What do Agent Orange, DDT, aspartamine, bovine growth hormone, GMOs and now, biopiracy all share in common? Other than being the stuff of environmentalists’ nightmares, each one owes its provenance to a single source: the biotechnology giant Monsanto.
The Indian government recently took an unprecedented step in filing suit against the corporation’s joint venture in India (known as Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Limited) for the 'unlawful' attempt to obtain and modify the indigenous crop brinjal. Known elsewhere as aubergine or eggplant, brinjal is cultivated and consumed by many Indians, with roughly 2,500 unique varieties.
This commercialisation of indigenous knowledge is an offence known as biopiracy. In 2002, the Indian governent enacted the Biological Diversity Act (BDA) to prevent the plunder of the nation’s rich agricultural biodiversity, which is among the highest in the world.
The BDA requires that any modification of a plant for commercial or research purposes must first be approved by India’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA), a step Mahyco-Monsanto is accused of bypassing in efforts to develop their own genetically modified (GM) variety called Bt brinjal.
While some anti-GM activists in both India and the West may hail the Indian government’s decision to stand up to the corporate behemoth as activism, Suman Sahai, scientist and director of the Indian NGO Gene Project, says this is a straightforward case of a violation of due process of law.
‘[This] has got nothing to do with activism. Governments should not act as firebrand’, Sahai said. ‘There was a violation of Indian law which has to be penalised’.
A representative for Mahyco said however that while the company has been developing brinjal varieties, it not been involved in any unlawful activity. 'It is reiterated that Mahyco has not indulged in any activity which would be a violation of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002', the spokesman said.
Putting a patent on life
The issue of granting intellectual property rights (IPRs) to life forms—such as seeds, plants, or animals—is a contentious one worldwide. Critics say it’s impossible to define when the creation of such a thing took place, and that granting patent rights for a crop such as brinjal negates generations of farmers who, using conventional plant breeding techniques, have managed to develop successful cultivars.
In a press release, the Environmental Support Group, a Bangalore-based NGO, endorsed the NBA’s decision for this very reason.
‘The [BDA] law mandates that when biodiversity is to be accessed in any manner for commercial, research and other uses, local communities who have protected local varieties and cultivars for generations must be consulted and if they consent, benefits must accrue to them’, the press release states. ‘The NBA must suspend action on all applications by any of the agencies involved in biopiracy seeking access to any biological resource of India’.
A report on IPRs in the farming world released by the UK-based Food Ethics Council endorsed the idea that agricultural patents and IPRs should be treated differently in the developing world, particularly in nations where subsistence farming is the major source of livelihood for many people.
‘The exclusionary element of patents [means that] … privileges [are] granted by society to a few [people] to exclude the rest and enrich the few’, the report states.
In recent years, the IPR laws in countries such as the US have lead to David and Goliath-type lawsuits, where Monsanto has taken legal action against individual farmers who are found to have patented GM seeds growing on their farms, even if accidental wind pollination was the cause.
In addition, farmers who purchase genetically modified seeds from companies like Monsanto or Syngenta are not permitted to save their seed for the next season, as is traditional agricultural practise; instead, farmers must purchase the patented seed each and every year, ensuring business for Monsanto and companies like it.
‘Badge of shame’
Monsanto’s unpopularity is especially high in India. Over the past decade and a half, government statistics estimate that as many as 250,000 farmers have committed suicide after failed cotton harvests left them saddled with debt. In the hopes of high yields from GM seeds, countless farmers borrowed money to purchase Monsanto’s patented Bt cotton-seeds, activists claim.
Indian activist and scientist Suman Sahai says that the company cannot be solely blamed for this immense tragedy, as other systemic problems exist within the Indian farming system. However, she does believe they should be held accountable in a different way.
‘I think [the farmer suicides] is biggest badge of shame that India wears today. To have mass farmer suicide in a country with a tradition of agrarian livelihoods is horrific’, Sahai says. ‘All of India’s farmer suicides cannot be laid at Monsanto’s door, however they should be held to account for bringing in what they knew were not very good cotton performers [in an effort to enter the Indian market first]. That’s criminal negligence’.
Sahai says that India is a target of seed and biotech companies such as Monsanto because it is the only nation to explicitly give rights to farmers when it comes to ownership of plant varieties, something these companies wish to reverse.
'Even if a breeder holds a right [or patent] to a variety he cannot prevent the farmer to produce [or save] the seed for himself’, Sahai explains. ‘This is acknowledgement of the fact that no breeder can produce seed from thin air—it doesn’t fall from the heavens, it builds upwards from many generations of farmers’ contributions’.
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