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Review
by
Greg Muttitt

Correct citation: Muttitt, G. (2002), "Review of Feeding the hungry Transnationals, How corporations exploit biotechnology to gain power over food and agriculture". Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 49, p. 23.


Paul, H., L. Michaels, D. Kuyek and R. A. Steinbrecher (2002), Feeding the hungry Transnationals, How corporations exploit biotechnology to gain power over food and agriculture. Econexus and Pesticides Action Network, Asia-Pacific (PAN-AP). [Econexus, P.O. Box 3279, Brighton BN1 1TL, UK; info@econexus.info; http://www.econexus.info] 110p., US$ 4.50

Whether biotechnology will help or hinder the pursuit of food security in the global South is a hotly contested issue. According to its proponents, it has the potential to boost food stocks through greater yields or through prevention of yield losses, and improve food quality through 'designer' traits. Critics argue that it concentrates control over food production in the hands of transnational corporations, threatening the viability of farmers. Others advocate a 'third way' wherein the benefits of the technology could be applied to achieve positive social ends, by placing it in the hands of public interest bodies rather than corporations. Feeding the Hungry Transnationals explodes this latter conception of the 'neutrality' of the technology by examining the political, economic, intellectual and technological contexts in which agricultural biotechnology has been developed.
The central philosophy on which agro-biotechnology is based, grew to prominence through the Green Revolution. The immediate maximisation of yield was pursued as an over-riding objective, largely by the use of mono-cropped high-yielding varieties, heavy application of chemical inputs, and participation in an inter- national trading system.
On all three counts, the result has been greater agricultural dependence on transnational corporations, through their increasing patent ownership of hybrid (and later genetically modified) seeds; their manufacture of agrochemicals; and their access to an international distribution infrastructure.
While the Green Revolution approach has been facilitated by the establishment of International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs), other factors have also played an important role. In particular, the South's progressive international indebtedness and consequent increasing dependency on primary commodity exports to service those debts, has left Southern countries with little choice but to pursue higher yields through higher inputs, and participation in the international trading system. The moves are further encouraged by the trade policies of Northern governments keen to champion their largest companies. Several examples cited in this report even tie development aid to the acceptance of corporate-led agriculture or biotechnology.
It is not just in the host countries themselves that Northern agribusiness benefits from industrial development of the South's agriculture. Just as debt repayments from South to North exceed aid payments in the opposite direction, and as South to North profit repatriation exceeds North to South foreign direct investment, so too flow genetic resources towards the rich world. The IARCs, set up to support the development of agriculture in developing countries, have drawn 91 per cent of their samples from Asia, Africa and Latin America, yet distributed 85 per cent of them within industrialised countries, according to data cited in the report. It goes on to point out that 58 per cent of the US wheat crop contains germplasm from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, a transfer of resources worth at least US$ 16.8 billion since 1970.
Feeding the Hungry Transnationals explains how major agrochemical companies have re-positioned themselves as agricultural powerhouses, with genetic engineering (GE) as the link that buys them into seed production. GE should be seen as inseparable from corporate-led agriculture, driven by the same philosophy, the same economic and political trends, and often by the same companies, foundations and public sector institutions, and the largely Northern-funded IARCs. Even some universities and NGOs have allied themselves with the business interests, by embracing either funding or the goal of commercialisation of results. GE serves to further consolidate corporate control over food production, through greater privatisation of the productive inputs, in particular the seed and its corresponding agrochemicals.
The authors argue that farmers fare rather less well from these trends than the corporations. While the current research into the terminator and traitor technologies has been the subject of recent public debate, a similar effect already happens through subtler processes, including patenting and restrictive farmer contracts. Meanwhile, through further consolidation of the agricultural inputs industries, farmers have less choice in their purchasing decisions, and less control over their growing systems. As they become locked into the international trading system, farmers become vulnerable factors outside their control - such as commodity prices or interest rates.
The report's greatest criticism is of the public relations (PR) industry. Through sophisticated communication techniques, PR agencies are able to successfully paint a one-sided picture of the role the companies have played. As a result, the debate about the best approach to agriculture and agronomics, and by whom it should be administered, is heavily skewed.
Feeding the Hungry Transnationals provides a useful overview of these and other aspects of privatisation of agricultural genetic resources. While it is helpful to have all these in one place, this is also perhaps the greatest weakness of this report. It is so ambitious in its coverage, that inevitably the opportunity to present new and insightful analysis, or to paint a clear picture of what is happening and its consequences, tends to be sacrificed in favour of more factual content. For some readers, this might make the argument harder to follow.
Still, whether it is to get broad coverage of the important issues, or to plug the gaps in one's knowledge, this report is well worth reading.

Greg Muttitt

 

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with  acknowledgement of source.


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