By Hwaa Irfan
As individuals and communities around the world take steps to step off the grid of global food supply for reasons of price food hikes, contamination, and genetic engineering, Bolivia takes further steps to consolidate a path that many individual farmers in the West have been prevented from doing.
A new law has been signed in that will give Bolivia control over seed supply. This is an extremely important move as through TRIPS, the global patenting law that seeks to control the supply of seeds that food is grown from imposes seeds produced by multinational companies, and prevents farmers from growing seeds from their own stock, that give a better yield, are less dependent on chemical pesticides, and fertilizers, and provide food worth eating!
The new law, ‘Law of Productive,Communal and Agricultural Revolution’ places the burden on the state-owned companies to produce seeds and fertilisers, which would also make them accountable to be the consumers. The goal is to protect the local biodiversity, which is being phased out by the take up of foreign produced seeds. Carlos Romero, the minister who proposed the law explained:
“… in recent years we’ve seen an increase in their price across the world, because of a rise in oil prices and the monopoly exercised on seeds by a few corporations. That’s why we want to create state-owned companies that produce seeds.”
Lisa Panades, the Bolivian representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation
“The law aims and is creating the conditions to boost food production, especially among small farmers who are the most vulnerable. Of course, the law on its own is not enough, but I think that – with the government’s backing – if the law is applied well, there are excellent conditions for Bolivia to guarantee its food sovereignty.”
The Legacy of Monoculture
Emory graduate student in anthropology, Amanda Mummert led the first global review of the human condition as man turned away from the diverse forms of cultivating food to monoculture. Mummert commented to Carol Clark:
“Many people have this image of the rise of agriculture and the dawn of modern civilization, and they just assume that a more stable food source makes you healthier,”
“But early agriculturalists experienced nutritional deficiencies and had a harder time adapting to stress, probably because they became dependent on particular food crops, rather than having a more significantly diverse diet.”
Mummert found that the above trend is most noticeable in the developed world as a result of monoculture or the industrialization of food systems. Author of the study, Emory anthropologist George Armelagos stated:
“Culturally, we’re agricultural chauvinists. We tend to think that producing food is always beneficial, but the picture is much more complex than that,”
“Humans paid a heavy biological cost for agriculture, especially when it came to the variety of nutrients. Even now, about 60 percent of our calories come from corn, rice and wheat.”
The intense use of fossil fuels, and chemicals in monoculture/commercial farming have proven time and time again to compromise the environment, reduce biodiversity, soil fertility, increase erosion, and salinity. Often it requires a level of input that far exceeds production. Between 1952 – 1990, 700, 000 tons of pesticides were used in Egypt alone. Every year, 17,000 tons of pesticides are imported at a cost of 66mn dollars in 1970, which grew to 180 million dollars by the mid – 90s.
While pesticides may initially increase yields, they kill off pollinators and place stress on the food chain, upsetting the predator-prey balance within the insect community. As a result, various insects become pests because pesticides have killed off their predators. To add to this dynamic, a process of natural selection and the survival of the fittest has developed immunity in over 2,000 major agricultural pests the pesticides of which causes ground water, streams, and rivers to become pollutes, toxic, and unfit to irrigate crops.
Large-scale mechanization hastens soil erosion, and constantly tilled soil erodes faster than it can be replaced by the normal deposit of topsoil or breakdown of rock and other natural elements.
Over the last 10 years, 250,000 Indian farmers at the mercy of Western imposition of big business commercial farming corporations have committed suicide, as poor farmers have been forced to take out huge loans for expensive pesticides and fertilisers, and to dig wells for the increased volume of water that monoculture demands. Regardless, their crops failed as wells dried up falling further into debt. PV Satheesh, director of the Deccan Development Society commented to the Scotland Herald:
“Farmers are “misled” into believing the promise that the high-input, chemical-intensive, single-crop agriculture of the so-called “green revolution” is their salvation, he says. So when it fails, they end up trapped in a debt spiral that too often leads to despair and suicide.
“Those that say that the green revolution will save the world should come and see the hundreds of thousands who have committed suicide in India”
“The green revolution is a downhill slide into disaster.”
Most of these deaths occurred in the heavily industrialized agricultural region of the Punjab where water has become heavily contaminated by the same chemicals that put them into debt.
“There is a train to Delhi every day which they call the cancer express. Half of those on board have been made ill by the pollution. Punjab has been poisoned – it has a high cancer rate from contaminated food and water, and a high suicide rate.”
“The suicide rate has increased among the farmers that have adopted GM cotton, and they have suffered skin allergies and other disorders”
“Organic, traditional farming can feed India,” he argues. “It can feed everyone. The trouble is that much of the traditional knowledge of agriculture has been destroyed by factory farming.”
This is despite the empty UN ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, which states in Articles 11, 12 and 31. Article 31 states:
Indigenous people have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control and protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.
The global patenting law, TRIPS which seeks to patent nature does not recognize such declarations, but only recognizes what is profitable to a select global group. So the battle lies in the hands of each individual group!
“In selling it is not permitted to conceal faults to adulterated things nor to overrate or mislead, nor to conceal defects. It is not permitted to mix the bad with the good; nor to conceal something about the goods which if known, would make the buyer dislike it or which would reduce the price if concealment was known (at-Tirmidhi 34 #5.a).
Where more than half the population are farmers, Bolivia is the centre of the agricultural region from which foods such as corn, and quinoa originated from has faced devastating environmental changes, and serious food shortages. Ciro Kopp, agricultural engineer at the National Council for Food and Nutrition is reported to have said to Mattia Cabitza:
“About 20 to 25 years ago, 70 to 80% of what we ate was produced locally in Bolivia,” he said, “but then we embraced the agro-industrial model and now 70 to 80% of what we eat comes from the agro-industry, which makes us dependent on technologies and price controls from abroad. So, in the same way that industrialists received support from the government in the past, now it’s small farmers who need help.”
With a wide variety in soils, crops include corn, cacao, figs, tomatoes, quinoa, soybean, brazil nuts,
– this is far from the product of monoculture.
Bolivia provides a serious model on how to approach the problem of food security and sovereignty, health and well-being of the people, and rebuilding environmental integrity at a time when the agricultural system that has dominated food supply moreso since the industrial revolution have failed miserably.
GM vs. Food Sovereignty
In 2000, 130 countries fought for the international treaty the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety. The treaty would have allowed for refusal of imported GM crops on the basis that it would endanger indigenous species . Whittling away at the obstacles to GM corn in 1999, the U.S., Food and Drugs Administration warned organic manufacturers not to label their products. When 11 states in the U.S. introduced labeling laws, the Bush Administration rushed through legislation forbidding the labeling of GM foods from other countries on the basis that this would constitute unfair trade. Then, three quarters of Brazilian exports went to countries that don’t accept GM products.
Exploiting growing world hunger, governments and groups in Bolivia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe have been resisting U.S. food tainted with GM DNA. Zimbabwe rejected 10,000 tons of food-aid in the form of whole corn kernels that if used would spread and endanger local crops. As a result, USAID redirected the food-aid to Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia whilst still trying to persuade the Zimbabwean government on the basis of humanitarian aid. Bolivia found GM Starlink Cry96 protein present. This is despite the fact that StarLink was banned from human consumption in Canada and the U.S. They also found two Monsanto varieties RoundUp Ready and BtExtra not approved for human consumption in the E.U. Guatemala found Liberty Link (Aventis), BtExtra and RoundUp Ready in food aid.
The British charity, Christian Aid has been proactive in helping small Indian farmers in marginalized communities to re-learn the knowledge that has fallen fallow, by growing and saving their own seeds, without GM or artificial chemicals. This has included reclaiming methods appropriate to semi-arid areas with short rainfalls. They have established community seed banks, which save and store seeds from one season to the next, and shared expertise on which crops are able to resist pests or water shortages, and which grow best together.
Anything is possible when done by the willing!
“250,000 Farmers Have Committed Suicide and Chemical-Intensive Methods Have Devastated the Land Now India’s Poorest Women are Growing a Quiet Revolution Seeds Of Hope.” http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/world-news/250-000-farmers-have-committed-suicide-and-chemical-intensive-methods-have-devastated-the-land-now-india-s-poorest-women-are-growing-a-quiet-revolution-seeds-of-hope-1.1101502
Amanda Mummert, Emily Esche, Joshua Robinson and George J. Armelagos. Stature and robusticity during the agricultural transition: Evidence from the bioarchaeological record. Economics & Human Biology, Volume 9, Issue 3, July 2011, Pages 284-301
Cabitza, M. “Will Bolivia Make The Breakthrough On Food Security And The Environment?” http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jun/20/bolivia-food-security-prices-agriculture
“Bolivia Moves To End Dependence on Foreign Seed Firms.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-13923732