Seeds, greed and TNCsView(s):
The debate over multinationals taking over the businesses of countries at the lower end of the wealth table using the power of money and politics has now (in the Sri Lankan context) swung to the very essence of the survival of mankind.
According to civil society and farmer activists, multinationals or transnational corporations (TNCs as these global companies are known) producing the chemicals used in the (world) wars of the past, are now in the forefront of the pesticides/herbicides industry and genetically modified (GM) crops.
Seeds, which farmers over the ages grew in their own backyard or farmlands, are now the core of a debate over a proposed new Seed Act in Sri Lanka which farmers say would force them to import seeds from powerful seed companies in the world like Monsanto, Bayer or DuPont.
“Don’t allow it,” was the fundamental theme of a brilliant discourse by noted Indian thinker, philosopher and farmers’ right advocate Dr. Vandana Shiva who was visiting Sri Lanka last week. (See story on this page).
Speaking at an event in Colombo organized by a prominent farmers’ group led by Sarath Fernando, a veteran activist in promoting the rights of farmers, peasants and civil society, the globally-recognised Indian activist said multinationals are now pursuing the right to control basic services like food, water, and the land.
“The worst sin to human life is allowing basic services to be under the control of transnational corporations … this subjugates humanity to the specific interests of a minority who become rich and powerful at the expense of the lives and security of others,” she said in a hard-hitting speech, adding: “The right to basic services is a basic human right.”
Globalisation, propagated by multinationals, has spawned a model of development that is based on greed that will not sustain society and earth, she said. “The entire age of chemicals was developed for tools of pain. Explosives for making bombs; chemicals used in concentration camps came from chemical companies which are now turning these into agro chemicals in a warfare in agriculture,” she said.
“The ownership of seeds is the ownership oflife,” she argued, backing calls to the Government by Sri Lankan groups to abandon the proposed Seed Act.
The use of fertilizer and pesticides in farmlands in Sri Lanka didn’t become a problem until the past decade when the green revolution and organic farming took root in the discourse over safe and healthy food and the unfortunate exploitation of natural resources.
Concern over chemically-treated food and GM crops have led to many debates in Sri Lanka and across the world.
The argument for GM food is based on a shortage of land space to grow enough food to feed a growing (hungry) population and, with this, the need to increase yields within this reduced land space, much of which is used for development other than agriculture. In today’s world of food, the life-span of the growth of a plant or animal has been designed towards quick, mass production and not quality (healthy and safe food) production. As commonly known, broiler chickens are fattened through chemicals and hormones and their lifespan reduced to 30-40 days before they are ready to be slaughtered for consumption. In the good old days, it took months to prepare a chicken (through a normal growth cycle) before it was ready for consumption.
Medical experts across the world believe girls attain age faster now due to consuming chemically-treated, meat. Girls who mature faster have a higher risk of some serious illnesses, including breast cancer and heart disease, according to a group of British scientists as reported in the journal ‘Public Health Nutrition’.
The same (speedy) cycle applies to the natural food consumed from plants and trees (fruits and vegetables) where pesticides are applied to ward off pests while other chemicals are injected to quicken the ripening (fruits) process. GM crops generally take care of increasing yields. The rationale in this thinking is to increase production in a shorter growth cycle.
However more and more Sri Lankans are becoming aware of the need to consume natural food against processed food through organic farming sans the use of fertilizer or pesticides. Rice and other food produced by organic means are more expensive because the production cycle is longer but it’s attracting a growing consumer market. Concepts like the ‘Good Market’ at Battaramulla are praiseworthy examples of Sri Lankan society, at least some segments, seeking to promote safe and healthy food amongst the people.
The many issues that confront food production before it gets on the tables of homes include the cost of production (COP) in Sri Lanka. The COP to produce anything – be it chicken, eggs, fruits or vegetables – is costlier than in India where costs would be 1/10th of what it is to Sri Lanka. In this context, wouldn’t it be cheaper to import food that would cost so much less to the Sri Lankan consumer than bar imports to protect farmers? This is a perennial debate in Sri Lanka with governments trying to protect the interests of both consumers and farmers so far without success.
In this context, an issue that must be taken into consideration is the need to ensure that imported food is safe and healthy and proper safeguards in place in the import process.
Greed has no barriers. While the WTO-administered model of development is based on ‘the art of money-making’, according to Vandana Shiva, the model of business in Sri Lanka today is to cut through red tape and governance-controlled administrative measures through payoffs and corruption. Individuals and companies who have been ‘clean’ and ‘ethically and morally correct’ in their public transactions, are now inevitably sucked into this quagmire of ‘payoffs’ to get contracts for mere survival and job creation.
The saga of seeds will inevitably end up in the weeds of corruption if the good people of Sri Lanka don’t stand together against TNCs bent on profit and personal glory rather than the interests of the people at heart.