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A small-scale farmer in Tanzania.  (Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam/flickr/cc)

Seeds of Change: Corporate Power, Grassroots Resistance, and the Battle Over the Food System

Over a decade ago, Dollars & Sense published the article “Genetic Engineering and the Privatization of Seeds,” by Anuradha Mittal and Peter Rossett, on genetic modification and its impact on the world food system (March/April 2001). In it, the authors asked, “will biotechnology feed the world?” while providing an overview of the landscape of corporate control, widening inequality, private property claims, and growing farmers’ resistance around the world. This article acts as a follow-up, highlighting some of the key developments in recent years.

For most of history, farmers have had control over their seeds: saving, sharing, and replanting them with freedom. Developments in the course of the 20th century, however, have greatly eroded this autonomy. Legal changes, ranging from the Plant Variety Protection Act (1970) in the United States to the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), have systematically eroded farmers’ rights to save seeds for future use. By the end of 2012, Monsanto had sued 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in the United States for patent infringement, winning over $23 million in settlements. Here, we describe some of the key developments further intensifying corporate control over the food system. It is not, however, all bleak news. Civil society groups are using everything from grassroots protest to open-source licensing to ensure that the enclosure and privatization of seeds comes to an end.

Corporations Have Consolidated Their Control of Seeds and Agrochemicals

In 2011, just four transnational agri-businesses—Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer, Syngenta, and Vilmorin (Groupe Limagrain)—controlled 58% of the commercial seed market. Four—Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, BASF, and Dow AgroSciences—controlled 62% of agrochemicals worldwide. The top six companies controlled 75% of all private plant breeding research, 60% of commercial seed sales, and 76% of the global agrochemical market. This consolidation of power has been aided by a large string of mergers and acquisitions, leading the Canada-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) to conclude that “there just aren’t many seed companies left to buy.”

The World Bank, too, has played a role in this increased consolidation. In 2014, a report from the Oakland Institute provided details on the World Bank’s efforts to open African markets to private seed companies. (Full disclosure: The authors of this article both work at the Oakland Institute.) The report, titled “The World Bank’s Bad Business with Seed and Fertilizer in African Agriculture,” paints a stark picture of the possible consequences of these actions: removing farmers’ rights to save seeds and implementing intellectual property claims over seeds does not improve food security, but rather undermines farmers’ autonomy and further increases profits for the existing seed oligopoly.

Supposed Benefits of Genetically Modified (GM) Seeds Have Not Materialized

Two arguments often put forward in favor of GM seeds are the need to feed the world’s burgeoning population and the potential for these new seeds to reduce overall pesticide use. Neither of these claims promulgated by industry have proved true. Globally, we are currently producing more than enough food to adequately feed our population. However, that food isn’t being distributed fairly, and malnutrition remains staggering—805 million people worldwide. As the Canadian Biodiversity Action Network reminds us in its report “Will GM Crops Feed the World?” hunger is not usually a result of low food production, but rather a result of poverty. This points to a greater need to address issues of inequality, distribution, and access.

Arguments that genetically modified crops could reduce overall agrochemical use also remain unfounded, with the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds requiring more and more chemical cocktails for the GM crops to remain productive. A report from Food and Water Watch, “Superweeds: How Biotech Crops Bolster the Pesticide Industry,” notes that herbicide use on GM crops in the United States did initially fall in the late 1990s; however, once resistance in GM crops to the herbicide glyphosate (marketed by Monsanto under the trade name “RoundUp”) developed, total herbicide use skyrocketed, leading to greater net herbicide use over time.

Large Agribusinesses Have Spent Millions to Defeat Labelling Ballot Measures

In the past few years, large agribusinesses have worked to defeat numerous U.S. state ballot measures intended to enforce the labelling of GM foods. Of the $46 million spent to defeat an anti-GM labelling campaign in the state of California in 2013, over $8 million came from Monsanto alone. Ballot measures in Washington State (2012), Colorado (2014), and Oregon (2014) met similar fates, with large agribusinesses outspending pro-labelling campaigns by a wide margin. In Vermont, state legislation to enforce GM labelling was approved in mid-2014 and is scheduled to come into force in early 2016. However, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (supported by corporations including Monsanto, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks) is now suing the state, alleging that the law would violate the U.S. Constitution in various ways. This further demonstrates the power wielded by large agribusinesses, even in the face of widespread consumer (and legislative) pressure.

Activists Are Developing New “Open Source” Options for Seeds

One positive development is the April 2014 launch of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), a group “dedicated to maintaining fair and open access to plant genetic resources worldwide.” Jack Kloppenburg, a member of OSSI’s board of directors, has written extensively about the potential modification of open-source licensing (which is used widely in software development, and led to the development of Linux, the vastly popular operating system) to seeds and other plant materials. Kloppenburg advocates a new type of plant licensing that makes plant materials a) widely available, b) modifiable by any actor, and c) distributable provided the same terms of the original license carry forward. These principles mirror those developed by the open-source technology movement, and it is anticipated that these licenses will lead to the creation of a “protected commons”—preventing the patenting of this material in the future. While the group is far from challenging the agribusiness seed cartel, initiatives like this are beginning to provide a way to legally protect plant genetic material from corporate capture.

Resistance to GM Crops Has Increased

The mobilization against the use of GM crops has gained momentum in recent years. In 2013, the global “March Against Monsanto” was estimated to have brought over two million citizens to the streets, across six continents, 52 nations, and 48 states of the United States. After an extended period of protests, anti-GM protesters celebrated a victory in 2014, when the Chilean government withdrew a bill that would have allowed large agribusinesses like Monsanto to patent seeds in the country. (With falling demand for GM seeds in South America, Monsanto’s profits fell 34%, according to the company’s most recent quarterly report. Whether the falling demand was a result of global resistance, falling corn prices, or both is unclear).

Mexico imposed a ban on genetically modified corn in 2013, days after worldwide protests against Monsanto and the whole genetically modified organism (GMO) industry. This made Mexico a key front in the global battle against corporate giants that bring in GMOs and “genetic pollution”—the transfer of GMO genetic codes into other plants (as by cross-pollination). Last year, a Mexican judge revoked Monsanto’s planting permit, which had allowed the company to sow more than 253,000 hectares of land across seven states. The ruling followed complaints from beekeepers in the state of Yucatán that Monsanto’s planned planting of GM soybeans, made to withstand RoundUp, would decimate the bee population and demolish the honey industry.

China has maintained a strong stance against GM products, leading to lawsuits against seed companies like Syngenta, which released a GM seed variety to farmers before it had been approved in the country. While China has recently begun approving more GM seed and crop varieties, mandatory labelling laws also look likely to pass.

What Do These Developments Demonstrate?

On one hand, our global food system continues to be dominated by agribusiness giants, who use their power to quash legislation designed to protect consumer and farmer interests, with little demonstration of the benefits of their genetically modified products. At the same time, despite the power wielded by corporations, resistance is growing. In many cases, agribusiness has met this resistance with outspending and overwhelming legal challenges. But in countries like Chile and Mexico, victories have been won, and promising new alternatives like the Open Source Seed Initiative are creating new ways of protecting plant material going forward. The growing awareness of and mobilization against the corporatization of food cannot be denied. Movements around organic standards, Fair Trade, farmers’ markets, and community supported agriculture have made huge gains over the last ten years. The next ten years have to build on these successes to reclaim seed sovereignty, to challenge the power of agribusinesses over our land and food system, and to increase popular engagement, advocating for the health of our planet and our food.

© 2021 Dollars & Sense

Elizabeth Fraser

Elizabeth Fraser is an intern scholar at the Oakland Institute.

Anuradha Mittal

Anuradha Mittal is executive director of the Oakland Institute. 

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