Iraq’s Agricultural Industry was Pillaged, Its Farmers Devastated, But It’s Still Free of GMO Seeds*
By Dr. Dahlia Wasfi
When a video clip of a 2008 presentation on Iraq’s seed industry went viral earlier this year, Dr. Dahlia Wasfi was inundated with questions and concerns from thoughtful viewers. Here, she provides clarifications and updates on the situation in Iraq.
I delivered a presentation about Iraq at the Green Festival in Chicago in May 2008.
In that presentation, “Ain’t Nothin’ Green About the Green Zone: The Impact of War and Occupation on Iraqi Farmers,” I discussed the history of farming in ancient Mesopotamia and the harm wrought upon modern-day Iraq’s agricultural system by the 1991 Gulf War and economic sanctions imposed from 1990 to 2003. I also covered the devastating effects of the illegal 2003 “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq by the United States on Iraq’s traditional farming methods and the environment.
I was very fortunate that the talk was filmed by independent videographer Jeffrey Keating.
Eight years later, in May of this year, a 4-minute excerpt from this talk was posted on Facebook by the group Our Amazing World. The clip focused on the planned corporatization of Iraq’s seed industry by U.S. administrators in Iraq via Order 81, issued by Paul Bremer, the American diplomat appointed to head the Coalition Provisional Authority in the wake of the 2003 invasion.
The video went viral, and many thoughtful viewers have raised questions and concerns about the information I presented.
In this piece, I offer clarification on the issues, as well as an important and encouraging update on the status of Iraq’s seed industry from Iraqi agriculture expert Dr. Nakd Altameemi.
In my presentation, I stated that the agribusiness giant Monsanto has “terminator seeds,” and Western corporations “need a place, a laboratory, if you will, to try out their new toys,” including genetically modified seeds and associated pesticides.
So-called “terminator seeds” are genetically modified seeds whose second generation of crops yield seeds that do not germinate (“sterile seeds”). In June 2007, the U.S. Justice Department approved Monsanto’s acquisition of Delta & Pine Land, the U.S. company which patented the first terminator seed technology.
In 2008, when I gave the talk, many environmentalists and human rights activists were particularly concerned about Monsanto’s potential use of terminator technology. For example, the Institute of Near Eastern and African Studies, an educational and cultural organization, established April 26 as International Seed Day around this time, marking the date that Order 81 was signed by Bremer in 2004.
The annual event continues as a way to advocate for “patent-free seeds, organic food and farmers’ rights,” with past events including volunteer phone campaigns to educate
“Iraqi farmers, farm owners, agriculture experts and women in Iraq … about terminator seeds, Order 81 and seed keeping and resistance.”
The educators at INEAS feared for the vulnerability of Iraq’s agricultural system after 2003, just as I did. My concern stemmed from the bombing of Baghdad, the looting of government buildings, the loss of Iraq’s seed bank, and Bremer’s 100 Orders. But I also worried that the United States’ policy of “de-Baathification,” in which Baath Party members were ousted from public office in Iraq, had eliminated all experienced Iraqi administrators from the country’s agriculture ministry. If that were the case, then Iraqi farmers, isolated from the world after nearly 13 years of economic sanctions, could have been vulnerable to exploitation by the U.S.-led occupation and Western corporations.
On the matter of terminator seeds in Iraq, some viewers presented me with the counter-argument of Monsanto’s position, as stated on its website:
“Monsanto has never commercialized a biotech trait that resulted in sterile—or ‘Terminator’—seeds.”
True, Monsanto did make this commitment in 1999, eight years prior to its acquisition of D&PL. Yet, even if the company had not sold terminator seeds in Iraq, that didn’t preclude their possible use in field trials or other experiments in that country. In November of 2004, USAID boasted of the work of its Agriculture Reconstruction and Development Program in Iraq to change traditional farming methods:
“The MOA [Ministry of Agriculture] and ARDI hosted a field day in southern Iraq to discuss with farmers a package of new varieties of rice, fertilizers, and herbicides and their advantages over traditional growing practices.”
And in 2005, historian, economic researcher, and freelance journalist F. William Engdahl reported the establishment of “wheat extension demonstration sites” in northern Iraq:
“As soon as Order 81 had been issued, USAID began delivering thousands of tons of U.S.-origin ‘high-quality, certified wheat seed’ for subsidized, initially near cost-free distribution through the Agriculture Ministry, to desperate Iraqi farmers. The USAID refused to allow independent scientists to determine whether the seed was GMO seed or not. …
Under the USAID program, the State Department, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) set up 56 ‘wheat extension demonstration sites’ in northern Iraq, ‘introducing and demonstrating the value of improved wheat seeds.’ The project was run for the U.S. Government by Texas A&M University’s International Agriculture Office.
This $107 million USAID agriculture reconstruction project had as goal the doubling the production of 30,000 Iraqi farms within the first year. The idea was to convince sceptical Iraqi farmers that only with new U.S. ‘wonder seeds’ could they get large harvest yields. Desperation and a promise of huge gains would be used to trap Iraqi farmers into dependence on foreign seed multinationals.”
Engdahl also noted a December 2004 interview in which Iraq’s U.S.-educated interim agriculture minister, Sawsan Ali Magid al-Sharifi, stated,
“We need Iraqi farmers to be competitive, so we decided to subsidise inputs like pesticides, fertilisers, improved seeds and so on.”
The great concern is the possibility that these “improved seeds” were unregulated, genetically modified seeds that would ultimately have patent restrictions under Order 81, and the new pesticides could harm the environment.
Here in the United States, illegal GMO wheat plants from Monsanto have been found growing in three different states in the past three years, most recently in Washington state in July. Field trials were conducted with the unapproved plants in the Pacific Northwest 15 years ago. It’s not yet clear how the plants got to Washington. If this type of contamination can occur within the regulated U.S. agricultural system, even if only by natural forces, then it was reasonable then — and reasonable still — to be concerned about the impact of corporate and U.S. government conduct in occupied Iraq, which was plagued with extensive corruption, lack of security, lack of oversight, and lack of accountability.
No saving, sharing or replanting of harvested seeds
I misunderstood Order 81’s prohibition of seed saving and sharing to apply to all seeds, including those from farmers’ traditional, natural stocks. However, this prohibition applies specifically to those seed varieties patented by breeders (primarily corporations), not traditional seeds. I apologize for the confusion.
But while it is an important distinction to make, Iraq’s traditional seed stocks were severely limited at the time that Order 81 was passed in April of 2004. As I mention in the video clip of my 2008 presentation, the Iraqi seed bank was destroyed by the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent looting. Furthermore, in 2005, Iraq could “only cover four per cent of the national demand for quality seeds from its own resources,” according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The desperate state of Iraqi agriculture left farmers vulnerable to corporate seed marketing.
And while whatever traditional seeds available could be used initially, the patenting framework of Order 81 made them susceptible to restricted use in the future. If Monsanto or another genetically modified seed manufacturer patented a trait carried by plants of traditional seeds, those seeds that had been passed down (for free) for generations could then be prohibited from use as a patent violation. The precedent for such “biopiracy” has already been set. As Jeremy Smith reported in The Ecologist in February of 2005:
“A few years back a corporation called SunGene patented a sunflower variety with a very high oleic acid content. It didn’t just patent the genetic structure though, it patented the characteristic. Subsequently SunGene notified other sunflower breeders that should they develop a variety high in oleic acid with [sic] would be considered an infringement of the patent.”
Under Order 81, Iraqi farmers who chose to plant traditional seeds could be sued by a seed company if their crops became contaminated by a patented variety of plant. Similar lawsuits have been filed by Monsanto against American farmers, and farmers who try to save money by saving patented seeds for replanting (the traditional method) have been slapped with major lawsuits as well.
Grave concern for the livelihood of Iraqi farmers under Order 81 is also rooted in the devastating impact of Monsanto’s genetically modified cotton seed industry on the small farmers of India.
From 2003 to 2016: An update on the state of Iraq’s seeds
The material presented in my original 2008 talk, along with the discussion above, offers insight into the U.S. government’s agenda for the corporatization of Iraqi agriculture post-invasion. My presentation was based on information available in the press at the time, which painted a worrisome picture of the future of traditional family multi-crop farming system and seed industry in the Fertile Crescent.
What was unknown, however, was the extent to which these U.S. plans — and Order 81 — were implemented in Iraq. In June of this year, I was fortunate to hear from Dr. Nakd Altameemi, who had first-hand knowledge of Iraqi agriculture and seed law both before and after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
His emails contained quite a surprise: He wrote that Order 81 has not been implemented, and genetically modified seeds remain prohibited in Iraq.
Dr. Altameemi was born and raised in Iraq. He graduated from Baghdad University’s College of Agriculture in 1976, and earned his PhD in seed technology in the United Kingdom in 1985. He began his professional career at Iraq’s ministry of agriculture, serving in multiple roles over the years, including director general of the State Board for Seed Testing and Certification. Today, he lives outside of Iraq, and I corresponded with him via email on the state of Iraqi agriculture.
According to Dr. Altameemi, prior to 2003, Iraq’s seed industry was strictly regulated by legislation dating as far back as 1938 (a law concerning the purity of field crops) and through a 1991 law mandating testing and registration of seed varieties. The statutes include a prohibition on the use of genetically modified seeds in Iraq. Dr. Altameemi and other experts on the agricultural council worked hard to maintain the integrity of Iraq’s seed program and seed industry through years of war and economic sanctions. But the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent looting brought unprecedented destruction to modern Iraqi agriculture and modern Iraq.
In addition to loss of the country’s seed bank, the agriculture ministry’s seed laboratories and Iraq’s National Herbarium were ransacked — all while U.S. forces protected Iraq’s oil ministry and oil fields. Soon after, U.S. administrators dissolved the agricultural council and appointed new advisors who were unfamiliar with Iraq’s farming systems and incompetent. The seed program collapsed. The one hopeful note was that Dr. Altameemi and three colleagues were kept on staff at the ministry.
Over the next three years, they worked hard to rehabilitate the seed bank and rebuild the collapsed seed program in accordance with Iraq’s established (pre-invasion) regulations. Their efforts were supported by the U.N. FAO. Dr. Altameemi said he recognized the dangers of Order 81 when it was passed in 2004. According to him, the pre-invasion ban on GMOs was maintained despite the order, and since 2003, multiple seed imports have been rejected for not meeting Iraq’s strict seed standards.
I asked Dr. Altameemi about the “high-quality, certified wheat seed” imported by USAID following the signing of Order 81. According to his information, in 2004, U.S. administrators imported 4,000-5,000 metric tons of non-GMO wheat seeds, which were recorded on Iraq’s national registry. They were distributed to farmers, cost-free.
I also asked him about the nature of subsidized “improved seeds” referenced by Sawsan Ali Magid al-Sharifi, the agriculture minister, in her 2004 interview with IRIN. Dr. Altameemi noted that the term “improved seed” identifies those high-quality seeds for crop varieties already on Iraq’s national registry and released for cultivation. No genetically modified variety was on the national registry in 2004, because GMOs were prohibited then (as now).
Tragically, in 2006, as was the case for thousands of Iraqi academics and health professionals after the invasion, Dr. Altameemi’s life was threatened. That year, he and his family were forced to leave Iraq, becoming refugees. From Jordan, he continued to serve as an expert consultant to Iraq’s agriculture ministry through the FAO, advocating for updated legislation to govern the seed industry for post-invasion conditions. By 2009, a new national seed policy was developed in coordination with the FAO, and in 2012, Iraq’s parliament passed Law No. 50 (also developed in conjunction with the FAO) to expand regulation of the seed industry.
Law No. 50 of 2012 on Seeds and Seed Tubers mandated the following: establishment of the National Council for Seeds in the agriculture ministry to oversee Iraq’s seed industry; analysis of seeds according to international standards, as set by the International Seed Testing Association; and identification of genetically modified seeds, along with the nature of their modification. According to Dr. Altameemi, Law No. 50 permits all national and international seed companies registered with the Iraqi government to participate in the local market.
Currently, seed products from multiple American, European, Middle Eastern (including Iraq), and Asian seed companies are marketed in Iraq. Seed trade monopolies are prohibited, and Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont and Monsanto all have products on the Iraqi market.
Dr. Altameemi also reports that Law No. 15 of 2013 cancelled Order 81 Articles 51-79 concerning plant variety registration and release. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate an English version of the law for further details. An Arabic version can be accessed via the Iraqi Local Governance Law Library.
To Dr. Altameemi’s knowledge, no genetically modified seed varieties are currently used in Iraq, as they remain prohibited. Iraq is not a member of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, the mission of which “to provide and promote an effective system of plant variety protection, with the aim of encouraging the development of new varieties of plants, for the benefit of society.” An Iraqi seed laboratory has been established to test for GMOs. Any new seed variety must be tested in Iraq for at least two seasons before it can be approved for inclusion the national seed registry and released on the market. Farmers are still free to use and share their own traditional seeds.
Still, Dr. Altameemi remains gravely concerned for the future of Iraqi agriculture and its implications for the Iraqi people.
Over the next decade, he predicts that water shortages will result in a significant drop in agricultural production, increasing Iraq’s current levels of food insecurity (largely due to displacement) while the population continues to grow. The looming crisis threatens even greater morbidity and mortality for a populace already suffering from continued war, trauma, instability, and compromised infrastructure. He raised this issue with the ministry of agriculture and a member of parliament earlier this year and is still awaiting a response.
The International Monsanto Tribunal convenes in The Hague
Because of my talk on the impact of occupation on the Iraqi people and Iraq’s environment, some have referred to me with the honorable title of “environmentalist.” But I am not an expert in the field.
In October, however, the experts did convene.
Doctors, lawyers, professors, farmers, community leaders, and activists gathered in The Hague, Netherlands, for the International Monsanto Tribunal and a People’s Assembly. On its website, the tribunal describes itself as “an international civil society initiative to hold Monsanto accountable for human rights violations, for crimes against humanity, and for ecocide.” The legal opinion of the tribunal is expected to be handed down by the end of this month.
Video and interviews with contributors can be found on the Tribunal’s Facebook page.