We call it 'biopiracy', they say 'seed piracy'

Isn’t it interesting. Civil society groups all over the world, and now even the academia and the policy makers and planners, often accuse multinational seed companies and agribusiness giants of indulging in biopiracy. There have been innumerable instances when private companies have appropriated and misappopriated, legally and illegally, rich biodiversity resources from the developing countries.

The global seed giants in turn accuse farmers who save seed of ‘seed piracy’ — a term coined for those farmers who do not buy seed every year. Or in other words, those farmers who save seed after a harvest and keep it for sowing next crop are accused of indulging in ‘seed piracy’.

Well, farmers in the United States who resorted to seed saving were drawn in protracted legal battles. This sent the right signal down to the smallest of the farm. Farmers stopped saving seeds, and began queing up to buy seed before every harvest, and that is what the companies wanted. What happened in the US will soon become a norm in India, where still more than 70 per cent farmers keep seed for replanting. With the Government of India facilitating the process over the years, and the pending Seed Bill before Parliament if turned into a law will gradually make it difficult for farmers to save seed. Policy makers in India are surely moving cautiously — step by step — to take away seed rights from the farmers and hand it over to the companies.

Already countries signing FTA with India are insisting on amending the seed laws to conform it to UPOV 1991 provisions, which is more or less like drawing patents on seed varieties. The time is not far away when Indian farmers too would be accused of ‘seed piracy’.

Thousands of farmers who have been pursued by Monsanto in the US have paid the company at least $ 85 million (£ 59.4 million) in damages for the so-called crime of saving seeds from their harvest, says a BBC report

Nevertheless, let us take a look at how Monsanto won the seed battle in the US. I am providing below relevant excerpts from a BBC World Service report (Feb 17) by Jean Snedegar, entitled GM battles rage down on the farm:

Pressure is mounting from some scientists for Europe to end its resistance to genetically modified (GM) crops but fears remain about the impact of such technology on the rights of farmers.

Many American farmers like the ease of operating a GM system which involves regular spraying of chemicals which kill weeds but don’t hurt their crops.

The problem is that GM pollen can blow across fields and anti-GM campaigners say the fear of being prosecuted for growing GM accidentally leads many farmers to give up traditional methods and take the GM route for a quiet life.

David Runyan, who has 400 hectares in eastern Indiana where he grows maize, wheat and soybeans, says he feels intimidated by the tactics of the biggest GM seed firm, Monsanto.”

Although Mr Runyan plants some genetically-engineered corn, he grows only conventional soybeans – something he admits is now rare. “Approximately 90% are growing GMO soybeans,” he says, “Although when the first-generation of glysophate-tolerant soybeans came out the yields were not there. “My neighbours like them because there’s less management,” he says.

“They don’t have to walk out to the fields. A lot of them don’t even feel the dirt. “They plant it; they hire somebody to spray it; hire somebody to fertilise it and they just go and harvest it,” he says. “They’re not farmers like we used to be.”

‘Black listed’

Mr Runyon says he is not allowed to buy any products from Monsanto. “I’m on what you call a Monsanto black list – a few years ago they came out and tried to investigate and search my farm and I prevented that,” he says.

“I’ve never signed a contract. I do not use their products and it will be a cold day before I ever buy Monsanto products.” He believes that Monsanto’s past history has not been good for the world or for the people. “They’re only out for Number One. Most farmers in the United States do not care for Monsanto but they stand in line to buy their products,” he laments. “I think it’s just because it’s easy for them – that’s the only reason I can think of, there’s less management.”

In 2005, investigators sent by Monsanto arrived at Mr Runyan’s farm unannounced. “They came to my house and wanted all my production records,” he says. They asked questions about his farming operation and wanted to know who he was selling his food-grade soybeans to. “They wanted to know who I’d bought all my herbicides from and they wanted records and phone numbers,” Mr Runyan recalls.

Three months after the investigators left empty handed, Mr Runyan received a letter stating that he had seven days to turn over all his production records to Monsanto.”

One reason why Mr Runyan refused was because the letter stated that Monsanto had an agreement with the Indiana Department of Agriculture, but the department didn’t exist at that time. Mr Runyan hired a lawyer to deal with his case.

David vs Goliath

David Runyan’s story is not an isolated one.

To protect their patents, biotechnology companies have fiercely pursued farmers they suspect of saving and replanting their seed and farmers who may have biotech crops growing in their fields accidentally.

Either way, companies like Monsanto call it “seed piracy”.

Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety says Monsanto will force farmers to sign a technology use agreement which basically forbids the farmer from saving seeds from his harvest for planting the next season.

“Seed-saving is a long tradition in agriculture dating back millennia and it’s actually still practiced quite a bit even in the United States and other developed countries,” he says.

Thousands of farmers who have been pursued by Monsanto in the US have paid the company at least $85m (£59.4m) in damages for the so-called crime of saving seeds from their harvest.

When asked about their tactics, Monsanto directs people to the “For the Record” section on their website. Statement on Monsanto’s website: “Monsanto does become aware, through our own actions or through third-parties, of individuals who are suspected of violating our patents and agreements. Where we do find violations, we are able to settle most of these cases without evergoing to trial. In many cases, these farmers remain our customers. Sometimes however, we are forced to resort to lawsuits. This is a relatively rare circumstance, with about 120 lawsuits having been filed within the last decade. Less than a dozen cases required a full trial. In every one of these instances, the jury or court decided in our favor.”

Biotech scientist Michael Fromm believes these law suits are fair practice on Monsanto’s part. “They do have patented technology,” he says. “The farmers sign agreements not to save the seed as a way for Monsanto to make money on their crop. They’ve gone after a few farmers pretty hard in terms of litigation. If somebody doesn’t enforce their property rights – the market tends to abuse it more.”

(For the full story from BBC NEWS: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/business/7892328.stm)

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