The Seed Gestapo and Third World Farmers


November 17, 2006


Browse in Agriculture Intellectual Property

In my wife’s dialect of kari-ya, which is spoken on the island of Panay, in the Philippines, there is a word binhi, which refers to the grains of rice that are set aside and used as seeds in the next planting season.  There is a knack to choosing these.  You want plump grains with no blemishes. Every farmer knows how to do it, and usually their families too.

This is not a quaint Third World custom.  Seeds are independence, and survival. “When you have rice under the house,” my wife’s father says, “you do not have worries.”  When you have seeds, then you will have rice, given just a little cooperation from nature.   Those days might be numbered, though. The creep of “intellectual property” – which is the stalking horse for corporate control – into the fields of peasant farmers,  is making their independence a thing of the past, and has put their survival into question.

The latest evidence comes from Indonesia, where small-scale corn farmers have been hauled into court for exercising their traditional right to produce their own seeds.  The facts of the cases are somewhat complicated.  But according to a report in Grain the story basically is as follows.

In one case, a farmer by the name of Tukirin, along with a number of others, was enlisted by the local government to take part in a seed-breeding project with a major Indonesian seed company called PT BISI . Tukirin was told only that he would be taught how to breed seeds.  He bought seeds from a local supplier while PT BISI provided male counterparts.

The company bought the new seeds that resulted and sold them under its own label.  The farmers never signed a legal agreement.

The project lasted about four years.  Several years later Turkirin decided to breed seeds on his own. Farmers make a very small profit, if any; thus any savings in input costs is important.  He bought seeds in shops, used his own improvised methods and produced enough new ones that he could sell some to neighbors for less than the going rate. The seeds were not as good as the ones from PT BISI but they were adequate.

Soon thereafter, PT BISI dragged him into court and accused him of marketing seeds without certification. The government was complicit in the case and helped at every turn. Turkirin didn’t have a lawyer and didn’t understand the law; he ended up getting a six month prison sentence, which the judge suspended.  He was not permitted to plant his own seeds for one year.

Turkirin is not the only farmer who has been sandbagged in this way. Others have as well. It seems clear the government is working with the seed companies to strong-arm farmers into buying seeds instead of producing them themselves.  So doing, it is paving the way for GMO seeds and the jackboot legal regime that comes with them.  (In the U.S., Monsanto has sicced its lawyers on hundreds of farmers for “patent infringement”, often when the patented seeds in question simply blew into their fields.)

These Third World farmers are doing simply what farmers have done since time immemorial – saving seeds to plant the next year.  They are adding to this process their own ingenuity and enterprise in trying to make the seeds better.  This capacity is a form of “capital” in the western parlance. It is something that they own, their knowledge and skill, that they can use for their own sustenance and survival.

Now private seed corporations, with the help of governments, are rendering that capital useless.  In effect they are expropriating it with the help of government.  Why is that not a “taking” that requires compensation?  (To the contrary farmers actually have to pay a legal penalty for the privilege of being expropriated from.)  Why is it okay for corporations to seize the property of farmers in this way, but not okay for farmers to use the property of a Monsanto?

(The Bush administration showed what it really meant by “democracy” in Iraq when itdecreed, before Iraqis themselves took over, that multinational seed companies would have the authority to do this there. Apparently when it comes to corporate prerogitive, Iraqis could not be trusted to make decisions for themselves.)

You know the famous line from Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges , to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Now it’s worse; the law actually enables the rich to steal seed-production capacity from the poor.  In other contexts this is called “pulling up the ladder.”  When corporations are involved it’s called “intellectual property rights”.

It is also a form of cultural lock-down.  When a farmer buys seeds in order to tinker and create new ones, he or she is only doing what Elvis did with the songs of  B.B. King, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and other African American Bluesmen. As Elvis once told an interviewer:

The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now and I said if I ever got to a place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”

It’s the same thing Disney has done with such stories as Pinocchio and Snow White, and what seed companies themselves do when they lift genetic material from nature and goose it up a little.  Invention starts from a common base, That’s how knowledge and culture grow – and it’s this process the corporate seed Gestapo wants to bring to a halt.

So it is that independent  producers become captive ones, and then passive consumers.  That’s the model: they make, we buy.  To own seeds and culture is to own the future, because where else does the future come from?  If we don’t fight it then we had better get used to it.