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Why Iraqi Farmers Might Prefer Death to Paul Bremer's Order 81

Heard about the thousands of farmer suicides in India? Well, Iraqi farmers may be next thanks to the work of U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer and his Monsanto friends.
 
 
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Anyone hearing about central India's ongoing epidemic of farmer suicides, where growers are killing themselves at a terrifying clip, has to be horrified. But among the more disturbed must be the once-grand poobah of post-invasion Iraq, U.S. diplomat L. Paul Bremer.

Why Bremer? Because Indian farmers are choosing death after finding themselves caught in a loop of crop failure and debt rooted in genetically modified and patented agriculture -- the same farming model that Bremer introduced to Iraq during his tenure as administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American body that ruled the "new Iraq" in its chaotic early days.

In his 400 days of service as CPA administrator, Bremer issued a series of directives known collectively as the "100 Orders." Bremer's orders set up the building blocks of the new Iraq, and among them is Order 81 [PDF], officially titled Amendments to Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety Law, enacted by Bremer on April 26, 2004.

Order 81 generated very little press attention when it was issued. And what coverage it did spark tended to get the details wrong. Reports claimed that what the United States' man in Iraq had done was no less than tell each and every Iraqi farmer -- growers who had been tilling the soil of Mesopotamia for thousands of years -- that from here on out they could not reuse seeds from their fields or trade seeds with their neighbors, but instead they would be required to purchase all of their seeds from the likes of U.S. agriculture conglomerates like Monsanto.

That's not quite right. Order 81 wasn't that draconian, and it was not so clearly a colonial mandate. In fact, the edict was more or less a legal tweak.

What Order 81 did was to establish the strong intellectual property protections on seed and plant products that a company like the St. Louis-based Monsanto -- purveyors of genetically modified (GM) seeds and other patented agricultural goods -- requires before they'll set up shop in a new market like the new Iraq. With these new protections, Iraq was open for business. In short, Order 81 was Bremer's way of telling Monsanto that the same conditions had been created in Iraq that had led to the company's stunning successes in India.

In issuing Order 81, Bremer didn't order Iraqi farmers to march over to the closest Monsanto-supplied shop and stock up. But if Monsanto's experience in India is any guide, he didn't need to.

Here's the way it works in India. In the central region of Vidarbha, for example, Monsanto salesmen travel from village to village touting the tremendous, game-changing benefits of Bt cotton, Monsanto's genetically modified seed sold in India under the Bollgard® label. The salesmen tell farmers of the amazing yields other Vidarbha growers have enjoyed while using their products, plastering villages with posters detailing "True Stories of Farmers Who Have Sown Bt Cotton." Old-fashioned cotton seeds pale in comparison to Monsanto's patented wonder seeds, say the salesmen, as much as an average old steer is humbled by a fine Jersey cow.

Part of the trick to Bt cotton's remarkable promise, say the salesmen, is that Bollgard® was genetically engineered in the lab to contain bacillus thuringiensis , a bacterium that the company claims drastically reduces the need for pesticides. When pesticides are needed, Bt cotton plants are Roundup® Ready -- a Monsanto designation meaning that the plants can be drowned in the company's signature herbicide, none the worse for wear. (Roundup® mercilessly kills nonengineered plants.)

Sounds great, right? The catch is that Bollgard® and Roundup® cost real money. And so Vidarbha's farmers, somewhat desperate to grow the anemic profit margin that comes with raising cotton in that dry and dusty region, have rushed to both banks and local moneylenders to secure the cash needed to get on board with Monsanto. Of a $3,000 bank loan a Vidarbha farmer might take out, as much as half might go to purchasing a growing season's worth of Bt seeds.

And the same goes the next season, and the next season after that. In traditional agricultural, farmers can recycle seeds from one harvest to plant the next, or swap seeds with their neighbors at little or no cost. But when it comes to engineered seeds like Bt cotton, Monsanto owns the tiny speck of intellectual property inside each hull, and thus controls the patent. And a farmer wishing to reuse seeds from a Monsanto plant must pay to relicense them from the company each and every growing season.

But farmers who chose to bet the farm, literally, on Bt cotton or other GM seeds aren't necessarily crazy or deluded. Genetically modified agricultural does hold the tremendous promise of leading to increased yields -- incredibly important for farmers feeding their families and communities from limited land and labor.

But when it comes to GM seeds, all's well when all is well. Farming is a gamble, and the flip side of the great potential reward that genetically modified seeds offer is, of course, great risk. When all goes badly, farmers who have sunk money into Monsanto-driven farming find themselves at the bottom of a far deeper hole than farmers who stuck with traditional growing. Farmers who suffer a failed harvest may find it nearly impossible to secure a new loan from either a bank or local moneylender. With no money to dig him or herself out, that hole only gets deeper.

And that hole is exactly where farmers have found themselves in India's Vidarbha region, where crop failure -- especially the failure of Bt cotton crops -- has reached the level of pandemic.

In may be that Bt cotton isn't well-suited to central India's rain-driven farming methods; Bollgard® and parched Vidarbha may be as ill-suited as Bremer's combat boots and Brooks Brothers suits. It may be the unpredictable and unusually dry monsoon seasons that have plagued India of late. But in any case, the result is that more and more of India's farmers are finding themselves in debt, and with little hope for finding their way out.

And the final way out that so many of them -- thousands upon thousands -- have chosen is death, and by their own hands. Firm statistics are difficult to come by, but even numbers on the low end of the scale are downright horrifying. The Indian government and NGOs have estimated that, so far this year, at last count more than a thousand farmers have killed themselves in the state of Maharashtra alone. The New York Times pinned it as 17,000 Indian farmers in 2003 alone. A PBS special that aired last month, called " The Dying Fields," claimed that one farmer commits suicide in Vidarbha every eight hours.

But let's not be so pessimistic for a moment, and say that Iraqi farmers see the risks of investing in unproven GM seeds. Let's say they reject the idea that the intellectual property buried inside the seeds they plant is "owned" not by nature, but by Monsanto. Let's say they decide to keep on keeping on with nonengineered, nonpatented agriculture.

The fact is, they may not have a choice.

Here is where Order 81 starts to look a lot like the forced and mandatory GM-driven agricultural system that cynics tagged it as when it was first announced. Read the letter of the law, and the impact of Order 81 seems limited to using public policy to construct an architecture that's simply favorable to a company like Monsanto. The directive promotes a corporate agribusiness model a lot like the one we have in the United States today, but it doesn't really and truly put Monsanto in the driver's seat of that system.

Actually handing the keys to Monsanto is instead biology's job.

Biology -- how so? That's a good question for Percy Schmeiser, the Saskatchewan farmer featured in the film The Future of Food, who found himself tangled with Monsanto in a heated lawsuit over the presence of Roundup® Ready canola plants on the margins of his fields.

The Canadian farmer argued that he had purchased no Monsanto canola seeds, had never planted Monsanto seeds, and was frankly horrified to find that the genetically modified crops had taken hold in his acreage. Perhaps, suggested Schmeiser, the plants in question were the product of a few rogue GM seeds blown from a truck passing by his land?

Monsanto was uninterested in Schmeiser's theory on how the Roundup® Ready plants got there. As far as the company was concerned, Schmeiser was in possession of an agricultural product whose intellectual property belonged to Monsanto. And it didn't matter much how that came to pass.

Monsanto's interpretation of the impact of seed contamination is, of course, a good one if its goal is to eventually own the rights to the world's seed supply. And that goal may well be in sight. In fact, a 2004 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that much of the U.S. seed pool is already contaminated by GM seeds. If that contamination continues unabated, eventually much of the world's seeds could labor under patents controlled by one agribusiness or another.

In one agricultural realm like Iraq's, GM contamination could in short order give a company like Monsanto a stranglehold over the market. Post-Order 81 Iraqi farmers who want to resist genetically modified seeds and stick to traditional farming methods may not have that choice. Future generations of Iraqi growers may find that one seed shop in Karbala is selling the same patented seeds as every other shop in town.

And when that happens, what had been a traditional farming community -- where financial risk is divided and genetic diversity multiplied through the simple interactions between neighboring farmers -- finds itself nothing more than the home to lone farmers caught up in the high-stakes world of international agribusiness.

It's a world not unfamiliar to former CPA honcho Bremer, if the company he keeps is any indication. Robert Cohen, author of the book Milk A-Z, talks about the Bush administration as the "Monsanto Cabinet."

Among the many connections between that company and the current White House: Former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman served on the board of directors of Calgene, a Monsanto subsidiary; one-time Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld had an eight-year stint as president of Searle, another Monsanto subsidiary; Clarence Thomas worked as an attorney in Monsanto's pesticide and agriculture division before coming to the Supreme Court as a George H.W. Bush appointee.

Those connections, as much as anything else, might help to explain the impetus behind and timing of Order 81. Let's suppose for a minute that GM-driven globalized agriculture is, indeed, in the long-term best interests of the new Iraq. Even in the best of circumstances, such a significant policy shift in so core an economic sector can be expected to cause short-term pain. When Bremer issued the directive, Iraq was hardly in a good place: It had recently been invaded, its government dismantled. Considering the desperate need for immediate stability in Iraq in April 2004, Order 81 begins to look like the triumph of connections and ideology over clear-headed policymaking.

In India, seed activists like Vandana Shiva are working to weaken the connection between that world of U.S. agribusiness and the farmers in villages and towns across India. Shiva, featured in the PBS special The Dying Fields, implores local farmers to stop forking over their money to commercial seed producers and return to the days of homegrown seeds. While Monsanto sells seeds that become India's corn, rice, potatoes, and tomatoes, it's cotton where Monsanto is king, as Shiva well knows. "You have become addicted to Bt cotton," she chides farmers. Though if the perpetuation of the GMO-seed/crop-failure cycle is any indication, few Indian farmers are listening.

Will Iraqi farmers making their way in the new post-Order 81 agricultural world fare any better? Maybe. Can they manage to reap the benefits of genetically modified farming, trading their newfound dependence on Monsanto and other corporate behemoths for the increased yield their patented and IP-protected seeds promise? Hopefully.

But it's possible that Iraq's farmers will indeed find themselves in the same predicament that India's farmers have ended up in -- a world where growers no longer rely upon their fields and their communities to meet their needs but in a world in which, when hard times strike, the only way out seems like the final exit. A world in which, in a twist perhaps worthy of Shakespeare, the farmer borrows one last time from whatever bank or moneylender will hand over a few last rupees, buys one last bottle of Roundup®, and -- as has happened so many times in India -- ends it all by drinking it down.

Monsanto to the end.

Nancy Scola is a Brooklyn-based writer and chief blogger for Air America . Before focusing fully on writing, Nancy served on Capitol Hill under Rep. Henry Waxman of California and was an aide to former Governor Mark Warner as he explored a run for the presidency.

 
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