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Advance in biotechnology will give multinational companies more control over the Third World

By Maria Isabel Sans

The author is an Uruguayan journalist whose fields of specialisation are agriculture and biology. This article is taken from Third World Network Features, written sometime in the 1980s. The author here writes about the role of large corporations in agriculture and agricultural systems, their quest for control and market shares that affects small farmers around the world, with specific reference to genetic engineering. Her statement that “genetics control will make” large corporations more powerful has been proven by events over the past decade. The threat posed by such organisations however can still be countered.

Montevideo, Uruguay : Ownership of recent progress in biotechnology is giving big business a more solid grab than the Green Revolution two decades ago. The new science will find countless ways to penetrate Third World markets, replace import commodities, threaten governments with starvation or simply wage biological war against them.

Canadian economics professor Patrick Mooney – 1985 Alternative Peace Nobel Prize winner and author of ‘Seeds of the Earth’ (1977) and ‘The Law of the Seed’ (1983) – issued this alert during the XII Panamerican Seminar on Seeds recently held here.

Biotechnology and particularly genetics engineering can achieve combinations of vegetable and animal characters which trespass previously sealed compartments between these two kingdoms. A gene responsible for phosphorescence in glow worms was successfully transferred to tobacco at the University of California. The result was a plantation that glows at night. Oats with mouse genes incorporated by Canadian scientists improved their capacity to absorb water. Pigs with human genes proved better ham producers.

These experiments show that genetics has breached the barriers between plants, animals and micro-organisms.

Where the Green Revolution, which began in the sixties, affected only three crops – rice, wheat and maize, genetics revolution may involve any combination of plants, animals or micro-organisms. Whereas 830 scientists worked in the Green Revolution, research in genetics is presently a 5,000-man project. The Green Revolution demanded US$330 million yearly; until 1980, US$12 billion had been invested in transplanting genes.

In the Green Revolution, high-yield varieties with homogeneous characteristics boosted production through the use of heavy doses of fertilisers, herbicides and abundant irrigation. Both the seed producers and the chemical companies made a fortune.

Green Revolution beneficiaries are helplessly affected every time disease hits their crops, unless they can buy pesticides. The same happens when a drought affects imported varieties unfit for local weather rigours. When farmers try to go back to the seeds they had always sown – low-yield varieties but resistant to epidemics and bad weather, these can no longer be found, having been ploughed under for the new crops. The original seeds are kept only in the gene banks of industrialised countries.

According to Mooney, in the early seventies, Shell, Mobil and British Petroleum consulted the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the feasibility of investing in new technological areas. For an answer MIT provided genes of animals and vegetables. It was estimated that the seed market would swell beyond US$50 billion. Moreover, applied to agriculture, the new technology was likely to open new market lines capable of producing an additional US$100 billion in two decades.

For instance, it is estimated that tissue culture techniques will raise sugar cane yields from 70-90 tons per hectare to 150-200 tons, and tomato yields per hectare from 20-40 tons to 60-100.

Furthermore, transnationals do not intend to create varieties that grow without fertilisers, irrigation and pesticides. Instead of searching for plague-resistant varieties, they develop pesticide-resistant plants.

Transnationals are now running 79 programmes aimed at making different crops fit for enduring pesticides.

If Ciba-Geigy succeeds in creating an Atrazine-resistant variety, Atrazine sales will grow by more than US$125 million. If Monsanto gives birth to a crop that endures Glyphosate, its market will swell by US$125 million. When Hoechst develops plants for Basta, this agrochemical will sell an additional US$200 million yearly. The market for pesticide-resistant varieties is reckoned at US$3.1 billion per year by the mid-nineties, and at US$6 billion by century’s end.

Adapting a plant to a chemical is a lot cheaper than doing the opposite. Developing a new variety costs US$2 million while formulating a new herbicide requires US$40 million. It is no coincidence that out of ten companies that control the world seed market, eight also engage in production of agrochemicals. Moreover, all ten leading companies selling agrochemicals are, without exception, active in seed sales. Since the late sixties, petrochemicals and pharmaceutical producers have been the largest purchasers of seed-related firms.

Embryo production is the latest strategic goal. Embryos are sold accompanied by small protective capsules containing fertilisers, fungicides and herbicides ready to mix with soil. This procedure is currently used for celery, tomato, carrots and green pepper, and research is under way to include wheat, barley and sorghum. Farmers will have no choice, they will be forced to buy the whole kit.

In October 1986, Sudanese farmers were ready to introduce gum arabic to the market. As they prepared for harvest, a New York company announced the discovery of a new industrial process for the production of natural gum, of supposedly higher quality than farmed rubber. The third largest Sudanese export item lost its market overnight.

In November 1986, vanilla farmers from Madagascar were in search of prospective buyers. However, all 70,000 islanders growing this crop lost their main source of income when natural vanilla beans went into production in the laboratories of a Texas firm.

Right now it is scientifically and economically feasible for the industrialised world to find substitutes for commodities currently imported from Third World countries, worth US$14 billion.

US energy officials have admitted that research is being conducted to depict human genome (complete set of hereditary factors) in detail. The US$3 billion project aims at identifying each of the tender spots in the human constitution. This will enable scientists to develop diseases affecting one particular ethnic group, one sex or more specifically, just one age group within a sex or an ethnic type. The declared purpose of the exercise is enlarging the war arsenal.

But the most serious threat in biological war is crop destruction. If disease suddenly kills thousands in Nicaragua, public opinion may be aroused, but if coffee or cotton falls victim to an unknown plague, the Sandinista government may be in serious trouble and no one can be accused of foul play.

The US has budgeted US$34 million for ‘defence’ against biological war. It is noteworthy that defensive means in this area involve exactly the same weapons used to wage aggression.

As stated by Occidental Petroleum’s chairman, food resources will mean during the nineties what energy meant during the seventies and eighties. Chicago business consultants hold that farm products have a potential market ten times larger than pharmaceutics.

Out of 50 major companies in the food market in 1979, only 30 still survive; the rest were bought by the leading firms.

The largest world used companies are ranked as follows by Enrique Estramil, Phytology researcher at the Faculty of Agronomics in Uruguay: Royal Dutch Shell, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Sandoz, Cardo, Dekalb Pfizer and Ciba-Geigy. Ciba-Geigy also ranks second among the world’s largest pesticide dealers, Shell comes in third, and Sandoz holds the 19th position.

Since the end of the sixties Shell has purchased 68 seed companies, Pioneer 39, Sandoz 37, Cardo 39, Dekalb 34 and Ciba-Geigy 26. The world’s genetic resources, on which current and future global food security rests, are increasingly monopolised by this type of firms.

Nicaragua and Ethiopia are two good examples of Third World countries which have regulated transactional activities, preventing their control over this strategic resource.

Nicaragua allocates to genetic conservation over 50% of its agricultural budget, thus spending more than Brazil in gathering genetic samples. When the US decided on a food blockade on their country, Nicaraguans realised that food self-sufficiency was a goal to attain.

Traditionally a bean seeds importer, Nicaragua was able to export different varieties of this crop after two years’ work. Nicaraguan scientists are now working on tissue cultures to develop new export crops while simultaneously gathering varieties of medicinal and fruit species which up to now had only grown wild in rainforests.

Nature taught Ethiopia a tough lesson on the benefits of the Green Revolution. One million people starved to death in 1985 as a result of drought. Drought occurs frequently in Ethiopia but starvation to this extent is a newcomer. Hybrid maize did not survive in 1985 because it needs plentiful water. The new wheat strains failed completely.

Those who had sown their own sorghum and millet seeds – low-yield varieties but resistant to Ethiopian weather – were the only farmers who got some grain. Death reached as far as the Green Revolution had penetrated.

Samples of the native crops harvested during the drought were eagerly gathered and stored. Now, the world’s poorest country has the largest genes bank in the Third World. Twelve regeneration centres have been set up to supply farmers with their own native varieties.

Source : “Return to the Good Earth”, Third World Network. This article would have been written in the 1980s.