, is that BollgardÂ® was genetically engineered in the lab to contain bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that the company claims drastically reduces the need for pesticides. When pesticides are needed, Bt cotton plants are RoundupÂ® Ready -- a Monsanto designation meaning that the plants can be drowned in the company's signature herbicide, none the worse for wear. (RoundupÂ® mercilessly kills nonengineered plants.)
Sounds great, right? The catch is that BollgardÂ® and RoundupÂ® cost real money. And so Vidarbha's farmers, somewhat desperate to grow the anemic profit margin that comes with raising cotton in that dry and dusty region, have rushed to both banks and local moneylenders to secure the cash needed to get on board with Monsanto. Of a $3,000 bank loan a Vidarbha farmer might take out, as much as half might go to purchasing a growing season's worth of Bt seeds.
And the same goes the next season, and the next season after that. In traditional agricultural, farmers can recycle seeds from one harvest to plant the next, or swap seeds with their neighbors at little or no cost. But when it comes to engineered seeds like Bt cotton, Monsanto owns the tiny speck of intellectual property inside each hull, and thus controls the patent. And a farmer wishing to reuse seeds from a Monsanto plant must pay to relicense them from the company each and every growing season.
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Monsanto's Bullying: Why Iraqi Farmers Might Prefer Death to Paul Bremer's Order 81
By Nancy Scola
AlterNet, September 19, 2007
Straight to the Source