The Indian scientist and environmental activist, Dr Vandana Shiva, has taunted the world’s major biotechnology companies for adopting crop seed research methods which require no more skills than betting in a lottery.
Led by Monsanto and Bayer, these companies are slapping patents on thousands of modified Indian seed varieties in the hope that one will prove to be a winner, according to Dr Shiva. “It’s all guesswork and there’s no knowledge,” she said at a recently concluded international seminar on Innovation, Sustainability and Development in New Delhi.
As climate change takes hold, the search for seeds with traits of resilience against drought, flood and salinization is becoming frenetic. Speakers at the seminar, hosted by the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, felt that India’s indigenous farmers are already well equipped for the task through their local knowledge and selective cultivation skills.
Vandana Shiva has been a leading protagonist in the global movement to protect seed banks of developing countries. Its member organizations condemn patent applications derived from these seeds as “bio-piracy”.
High profile campaigns in the US have included court appeals to strike off a W.R.Grace patent on the Indian neem tree and against Monsanto’s planned development of low gluten wheat.
Reiterating her case at the New Delhi seminar, Dr Shiva observed that the intrusion of patents in agriculture denies poor farmers their traditional right to save seeds. It also restricts attempts to add value to their produce through food processing, a simple enhancement of livelihoods that is invariably recommended in poverty reduction strategies.
Sustainable rural economic development requires “diversity, plurality and decentralization – qualities which are threatened by the appropriation of indigenous knowledge into industrialised monopolies,” Dr Shiva explained.
The environmentalist has been openly critical of the Indian government for succumbing to the TRIPS provisions of the World Trade Organisation which oblige member countries to permit the patenting of life forms. She has also spoken out against Indian state governments for licensing international seed companies, without adequate reference to Indian laws protecting farmers.
Dr Shiva told the seminar that the escalating number of seed patent applications is an act of economic desperation. “Royalty collection ends up being the only source of economic growth in many rich countries, especially the US because manufacturing is outsourced to China,” she said.
These remarks were made on the same day as global agriculture officials gathered in Rome for a further attempt to breathe life into the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, also known as the Seed Treaty. Created by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization as long ago as 2003, the Seed Treaty is designed to address precisely the issues raised by Vandana Shiva.
It aims to defend the rights of small farmers to benefit from their seed banks and to ensure that they share the rewards of any commercial exploitation. But the Seed Treaty has been starved of funding and remains unable to implement its provisions. The leading global peasant farmers’ group, La Via Campesina, has threatened to stop collaborating with the Seed Treaty if it remains impotent.
These anxieties over the fate of the world’s crop seeds come at a time of intense controversy over the optimum strategy for addressing the crisis of global food insecurity. Agribusiness calls for extended globalisation of industrial farming methods are countered by environmentalists who favour traditional models, involving minimum fuel and chemical inputs.
As Founder Director of the Navdanya Trust, Vandana Shiva’s position is well known. The Trust promotes organic farming across India, its philosophy inspired by biodiversity and the tradition of the “commons” in which knowledge is shared.
“Ecological agriculture based on indigenous knowledge is the way forward for the world,” Dr Shiva said at the New Delhi seminar. “Indigenous knowledge should not be put in a privatization box.”
this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News