The Multinational Monitor


N E W S   M O N I T O R

Beware the seed merchants

by Baljit Malir and Anna Lloyd

Oil and agro-chemical multinationals are gradually, almost imperceptibly, taking over the breeding, production, and marketing of the world's seed supply. This trend is encouraging a wider use of new, high--yield, fertilizer responsive crop varieties-with especially serious implications for Asian agriculture.

The firm Royal Dutch Shell already controls more than 30 seed companies in Europe, and just four companies-Dekalb, Pioneer, Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy-control two--thirds of the hybrid maize and sorghum market in the United States. Multinationals are now making a bid to move into the growing agribusiness market to be found in the Third World.

By taking over the "new seed" market in addition to fertilizers and pesticides, these conglomerates are gaining a hold on the entire food production system. But the Green Revolution they are promoting is plagued with shortcomings. One problem is already widely recognized: the paradox that an increase in food production has not been matched by an increase in per-capita food consumption.

Other consequences of introducing new high-yield varieties of rice, wheat, coconut and other crops are less well known-the most dangerous being the genetic erosion that is taking place in industrialized as well as developing countries. Genetic diversity is essential to a secure and stable food system, but that diversity is seriously threatened by the indiscriminate introduction of hybrid, fertilizer-dependent crop varieties that are rarely suitable for cultivation in local conditions. For relatively prosperous farmers, however, the new varieties can be attractive: yields can be dramatically high, and although the crops consume large quantities of energy, government subsidies usually ensure a high profit margin.

Most Asian countries have committed themselves to the use of these high-yield varieties, in effect introducing a food production system designed for temperate zones into tropical and sub-tropical zones. A particular problem of these new seed varieties is that they encourage monoculture in the agricultural system. Monoculture can arguably work with fewer detrimental effects in a temperate climate where there are fewer species of plants to begin with, but the stakes are far higher in tropical areas that have an intricate plant and climatic ecology. Asia, in fact, has a harsh physical environment marked by extremes of drought, floods, and low soil fertility-conditions that have produced especially hardy crop varieties. (Many traditional varieties of seeds have been known to produce crops in conditions where the new high-yield seeds have completely failed.) But now the traditional seed varieties are threatened with extinction by the new fertilizer-hungry seeds.

In India, for instance, 100,000 tons of certified wheat seed was earmarked for production for the 1977-78 winter crop season. Of this, just one variety, "Sonalika," made up 65,000 tons and another, "Kalyanasona," 20,000 tons. Both of these varieties have a narrow genetic base, and crop losses of up to 2.5 million tons per season have been reported. Meanwhile, the Indian government has decided to import three million tons of wheat from the U.S. over the next two years. And there is virtually no effort at an official level to produce seeds of traditional varieties, even though large tracts of land in India are still not covered by the high--yield varieties.

In the Philippines, a national coconut replanting program is reportedly now in progress, with the goal of replanting all 2.9 million hectares of the Philippine's coconut farms by the year 2020. The variety which has been chosen is a high--yield variety called "Mawa." The replanting program has been criticized on the grounds that planting one homogeneous variety could lead to the loss of the entire coconut crop should the variety fall prey to disease or pests.

The new seeds admittedly do produce more food in areas with highly developed infrastructures-but the necessary irrigation facilities, credit and marketing networks, and subsidies are precisely what is lacking in developing countries. What's more, the financial resources required to invest in such infrastructure are simply not available there.

But despite the fact that high--yield varieties are unsuitable for resource-poor farmers, who form the majority of cultivators in developing countries, the illusion exists that the cultivation of these varieties can lead to self-reliance and self-sufficiency. The Indian example is a telling one, however. While the country has partly overcome the need to import food grains, the import level of nitrogenous fertilizers increased from 235,000 tons in 1964-65 to 1,228 tons in 1978-79.

Indian plant breeders are fully aware that in the long--run, the western model of food production is far beyond the means of their national economy. Attempts are being made to replace industrial nitrogen with economy-saving nitrogen fixation techniques. But political pressure from farmer lobbies in high production areas, from the growing fertilizer industry, and from the powerful plant breeders and bureaucrats who are initiating and promoting the Green Revolution, is effectively preventing an overall change in strategy.

The illusion of self-sufficiency is similar in the Philippines. While the rice fields there have lost thousands of native varieties, there are increased stocks of rice available for consumption through the public and private distribution system. But in order to produce the high--yield varieties of rice, the country had to increase its fertilizer imports from 101.2 million tons in the mid 1950s to 563 million tons in 1973--during a time when there was a four-fold increase in the world price for fertilizers.

Baljit Malit and Anna Lloyd are writers with the Alternative News Service in India.

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