genetic engineering seed patents & biopiracy keynote speech at the green ireland conference dr. vandana shiva
Dr. Vandana Shiva is one of the world's most dynamic and provocative thinkers on the environment, womens' rights and inter-national affairs. A phycisist, ecologist and activist, she won the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1993, for placing women and ecology at the heart of modern development discourse.
Vandana is the Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, which works on biodiversity conservation and protecting people's rights from threats to their livelihoods and environment by centralised systems of monoculture in forestry, agriculture and fisheries.
She is also a co-founder of the International Forum on Globalization, and the founder of the Navdanya biodiversity conservation programme which works in India to support local farmers, rescue and conserve crops and plants that are being pushed to extinction and make them available through direct marketing. Navdanya is actively involved in the rejuvenation of indigenous knowledge and culture. It has created awareness on the hazards of genetic negineering, defended people's knowledge from biopiracy and food rights in the face of globalisation. It has its own seed bank and organic farm spread over an ares of 20 acres in Uttranchal, north India.
Vandana has been instrumental in revoking crop patents on Basmati rice, the Neem tree and an Indian variety of wheat. She is the author of numerous books including Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowldege. (Gaia Foundation / Green Books. London, 1998. ISBN 1 870098 74 9.)
And I think our work and our job is to turn everyone into a good food fan, with the same level of excitement that the football frenzy is feeding. And I'm sure some of the empty seats are busy with the day planned to watch football. I noticed in the papers yesterday that even the trade unions have suggested that workers should take sick leave to go watch the game!
So thank you, Michael, that in spite of football you've organized this at this time. And I want to congratulate all of you who worked to make sure Ireland does not go though with the BASF [GMO potato] trials that were planned . In fact when you first wrote to me, the trials were planned, and by the time we've actually arrived, you have already won a victory. Congratulations! So we are here to celebrate and not just to strengthen your struggle.
The two reasons why I've got involved in the issue of genetic engineering: none of it has got to do with my background. I'm a physicist; I ran away from my first biology class because they wanted us to cut up cockroaches. Cutting up anything is bad but cutting up cockroaches is doubly ugly, you know, they ooze yellow liquid! So genetic engineering is really my late-in-life education.
The first reason I got involved in this was the fact that we had something called the Green Revolution, and genetic engineering is being called the Second Green Revolution.
I was forced to study the Green Revolution because in 1984 India - and the State of Punjab in India where the Green Revolution was applied - and the Green Revolution was the name given to chemical farming, it was given a very nice name; it wasn't green, it wasn't very revolutionary. It was meant to create new prosperity, high yields, rich farmers - therefore peaceful farmers - and it was provided as an alternative to the Red Revolution which was spreading through China. The idea was that if farmers were made prosperous they would not go the Communist way, as the Chinese peasantry had done.
The Green Revolution was even given a Nobel Peace Prize. And yet in the eighties, Punjab was a land at war. And I just had to answer to myself, as a scientist, why did the prosperity not deliver? What was the Green Revolution, and why had a project for peace become a project for war, a project of violence. And in fact not far from here, you got joined with that violence of the Green Revolution, because you may remember an Air India flight was bombed right over Cork; how many of you remember the explosion twenty years ago? Three hundred and more people died, and it was all linked to this Punjab phenomenon. They were Punjab extremists. Punjab had become a land of terrorism and extremism.
And in that period around 1984, the terrorism of the Green Revolution had killed 30,000 people in Punjab. That is six times 9/11, six times the blowing up of the World Trade Center! But that wasn't all. That same year, in December, we had the worst accident in industrial history: the leak of a pesticide plant in Bhopal, which has also killed 30,000 people since then. Three thousand died in that night, 30,000 have died since then. So we are talking about six 9/11s in Punjab and six 9/11s in Bhopal.
And for me this idea of agriculture at war with nature and people was so unacceptable that I started to promote organic farming in 1984, studying industrial agriculture, and therefore coming to understanding the powers behind industrial agriculture. And just as I was starting to figure all of this out, I get invited to a conference in Geneva because of the books I'd written about the Green Revolution.
It was about the Second Green Revolution - in biotechnology - and the industry was all there. They laid out their plans, and their plans basically were centered on controlling food and agriculture and health care through three means. Genetic engineering as an excuse for patenting; not genetic engineering as beneficial in and of itself. They laid it out very clearly that the reason we need to do genetic engineering is because farmers can't do it. Because if you're breeding crops as farmers have bred them, or as public sector scientists have bred them, then you can't claim exclusive monopoly rights, you can't claim ownership of the plants, you can't claim ownership of the genes, you can't claim ownership over seed.
So genetic engineering was clearly perceived as an excuse to own the life on this planet. That was the objective.
This was introduced through an agreement being negotiated at that time, in 1987, when the Uruguay Round of the GATT was being negotiated [i.e. the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade, which engendered the World Trade Agreement - Ed.]. And into the Uruguay Round of the GATT had been brought an agreement, which is today called the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement [TRIPS]. And the reason it's called "Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights" is because it's neither about trade nor about intellectual innovation. It's not about trade because it's about plants and seeds and genes. And it's not about innovation because it's about owning that which has not been invented.
Life on this planet is not an invention. Biodiversity is not an invention. Seeds and plants are not an invention.
The best that corporations can do is to shoot a gene from one organism into another. That shooting of a gene is not creating a new organism. Just as all these brilliant chairs that have been brought into this ancient castle have not made the castle: the castle existed before. Introducing a gene into an organism is like introducing a chair into the castle. The suppliers of these chairs, whoever they were, can you imagine if they started to say "now that we've brought these chairs, we are the owners of Kilkenny Castle"?
But in life, that's exactly what's happening. Those who have developed only two techniques - only two techniques: one, shooting genes through a gene gun, literally with dynamite, you explode and shoot with a gene gun with gold particles, you shoot the DNA in to an organism. You don't know where it will land. You don't know what it will do. That is why the technology itself is based on ignorance.
And since genes have a very distinctive behaviour, in terms of where in the genome they land, the behaviour can never be determined with certainty. But even more importantly, because you're introducing a gene that doesn't belong to the organism, you're not sure if it will get absorbed - just as when we do transplants, kidney transplants, there's a very high rate of rejection.
So to distinguish the cells which have absorbed the gene from those that haven't, they have another unreliable and hazardous technology of using anti-biotic resistance marker genes. They add these to show the difference, so that you can pour antibiotics [over the cells] and the cells that did not absorb the DNA die. But in addition, all organisms have a habit of rejection, silencing and to make the genes behave as you want them to behave, you need to have expression pumped in from the outside - again like an organ transplant where you give new drugs to keep the transplanted organ from being rejected. In this case, that "expression" is brought in through what are called "promoters". These are viral promoters, from viruses, in addition to the introduced gene. All of this is the package of genetic engineering [known as the GMO "cassette"].
The second kind of technology through which the genes are introduced is basically a cancer infection - also with its own unknown risks - an Agrobacterium infection.
All of this commercialisation started in the 1980s. The techniques were developed in the 1970s in universities, but were then hijacked by corporations. And the corporations worked out that if you want to make money out of this, you need to have patents. And the patents are what they were seeking.
After all these years, I remember a conference in Canada on food issues. At that time it was the Vice-President of the World Bank, David Hopper, who was saying "now we'll have genetic engineering, and with genetic engineering we'll be able to grow plants on the moon, corn in the Sahara desert, food in toxic dumps, because we'll be able to have genes for every kind of property".
Even now, the argument is "we need genetic engineering". In fact Deborah [Koons Garcia] was saying that Bill Clinton has just been at a meeting in Chicago where he said the reason you need genetic engineering is to deal with climate change and global warming.
Well, traits like drought-resistance, flood-resistance, salinity-resistance are what are called "multi-genetic" traits: they come through genes acting in concert over centuries, billions of years, millions of years of evolution.
But all that genetic engineering has achieved is single gene transfers. The complexity of many genes acting in concert to produce a trait is not even remotely available to the technology. But even more importantly, it's not even scientifically understood yet, because genetic engineering is literally in the kindergarten of molecular biology. The kids know how to read ABC but they don't know yet how to either write a brilliant novel or a brilliant symphony. And that has been achieved, as I said, through billions of years of nature's evolution and intelligence, and thousands of years of farmers' breeding.
When this argument about genetic engineering - "we need it for flood resistance, drought resistance and saline-resistant seeds" - was brought up, we did a compilation of all the seed we have in our seed banks. Because the thing I started to do, when I came to know about the issue of patenting and genetic engineering in 1987, is to start saving the seeds farmers had - both in order to be able to continue the exchange amongst them, as well as to be able to have the diversity.
Well in this list we prepared out of the varieties of rice that Indian farmers have , flood-resistant varieties that can grow as tall as this room, drought-resistant varieties that can grow without irrigation, salt-resistant varieties that we have just distributed last year for recovery after the Tsunami, when the salt had otherwise made agriculture unviable. So we've called this listing of farmers' varieties "Genetic Engineering - a Laggard Technology; lagging behind farmers' innovation and nature's intelligence".
Genetic engineering is not giving us anything new, apart from two applications. One, herbicide-tolerant or herbicide-resistant crops, which means the company can sell more herbicide (and I think the story that Percy has about herbicide-resistant Canola [oilseed rape] is such a good example of what we get out of that).
And the second is Bt toxin crops. Named after Bacillus thuringensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium, it produces toxins in the guts of particular insects and pests. The genes for this toxin are pulled out of the bacteria and introduced into plants. The plants produce the toxin all the time in every cell, and now it's already made toxin different from the way it was in the soil bacterium. It's a proto-toxin in the soil bacterium, but it is a ready-made toxin in the plant.
This also shows another issue that is used a lot in genetic engineering debates. They claim that genetically engineered organisms are "substantially equivalent" to naturally occurring organisms and conventionally-bred crops. And therefore, if Bt is safe in soil bacteria you assume it is safe in plants. We cannot make that assumption because it becomes a different substance; it is no more the same. And the fact that it is no more the same is becoming clear from Indian reports on animals, as well as reports and studies we've just completed. Farmers growing Bt cotton, and even more, people working in ginning mills where Bt cotton is being processed, are developing very serious allergies.
Interestingly, a study of this was being done in the University of Karnataka, the Agricultural University in Bangalore, involving a scientist and his researcher. At a certain point the scientist was invited to [Monsanto headquarters at] St. Louis, Missouri and came back basically saying "let's stop this research [on the Bt allergies]!" Now the student met us, and the student talked about how they were finding out that Bt cotton causes skin allergies. Monsanto picked up the scientist, took him to St. Louis and that's the easiest way in which they control scientists - and judges! They just take them to St. Louis, Missouri, and judges and scientists come back saying "Oh, there is no problem" or "we don't have to say anything about this".
The more serious hazard and impact of Bt cotton has been revealed in recent reports this year of more than 1,000 sheep dying after grazing in Bt cotton fields. Normally, cattle will not feed in these fields, but in the district of Warangal all pasture lands have been destroyed.
Otherwise in states like Maharashtra we get stories that the sheep will just by-pass - that if there is a Bt cotton field and a non-Bt cotton field, the sheep will just graze on the non-Bt cotton field. But when there is nothing, they will have to eat Bt cotton. The reports are now coming in, and there is a demand that independent studies be done.
Which brings me to two issues, about what, after all these years, what do we have?
We've got two traits, neither of which is desirable for nature. You don't need more herbicide in nature. You definitely don't need to manipulate a toxin into plants, to spread that toxin through the food chain.
You have four countries accounting for most of the GM planting in the world [USA, Canada, Argentina and Brazil], and most of the GM planting is accounted for by four crops: corn [maize], canola [oilseed rape], cotton, and soya beans. Nobody in the world was eating soya forty years ago, apart from East Asians who use fermented soya products [like tofu, miso and tamari soy sauce], but soya as a staple was nobody's food. It's not an accident that soya has suddenly become one of the biggest food commodity traded, and is used in almost everything now. The same goes for corn.
The reports are repeatedly coming out. If you read the international literature, or scientific journals internationally, you constantly get this argument that genetic engineering is doing very well in countries like India.
We've planted Bt cotton now commercially since 2002. The trials were started illegally in 1998, and I still have Monsanto in the courts because of those illegal trials. Mysteriously there is a magical figure that comes out. About 15 quintals (1,500 kg) - sometimes per acre, sometimes per hectare. If you really look at the two sets of studies that are cited most frequently (one by Qaim and Zilbermann  and the other by Brookes and Barfoot ), none of them are agronomists, none of them ever visited India to look at field trials directly; they basically got the data from Monsanto; they are all either economists or biotech public relations companies.
And yet, because behind that is money, those studies travel. There are at least fifty studies in India. We've done a study every year since the experiments started, and at least fifty other studies exist, done by universities, independent scientists, and public interest groups. And the figures are very clear. Monsanto claims 15 quintals, but the average yields are 3 to 4 quintals, and in the last season 70% failure. Seventy per cent failure!
For those of you who are interested, I've brought the latest edition of our report . The tables are right there: which farmer grew the cotton, who got one quintal, who got two quintals, and whose crops totally failed.
Now these seeds are also extremely expensive. They cost 1,600 rupees for 450 grammes. Why do the farmers buy an expensive seed?
Two reasons: first, the companies actually go region to region, and make farmers sell them their old seeds, so there is no seed supply left. And they work literally like a blitzkrieg.
When they enter an area, the enter the entire area thoroughly, they don't go to one farmer and leave his neighbour with a seed supply, because when the seeds will fail, the farmer will just turn around to the neighbour and grow a reliable seed. So they create what I call a seed famine.
The second reason is the advertising. I have seen advertising in North India and South India. In South India I have seen walls painted by Monsanto saying… - basically, for those of you who know something about Indian mythology, we have the story of the Ramayana. In the war with Ravana, Lakshmana, the younger brother of Rama, was wounded seriously. And a Saint said, well you can bring a Sanjivanibuti - a life-saving drug - from Gobartan mountain. Hanuman the Monkey God did not know how to recognize the plant, so he picked up the whole mountain and brought it, and Lakshmana's life was saved.
Bt cotton has been sold as if it is the Sanjivanibuti life-saving medicine. Now for an extremely devoted society and culture, which believes deeply in the Ramayana, advertising done through the Ramayana will not lead to a cost-benefit analysis in the marketplace. It is the mythology extended.
And Monsanto literally used Guru Nanak Ji - the founder of the Sikh community (the people in Punjab who wear turbans) - to sell products in Punjab. So I basically say, not only do they have scientists for hire, they are even hiring our Saints and our Gods as salesmen!
Then they cook up figures. We found they have a poster with a farmer called Radisham saying he had 1,500 quintals. When we went to meet Radisham he said yeah, I had 1,500 quintals - on five acres. On five acres! But they make it look like it was per acre! And that's the kind of fudging of data which has allowed it to be said that genetic engineering increases yields, and increases the incomes of farmers.
The biggest evidence that this is not true is the spread of a new phenomenon in India of farmers' suicides. And the farmers' suicides are concentrated in the belt where Monsanto started to sell seeds: first hybrid seeds, and then genetically engineered seeds. This suicide belt, on the basis of our study - and we've always called these reports The Seeds of Suicide , and I remember, way back four or five years ago we had Percy Schmeiser come down for a seed parliament, a seed hearing, and we've updated it every year - the suicide belt has a one-to-one correspondence with the planting of seeds bought from companies.
Suicides are not happening where people are poor; they are not happening where people are growing their own seeds; they're not happening where farmers are doing organic farming. Suicides are happening where farmers have become dependent on purchased seed, and especially on genetically engineered Bt cotton seed.
In the last cultivation season it was a 90% overlap between farmers who committed suicide and the farmers who had bought Bt cotton. Our calculation was 40,000.
I did a seed journey through the suicide belt, starting on the 10th of May which is the anniversary of our first independence movement - it's going to be 150 years. That's something we share with Ireland, that you've constantly had to deal with again and again with struggles of freedom and struggles of independence. Our count was 40,000 farmers' suicides. But as a result of this seed journey, a lot of debate took place in Parliament, and the government had to acknowledge 100,000 farmers' suicides!
I have called this a genocide. Because if it's a personal quirk, you end your life. But a policy design… in the United Nations human rights discourse, genocide is the infliction of physical harm to a group by deliberate policy. We've got used to the genocides in Yugoslavia, in Rwanda; we normally think of genocide as something around ethnic conflicts, around religious conflict. But this genocide is around issues of economic conflict: who will control the seed? And it so happens that either seed will be in farmers' hands, or seed will be a corporate monopoly - with five companies controlling the seed supply, and through the seed supply, our food chain, as well as life on Earth.
I mentioned in the beginning that genetic engineering was just an excuse to get these monopolies. In India, Monsanto is currently in the Courts, also because they are charging superprofits for their Bt cotton seeds. As I mentioned, they are charging 1,600 rupees [for a 450 gm of seeds], of which 1,200 rupees, according to them, is royalty. The point is they can't collect royalty in India because they don't have the patent. Our laws did not allow patenting on seeds and plants. And yet they are going ahead and collecting royalty. The state of Andhra Pradesh sued the company; our anti-trust courts ruled in favour of the government and said yes, the prices should be slashed. Monsanto has now taken the case to the Supreme Court to say this is our property. And what the claim to property in seeds and genes means, no-one can tell us that better than Percy. So I will not go too much into detail beyond the fact that once you have intellectual property on seeds and genes, a farmer saving seed is a thief and a criminal, a farmer exchanging seed is a thief and a criminal, and a farmer's field which gets contaminated is also criminalised.
Monsanto is not stopping there. India, as I said, does not yet have patent laws on seeds, so they way they're trying to get the monopoly is by making it illegal for farmers to grow their own seeds! And they've tried to float a seed law in the country, which we've stopped. We've had to do so much mobilization, and that mobilization has led to the seed law going to Parliament; the Parliament is now holding commissions on this issue. Every day, in fact, genetic engineering has ended up unleashing literal seed wars and food wars.
In Europe you are the victim of one other food war related to this, which is the case brought by the United States against Europe in 2003, to insist that the Europeans must import and grow GM crops - that not growing GM crops was an interference in free trade . I call this case not US vs. Europe, but Monsanto vs. the citizens of the world. Because it is literally going to decide food freedom. You have the WTO saying "citizens of Europe don't have the right to decide what they'll eat and what they'll grow in their fields!"
In any case, the WTO decision  I believe is totally flawed, for two reasons.
First, the WTO is the wrong platform to make these decisions. Our local governments are, the people themselves are. National constitutions need to be the basis of this, not an un-elected body like the WTO, which has usurped two domains without negotiation: intellectual property and agriculture. None of this was thoroughly negotiated; it was literally imposed on the world, which is why the WTO is now floundering.
The second reason for this dispute being wrong is that the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement of the WTO  was written before genetic engineering was commercialized. It is like applying Newton's Laws to Quantum Theory! And obviously, if you apply Newton's Laws to Quantum Theory you will say Quantum Theory is wrong, because Newton's Laws are the measure.
I think the work you are doing here needs to get connected to also challenge the WTO decision which is going to be a very very big issue.
I mentioned at the beginning that the reason I'm here with you is because I feel the issue of genetic engineering will decide our future freedom. And your movement for GMO-free zones - like our movement for GMO-free and Patent-free (and we've added Debt-free and Suicide-free zones, because all of this goes together) - this is the real freedom issue of our times.
GMO-free zones are the democratic response to the biotech industry's food dictatorship.
They are expressions of what I call the guardian satyagraha - the ability to not cooperate with unjust law, the refusal to subject yourselves to morally illegitimate rules.
They signal the birth of freedom in a context of closure, through the contrived rules of patenting and the imposition of genetically engineered foods and crops. Through GM-free zones, freedom is being re-defined. From freedom for corporations, to freedom for citizens everywhere.
And I hope your movement will go from strength to strength and Ireland will lead the way for Europe to be able to say NO to the WTO dispute ruling, and NO to Monsanto and BASF and Syngenta and the five big guys who would like to have their profits at any cost.
2. Genetic Engineering - A Laggard Technology; lagging behind farmers' innovation and nature's intelligence: Some Indian folk varieties of drought-resistant, flood resistant and salinity resistant rice. Produced by Navdanya and Farming Communities of Uttaranchal, West Bengal, Orissa, Kerala and Karnataka, August 2002. Published in the public interest by: Navdanya, A 60 Haus Khas, New Delhi, 110 016 India. Phone + 91 11 696 8077, 685 3772; fax + 91 11 685 6793, 656 2093. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.navdanya.org, www.vshiva.net.
3. Matin Qaim and David Zilberman co-authored an article entitled "Bt Cotton Controversy: Some Paradoxes Explained" in India's 'Economic & Political Weekly' (9 April 2005), in which they attempted to question studies showing problems with Monsanto's Bt cotton in India. Qaim and Zilberman's paper derived all of its data from Monsanto and its findings were so at odds with the reports coming from Indian farmers that its publication caused a storm of protest. More details on them may be found by doing a search on the GM Watch web site at www.gmwatch.org
4. Peter Barfoot and Graham Brookes are co-directors of the UK-based company PG Economics Ltd - 'Independent and objective consultants servicing the agricultural, agricultural supply trade, rural and food industries'.
PG Economics has produced a number of reassuring 'reports dealing with the economic and strategic issues of GMO crops through the food chain'. In publishing the reports, PG Economics has issued press releases such as:
• GM and non GM arable crops can co-exist in the EU without problems: says new research paper • Co-existence of GM and non GM crops in the UK can occur without problems• GM opponents' theory on co-existence 'exaggerated' according to new report• New research proves that co-existence is NOT a problem
The headlines generated include:
• New study supports GM crop co-existence• Co-existence Thought Possible for Maize in Spain• Consultants Say Biotech Crops Easily Coexist with Conventional and Organic• GM contamination claims 'exaggerated', claims study• Successful co-existence for GM food crops in 5 steps, new research• Study backs GM co-existence
For the biotechnology industry, such headlines are literally 'good news', particularly when generated by an 'independent and objective' source. BioScience UK, the website of GM company Bayer CropScience, made plain its excitement in May 2004, 'Can GM and non-GM crops really co-exist in the European Union? According to the respected economic consultants group PG Economics, yes they can!!'
For details see www.gmwatch.org/print-profile1.asp?PrId=308
5. Seeds of Suicide: the ecological and Human Costs of Seed Monopolies and Globalisation of Agriculture (revised fourth edition, May 2006). By Dr. Vandana Shiva and Kunwar Jalees. Published by Navdanya, A 60 Haus Khas, New Delhi, 110 016 India. Phone + 91 11 696 8077, 685 3772; fax + 91 11 685 6793, 656 2093. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.navdanya.org, www.vshiva.net.
6. See note 5 above.
7. For background on the WTO GMO trade dispute, see www.gmfreeireland.org/wto.
8. See note 7 above.
9. The WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the "SPS Agreement") entered into force with the establishment of the World Trade Organization on 1 January 1995. It concerns the application of food safety and animal and plant health regulations. For details see www.wto.org/English/tratop_e/sps_e/spsund_e.htm