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The Terminator: Corporate control of food for profit

The people we are talking about in this chapter are probably decent family men; they probably go to church and believe in a loving God; they probably follow normal business practice. So why are they feared?

`Terminator' technology was a logical business solution. Rather than paying lawyers to sue farmers for saving and sowing patented seed, the seed could be genetically designed to commit suicide. This reduced its yield slightly, and did not exactly improve humanity's ability to cultivate, but Monsanto's friends in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) were happy to help. Let's just quote them.

Monsanto: "Terminator technology will open significant worldwide seed markets to the sale of transgenic technology, for crops in which seed currently is saved and used in subsequent plantings."

United States government spokesman, Willard Phelps: "Terminator technology's primary function is to increase the value of proprietary seed owned by US seed companies and to open up new markets in second and third world countries."

Melvin J Oliver, USDA scientist, not a company man, explains: "Our mission is to protect US agriculture and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition. Without this there is no way of protecting the patented seed technology."

Recently, due to intense anger worldwide, Monsanto agreed to delay marketing terminator seed for further studies on environmental, economic and social effects. They grudgingly admitted that, "We need some level of public acceptance to do our business". However, terminator seeds continue to be patented, including one that becomes sterile only after three generations -- a farmer can be fooled into thinking he is safe.

Other companies are also turning plant welfare on its head for commercial gain.

  • AstraZeneca is developing seed that is sterile unless their own chemicals are applied.
  • Novartis is even developing plants whose resistance to viruses and bacteria has been removed.

Plants that are sterile, plants that die without chemicals, plants that have no resistance to disease -- these are among the achievements of biotechnology companies. And they claim that patents on life forms are necessary to enable them to invest in this research.

But that is not all; controlling humanity's food source is only a part of Monsanto's ambitions. To quote Bob Shapiro, chief executive: "It is truly easy to make a great deal of money dealing with primary needs: food, shelter, clothing."

"What you are seeing," said Robert Farley of Monsanto in 1998, after describing their purchase of seed companies throughout the world, "is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it's really a consolidation of the entire food chain. Since water is as central to food production as seed is, Monsanto is now trying to establish its control over water. Monsanto plans to launch a new water business, starting with India and Mexico, since both these countries are facing water shortages. These are the markets that are most relevant to us as a life science company committed to delivering food, health and hope to the world, and in which there are opportunities to create business value".

Monsanto Strategy Paper: "We are enthusiastic about the potential of partnering the World Bank in joint venture projects in developing markets. The Bank is eager to work with Monsanto."

Many Indians understand this to mean that Monsanto aims to control the vital resources of the Indian sub-continent, using public finances (the World Bank) to underwrite the investment. Indian agriculture would then be at the mercy of a private company motivated by profit.

By 2025 in India the need for water will be 50% more than will be available. The crisis will be even greater if the Himalayan glaciers, which supply summer water to the Indus and the Ganges, continue to shrink. It is predicted that the glaciers will be gone in 35 years. The water table in most states in India is dropping one metre a year. Water companies will be more interested in industry than in poor farmers and thirsty peasants.

Commercial funding of research
Most research is now funded by commercial organisations. Even government bodies are dominated by commercial interests. Universities look for projects that will attract commercial funding and researchers publicise results that are acceptable to their funders.

The first peer-reviewed study of the effects of commercial funding, in 1998, confirmed that researchers are indeed influenced. The study related to concern over whether calcium-channel blockers, used for treating high blood pressure, might increase the risk of death. Researchers examined 70 authors of articles on both sides of the controversy. Among supporters of the drug all except two had financial relations with manufacturers of calcium-channel blockers, and even those two had funding from the drugs industry.

The message is clear: It is naive to expect impartial statements from people whose careers are tied to the development of a technology. Few scientists will not allow funding to influence their opinion.

Excerpted from The Little Earth Book by James Bruges, published by Alastair Sawday. To order a copy or for further details visit www.littleearth.co.uk

  Free trade: Comparative advantage for the corporations
  Intuition: Common sense, imagination and morality
  Patenting life: Wait a minute! Who made it?
  The Terminator: Corporate control of food for profit
  Population: More or less
  Pests and weeds: Biotechnology for profit, a nightmare
  A citizens' jury: The locals know what aid they need
  Imperial tribute: Why the rich are rich and the majority poor
  The WTO: Power in a moral vacuum
  Biomimicry: Science's exciting new frontier
  Water denied: A crime against humanity
  The first MNC: Little has changed
  Feeding the world: There is no shortage of money or food
  Ecological footprints: The rich wear big boots