October 12, 2004 -- CropChoice
news -- GRAIN, 10/08/04: Behind many big promises of "technology
transfer" and "feeding the world" lies a brutal truth:
biotechnology corporations like Monsanto only care about profits.
They are not offering genetically modified (GM) seeds to the South
out of charity. They want to take over seed markets and squeeze
farmers for as much as they can get - which, even in poor countries,
can be a lot. The formula seems to be this: focus on the major cash
crops (cotton, soybeans, maize, etc), find an entry point, contaminate
the seed supply and then step in to take control. Argentina, the
first country outside of North America to start planting GM crops,
is a case in point. But the same pattern is being reproduced around
the world, as with GM cotton in India and West Africa. The story
of what has happened in Argentina should serve as a stark warning
of what occurs when GM agriculture takes root.
Act One: The Infection
1996 - The government of Argentina approves the commercial planting
of Monsanto's genetically modified Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans.
Farmers save, multiply and sell the seeds to other farmers, as they
always have, and the area planted to RR soybeans grows exponentially
- from less than a million hectares in 1996 to 14 million hectares
in the 2003-2004 growing season. RR soybeans also start to cross
Argentina’s borders, with people smuggling them into neighboring
Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, where cultivating GM crops is banned.
Monsanto's patents on RR soybeans are not recognized in Argentina.
The company's rights over the GM seeds are limited to the country's
Seed Law - a plant breeders' rights regime that allows farmers to
save seeds for their own use but not to sell them "over the
fence" . Still, Monsanto does nothing to stop the large-scale
"brown-bagging" taking place. It sits back and watches
its GM seeds and the use of its RoundUp herbicide expand over the
Southern Cone, as the large landholders of the Pampas and surrounding
areas adopt the industrial no-till farming system of RR soy on a
For many, the absence of any complaints from the company during
these early years confirms what they suspected from the start: the
spread of GM crops through contamination and the violation of national
laws is a conscious and intentional strategy of the transnational
Act Two: The Threats
2001 - With GM soy agriculture entrenched in Argentina and spreading
fast throughout the region, Monsanto begins to threaten farmers
over their "illegal" use of RR seeds and demand that the
Argentine government enforce the law. Some police raids are carried
out, but the selling of farmer-saved seeds goes on. Soybean plantations
also continue to spread, moving beyond the farming frontier into
the last remaining forests of the Chaco region and other fragile
ecosystems in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. By now the "Maradona"
soybeans, as the GM seeds smuggled from Argentina have come to be
called, are famous in Brazil.
Meanwhile, Monsanto, under pressure from US soybean farmers complaining
about unfair competition, starts to put in place its own measures.
In 1999, it begins selling its seeds through contracts that require
"extended royalties". Under this system, Argentine farmers
are required to pay US$2.00 plus tax for each 50-kilo bag of seeds
that they save from their harvests for their own use . While
the contract violates the country's Seed Law, which allows farmers
to use their own seeds with no strings attached, the government
of Argentina does not object.
Monsanto defends the "extended royalty" scheme as a way
to recover its investments in research and development. The company
says the royalties are merely minimal fees, applied on "a broader
and fairer base, together with the royalties charged for seed certification."
But this is not where the story ends...
Act Three: The Takeover
2004 - Monsanto begins the year with a dramatic mise-en-scène.
In January, it announces, "We are suspending our soybean business
[in Argentina] because it's simply not profitable for us."
The company points its finger at brown-bagging farmers as the culprits
of its misfortune . It threatens to limit its activities in Argentina
to its maize and sorghum seed businesses, while vigorously denying
that its decision has anything to do with "pressuring the government".
A few days later, National Agriculture Secretary Miguel Campos
happens to announce that the government is studying a draft "global
royalties" law that would be built around a new "technology
compensation fund". The fund would be managed by his Department
and financed by a 0.35 to 0.95% fee paid by farmers on the sale
of their soybeans to elevators and exporters. Royalties, in recognition
of "inventors' rights", would be paid out to seed companies
from the fund . Like some form of "farmers' rights"
turned inside out, the scheme boils down to a federal tax levied
on farmers that goes directly into Monsanto's pockets. When the
proposal is widely denounced by farmers' organizations, the President
of Argentina sends it "informally" to some Parliamentary
committees where it sits, unable to make any progress.
Out of the deadlock comes another tactic. Even though Monsanto
does not have patent rights over the RoundUp Ready transgene in
Argentina, the company announces on the 19th of August that it will
start enforcing patent rights on it anyway - by collecting royalties
on incoming shipments of Argentine soybeans in any country where
Monsanto's gene patent is in force . Monsanto launches this new
offensive with advertisements in major newspapers claiming that
during the 2003-2004 season, "the legal, certified seed market
does not account for more than 18 percent of the 14 million hectares
of the planted [soybean area of Argentina]."
The government responds with its own special effects. The Secretary
of Agriculture proclaims that Monsanto's scheme amounts to "extortion"
and is "unacceptable" because "in a serious country,
the payment of rights should take place through institutional channels."
On the 22nd of August, authorities sit down with Monsanto and the
seed organizations. They set aside the histrionics and strike an
agreement to set up a "Technology Compensation Fund" within
the next 45 days, to be made operational by year end through a law
or some new Ministerial Resolution . Once again, the government
has made Monsanto very happy.
Of course, this story will go on. All we know for sure at this
point is that small farmers are suffering and will continue to suffer
the most as this plot unfolds, and that Monsanto's royalties are
certain to be drawn from the pockets of Argentine society.
We also know that Argentina is not an isolated case. In neighboring
Brazil and Paraguay, the same pattern was set off with the runaway
spread of RR soybeans. At first, Monsanto worked with the illegal
GM soy producers to pressure governments to legalize the crop. Once
the GM soy became legal in Brazil, Monsanto moved in to put an end
to the 'black market'. With the government offering an amnesty to
farmers who register their crops as GM soy, Monsanto worked out
an agreement with certain producer organizations and soybean crushers,
cooperatives and exporters to force Brazilian farmers to pay royalties.
Under the agreement, farmers pay a fee of between US$3.45 and US$6.90
a tonne when they drop their harvests off at the elevators. The
elevators are responsible for collecting the fees and, in exchange,
they keep a percentage. If farmers don't declare their soybeans
as "GM" they'll have their soy crops tested, leaving them
liable to thousands of US dollars in fines and penalties if the
tests prove positive, even if they unknowingly planted GM soybeans.
Will the next royalty grab unfold in India, where Bt cotton is
out of control? Or in Mexico, where the centre of origin for maize
has been deeply contaminated? What about in West Africa, where the
introduction of Bt cotton appears imminent, putting the entire region
on the verge of rapid contamination? Or in South Africa, where GM
agriculture is expanding and where the borders to neighboring countries
are even more fluid than those of southern Latin America? The situation
is still uncertain, but one thing is for sure: no one should expect
the biotech industry to be fair, charitable or accountable.
 Ley de Semillas 20247, http://infoleg.mecon.gov.ar/txtnorma/34822.htm
 Nidera, http://ebiz-nidera.com.ar:8087/catalogo/regalia.aspx
 La Opinion de Rafaela, http://www.laopinion-rafaela.com.ar/opinion/2004/01/22/p412209.htm
 Bolsa de cereales (Argentine grain exchange), http://www.bolsadecereales.com/vermedio.asp?id=1100
 AGM News, http://www.agmnews.com/noticias/main.cfm?notc=32461
 INFOBAE, http://www.infobae.com/notas/nota.php?Idx=141067&IdxSeccion=100419
 La Nacion http://www.lanacion.com.ar/economia/nota.asp?nota_id=638765