The Grameen Bank's June 25th announcement that it will accept US$150,000 from Monsanto Corporation (St. Louis, MO. USA) to launch the Grameen Monsanto Center for Environment-Friendly Technologies is stirring up a storm of controversy throughout agricultural and rural organizations around the Third World. The surprise move was unveiled jointly by Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director of the Grameen Bank and Robert Shapiro, MonsantoÌs Chair and CEO. The company's initial grant is for soft loans to Bangladeshi farmers.
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By the year 2000 - after a 12,000-year history of farming - farmers may no longer be able to save seed or breed improved varieties. The problem is not the Millennium Bug but the Millennium Seed."
Advocates for the newly patented terminator technology" developed jointly by the US Department of Agriculture and Mississippi-based Delta and Pine Land seed company claim that it will not only be an incentive to plant breeding investment but also a boon to food production in the South. This is "nonsense" according to RAFI Research Director, Hope Shand.
After a week of silence on the subject, the USA (a country that is not a Party to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) is lobbying hard to re-write the Friends of the Chair' report on the Terminator - a technology widely condemned by numerous CBD members. Why the sudden spurt of behind the scenes activity? On May 11th, the giant Monsanto Corporation - a company with close White House connections and major multinational muscle - bought control of the Terminator patent. For Governments fighting to protect agricultural biodiversity in the Convention, its now or never.
Monsanto, the world's second largest pesticides corporation, has vaulted from nowhere to become the world's fourth largest seed company. Between mid-1996 and the end of 1997, Monsanto spent roughly US $2 billion in seed-related acquisitions. Its May 11th announcement that the corporation will take over Dekalb and Delta and Pine Land seed companies adds a staggering US $4.3 billion to its merger bill. By way of comparison, if Monsanto's Monday splurge were spent on public sector research, it would fully fund the entire CGIAR system at 1998 levels for over 12 years. But it is not who Monsanto is buying - but what patents it is acquiring - that has observers alarmed. Monsanto now has the Terminator - and maybe much more.
The agricultural departments of at least four Australian state governments, as well as a bevy of other national public and private research institutes, are routinely pirating the indigenous knowledge of farming communities and international research institutes around the world, according to the Canada-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) - a rural advocacy organization with twenty years experience in the field. Accusing the Aussie agencies of making cowboy claims' on farmer-bred plant varieties from Brazil to India, RAFI's Executive Director, Pat Roy Mooney, says that several dozen plant 'patent' claims listed by Canberra's Plant Breeder's Rights Office are 'a clear rip-off of the genius of others. In most of these cases, the Australians appear to have done nothing more than select and multiply somebody else's seed and then slap a PBR (plant patent) monopoly on them,' Mooney insists.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) are moving quickly, and in concert to address abuses of their trust agreements covering several hundred thousand invaluable crop seed accessions, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).
The Syrian-based International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) has fundamentally misinterpreted its authority" with respect to crop germplasm it holds in trust on behalf of the United Nations, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). In a letter sent to RAFI's Executive Director, Pat Mooney, on January 26th, ICARDA's Director-General, Prof. Dr Adel El-Beltagy, admitted that the Centre had willingly allowed a number of Australian institutes to apply for Plant Breeder's Rights (a form of plant patent) on varieties the Centre holds under a trusteeship agreement with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome.
Australian crop development agencies have been forced to abandon their claims on two chickpea varieties they admit were obtained from an international public research institute based in India (see RAFI's release of 6 January). In a blunt message sent January 8th, the institute, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) - acting on information from RAFI - demanded that the claims for Australian Plant Breeders' Rights (a patent-like intellectual property regime for crop varieties) be dropped. On January 16th, the two Australian institutes - Agriculture WA and CLIMA - said that the claims had been abandoned.
The Australian seed industry has applied for plant breeder's rights (PBR) on two chickpea varieties taken from ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) - an internationally-funded public research centre based in Hyderabad, India. If granted, the Australians will give themselves a 20 year monopoly on the Asian chickpeas, which they propose to market in South Asia and the Middle East. Neither variety, however, is new to farmers. In fact, both are ICRISAT accessions originating in farmer's fields in Iran and India. It's blatant biopiracy," explains Farhad Mazhar of Bangladeshi organization UBINIG and the South Asian Network on Food, Ecology, and Culture, "Australia is privatizing seeds that belong to our farmers, and they plan to sell them back to us with their own self-authorized plant monopoly."