Food and Agriculture

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Reports on food dumping, genetically engineered foods and biopiracy

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Corn Crisis

The impact of U.S. food policy on Mexican farmers

By Oxfam International

Corn is the basis of our culture, our identity, adaptability and diversity. Corn created us, and we created corn.”
Exhibition Sin maí­z, no hay paí­s, or Without corn, there is no country

Mexico City, 2003

“We are only able to subsidize Mexican corn with the lives of the people that produce it. The only way we can compete with North American prices is to give up the basic necessities.”
 Ví­ctor Suí¡rez, executive director of the National Association of Rural Producers’ Enterprises (ANEC)

José Guadalupe Rodríguez is a corn producer in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Until recently, his corn crop guaranteed his family a minimum income and allowed them to store part of the harvest for the family’s consumption throughout the year. They could pay for food and education, and for treatments when the children fell ill. However, in the last few years the situation has changed: “While the price of corn has fallen, the cost of producing it has hit the roof,” says José. “We no longer have enough for our family.”

José is just one of nearly three million corn producers in Mexico for whom the drop in prices since 1994 has had a devastating impact on their livelihoods, and that of their families. Corn also has huge symbolic significance in Mexico: the country was the birthplace of corn, and hundreds of varieties have been grown in Mexico for 10,000 years. The impoverishment of the Mexican countryside, and the corn crisis, have mobilized large elements of Mexican civil society. In January 2003, the protest movement “El Campo No Aguanta Más” (“The Countryside Can’t Take It Any More”) organized a march of more than 100,000 rural workers in Mexico City.

At the heart of the corn crisis is an influx of corn imports from the United States at artificially low prices. The trigger for this was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994, which opened up Mexican markets for U.S. goods. Yet a suggestion by the Mexican government that it might re-impose tariffs on products such as corn has provoked some heavy-handed language from the United States. Various members of the U.S. Congress have warned Mexico that any attempt to renegotiate NAFTA would be unacceptable. A complaint has been brought against Mexico in the World Trade Organization for bringing anti-dumping measures in the rice and beef sectors. Such bullying makes it all the more imperative that the WTO agrees to multilateral trade rules which work for poor rural producers across the world. It should eliminate agricultural dumping and guarantee developing countries a right to protect key sectors of their economy such as agriculture.

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Dumping on Farmers
The village of Comalapas, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, is one of the poorest in the country. Over the last few years, travel agencies have sprung up on its main street, offering just one destination: northern states such as Tijuana, which borders the United States. Such “agencies” offer a range of services, from a bus ticket to the border to a plane ticket with a job in the United States thrown in.


Comalapas exemplifies a shocking national reality: at least 300,000 Mexican workers are forced to immigrate to the United States every year.  Many of them come from the rural sector, where recent trade policies have devastated rural livelihoods. One in two Mexicans in rural areas lives in extreme poverty. In the southern states—Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, where many families depend on corn—70 percent live in extreme poverty (Wodon, López-Acevedo, and Siaens, 2003).


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The falling income of Mexican corn producers in the 1990s has undermined the food security of the rural population and their access to basic social services such as health care and education. Despite the fact that most rural families eat mainly corn and black beans, the fall in prices is forcing them to sell all their corn harvest, whereas they would usually keep some back for their own consumption. Eating meat and fish is exceptional. Occasionally some families supplement their diet with chicken and vegetables that they grow themselves.



The collapse in prices has affected the diet of poor communities in another way: women now have to work outside the home to top up their family’s income, which means that they cannot grind home-grown corn to make tortillas (the staple element of the local diet) in the way they used to. As a result, many families eat tortillas made from corn flour sold by large companies, which is often made from imported grain. The flour is widely available, but of poor quality. A typical complaint is that “this corn…doesn’t fill me up. Even a kilo of tortillas for lunch isn’t enough” (Alfonso, a laborer from Guadalupe Victoria (Puebla)).

The crisis in the corn sector has pushed health care further out of reach for many poor families. Simply treating a child with bronchitis can cost one third of a family’s annual earnings from the sale of corn. As public health centers are scarce and badly equipped, many producers turn to private treatment, even though it is more expensive.

Although education is free, most families cannot meet the cost of basic equipment such as stationery and uniforms, and children, especially girls, leave after completing primary school to work.

As a result of these social pressures, many choose to leave their villages, and often their families, in search of work in other parts of Mexico, or in the United States. One of the effects in the communities they leave behind is that land is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few owners. The municipality of Nueva Linda, in Chiapas, divided up its 300 hectares among its members, following land reform in 1992. Today, 90 percent of its members, many forced to immigrate, have sold their lands to the local political bosses.

The pressure on producers to compete with subsidized corn imports, and the increased penetration of large companies in the Mexican corn sector, has also had serious environmental consequences. Farmers have traditionally used locally adapted strains of corn seed, or “criolla” seeds, bred over generations, to ensure that the plant is well suited to native growing conditions. However, the Mexican government has supported companies such as Monsanto to distribute “hybrid” seeds, which they claim give higher yields. The government-sponsored “kilo for kilo” program encouraged corn producers to trade in a kilo of their criolla seeds for a kilo of hybrid seeds. But the benefits are largely illusory: farmers must purchase hybrid seeds every planting season, as the seeds are much less productive after the first year, unlike criolla seeds, which can be saved and used from year to year.

In addition, hybrid seeds require more fertilizers and other chemicals. In Chiapas, the intensive use of insecticides without training, instructions, or protective clothing has led to severe health problems. According to Nino, a member of the Carranza group of producers in southern Chiapas, “before, there weren’t even any pests. Now people are ill the whole time due to these liquids.” Often the seeds are provided mixed in with a powdered insecticide which it is difficult to wash off, and which then contaminates the farmer’s food.

Distorting the Competition
The United States is the largest exporter of corn both globally and to Mexico. For most Mexican producers, it is an uphill battle to compete with the influx of cheap corn from their powerful neighbor. Such producers are pitted against a sector, which receives huge payments from the U.S. government, and is controlled by just a handful of agribusiness companies.

Corn is the United States’ leading crop, both in terms of the area that is planted and the value of production. Production has risen steadily over the past 30 years, aided by an array of factors including scientific and technological innovations. However, the sector is distinctive in that it is the largest single recipient of U.S. government payments,  and is heavily dominated by a few agribusiness giants, such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). While government support measures are not the only influence on corn production and prices, this issue is most pertinent in the international arena, where reductions in government payments to agriculture are up for discussion at the WTO.

U.S. agricultural policy has been deliberately tailored over the last twenty years to generate a surplus for export, and to provide adequate incomes for U.S. farmers. However, the export of corn at artificially low prices is destroying the livelihoods of small farmers in developing countries. Meanwhile, the benefits of the U.S. subsidies system go disproportionately to very large farmers, while small U.S. farmers lose out.

Excerpted with permission from “Dumping Without Borders: How US agricultural policies are destroying the livelihoods of Mexican corn farmers,” Oxfam International, 2003.  

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Corporate Crops

Planting the seeds of health, environmental and economic hazards

By Don Fitz

As drought plagued southern Africa in summer 2002, biotech companies lost no time in exploiting hunger for profit. The United States offered to “help” by donating food from crops containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms). But African scientists knew there was a catch. They had seen demonstrations showing that Europe wanted no part of the technology. They knew that GMOs were associated with health and environmental dangers. Worst of all, they were aware that if genetically modified (GM) seed was planted in Africa, the next generation of GM plants could result in farmers owing “technology fees” to biomaster Monsanto.

 Countries throughout Africa denounced the food-for-control ploy. But U.S. spokespersons brayed that African leaders were letting their people starve. After massive U.S. bullying, most African countries agreed to accept GM corn if it was milled (ground so that seeds could not be planted). But Zambia refused GM food of any kind. The conflict scored a tremendous moral victory in exposing the cynical complicity of the U.S. government in fronting for corporate greed.

Opposing GMOs
For decades, biologists have known that a gene can be removed from a cell, modified, and reinserted into the same cell or into a different cell from another species. As the technology developed rapidly during the 1980s and 1990s, scientists warned that the process was inherently risky. Critics spelled out in detail the range of health, environmental and social problems that genetic “engineering” could bring.

In 1998, many of those critics came together for “The First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering.” The gathering was in St. Louis, the hometown of Monsanto. Monsanto is the world’s most aggressive proponent of GMOs. The company’s spokespeople claim that genetic engineering is necessary to feed the world’s growing population.

At the 1998 meeting, researchers explained how shooting a gene into an inexact location in a foreign species produces unpredictable results. Farm advocates spoke of how genetic engineering produces lower yield, not the higher yield promised by Monsanto. Health experts warned that genetic engineering is used to allow greater quantities of herbicides, which affects the health of farm workers. Genetically engineered foods produce toxic reactions as well as food allergies, which are most serious in children.

Those at the event learned how genes can escape from domestic crops to their wild relatives, giving weeds immunity to herbicides. Genetically engineered microorganisms can unpredictably kill crops and genetically engineered plants can harm wildlife.

Vandana Shiva [of the Foundation for Science, Technology & Ecology] pulled the diverse knowledge together, explaining the way genetic engineering is used by corporations to monopolize the seed supply and raise the cost of farming so that agribusiness can consolidate its control worldwide.

Biotech Backlash
Biotech proponents have frenetically sought to silence criticism as they shriek that corporate-funded research is the only road to scientific truth. When he began his investigations, Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland was neither for nor against genetic engineering. But when results of his own studies showed that rats fed genetically engineered potatoes had damaged internal organs, he felt compelled in 1998 to warn the public. He was involuntarily retired from his position and condemned in a report by the British Royal Society.

In 2001, the journal Nature published findings of University of California researcher Ignacio Chapela showing that genetically contaminated corn cross-pollinated with native Mexican species hundreds of miles away. For the first time in its distinguished history, Nature bowed so low to corporate greed that it printed a retraction of Chapela’s article (based on methodological disagreements which did not challenge the finding of cross-pollination).

About the same time, the world became aware of the plight of Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. Monsanto’s corporate police had trespassed on Schmeiser’s fields to steal canola plants for testing. Monsanto sued Schmeiser for patent violations when genetic testing showed the presence of Roundup Ready Canola DNA. The court ruled in Monsanto’s favor, declaring irrelevant Schmeiser’s testimony that he never used the Monsanto product and that wind-blown pollen had contaminated his fields. [That decision was recently upheld by Canada’s Supreme Court.]

Fostering Food Dependency 
These events set the stage for countries of southern Africa saying “No GMOs” in the summer of 2002. One of the most eloquent spokespersons on the dangers of GMOs to Africa has been Ethiopia’s Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, a winner of a Right Livelihood Award in 2000. Egziabher believes that, even though global warming is making droughts more frequent, Ethiopia is able to feed itself by storing surplus food during bumper harvests. Hunger is due to the country’s being too poor to ship stored food from one location to another. International food aid agencies could assist impoverished African countries with cash donations that would help develop their transportation systems as well as strengthen local farms.

Egziabher fears that economic dependency on GM food from the United States is fraught with health, environmental and patent dangers. One of the main GM crops is corn. Donated GM food could become the entire diet of starving people, as opposed to only a portion of food eaten by those in other parts of the world. This means that any long-term effects of allergenicity, cancer, or birth defects (which have not been adequately studied), could be multiplied for victims of famine.

What would happen if African farmers saved GM seed and replanted it? GM pollen is known to kill butterflies, which are important pollinators for African crops. GM crops have lower yield, since they are designed for farmers who can afford large amounts of pesticides. Many animals refuse to eat stems and leaves of GM corn. If pigs eat GM food, their reproductive capacity can be reduced.

Despite the treatment of Chapela by Nature, African scientists know that wind can spread GM pollen across the continent. If that contaminates enough African crops, Europe would not buy them, leaving desperate farmers crushed.

African governments also know of the Percy Schmeiser case. If fields are contaminated by GM pollen and the next generation of corn tests positive for GMOs, farmers would become patent violators and owe technology fees to Monsanto and other biomasters. Massive impoverishment could cause the transfer of land throughout Africa.

A Growing Movement
The 1998 Biodevastation Gathering sparked subsequent events in Seattle, New Delhi, Boston, San Diego and Toronto. The anti-genetic-engineering  (GE) movement has won the hearts and minds of Europe and India, and support from governments in southern Africa. In the United States, there’s a strong alliance between anti-GE activists, farm organizations, and the anti-globalization movement. Now is the time for the anti-GE movement to reach out to social justice, peace and environmental movements. 

Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought. This article is excerpted, with permission from the author, from the article, “Genetic Engineering and Environmental Racism,” Synthesis/Regeneration, No. 31, Spring 2003.

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Predatory Patents

Biopiracy and the privatization of global resources

By Hope Shand

The primary stewards of the world’s biodiversity are the farmers, Indigenous peoples and local communities, primarily in the global South, who developed, nurtured and continue to use these resources today. Rural poor people in the global South rely on biological products (i.e., derived from plants, animals and microorganism) for an estimated 85 to 90 percent of their livelihood needs. More than 1.4 billion rural people depend on farm-saved seeds and local plant breeding as their primary seed source. More than three-quarters of the world’s population rely on traditional medicines for their primary health needs.

Given that the majority of livelihoods in the global South are dependent on biodiversity, losing control over these resources is one of the biggest threats to Indigenous peoples and traditional communities. This loss is occurring through a phenomenon known as biopiracy.

What is Biopiracy? 
Biopiracy refers to the privatization of genetic resources—whether derived from plants, animals, microorganisms or humans—or related knowledge. Individuals and corporations are using intellectual property laws, which include trademarks, patents and Plant Breeders’ Rights, to gain monopoly control over such resources. The privatization of biological resources and related knowledge constitutes biopiracy, even though this process may be legal under national law, and even if it includes a so-called “benefit sharing” agreement. (Benefit-sharing typically means that providers of genetic resources get a portion of the benefits, monetary and non-monetary, resulting from the use of their resources.)

The rights of farmers and Indigenous peoples are eroding as biological products and processes become subject to exclusive monopoly control under intellectual property systems. Both industrial patents and Plant Breeders’ Rights, for example, increasingly criminalize seed saving; prohibit research using proprietary seeds; and restrict access to and exchange of seeds, plants or breeding materials. Worse still, once a resource is privatized, it is likely that a community will no longer have the legal right to use it, may no longer be able to afford to buy it, and may lose the power to decide how it is used.

Case in Point: Mexican Yellow Bean
In 1994, Larry Proctor, the owner of a U.S.-based seed company, purchased a bag of commercial bean seeds in Sonora, Mexico.  He carried the beans back to the United States, where he picked out the yellow-colored beans, planted them and allowed them to self-pollinate. Two years later, Proctor applied for and won a U.S. patent on any dry bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) having a seed color of a particular shade of yellow.  He also obtained a plant variety protection certificate on the yellow bean variety he called “Enola.” In late 1999, armed with the patent and breeders’ right certificate, Proctor sued two companies that sell Mexican beans in the United States, charging that they were infringing upon his patent monopoly. As a result, shipments of Mexican yellow beans have been routinely stopped at the U.S. border, forcing Mexican bean farmers to forfeit valuable export income. In November 2001, Proctor also filed a suit against 16 small bean seed companies and farmers in Colorado.

Proctor’s yellow bean patent has not gone unchallenged, however. In December 2000 the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) filed a formal request for re-examination of U.S. patent no. 5,894,079—also known as the yellow bean or “Enola bean” patent—with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) in Washington, D.C. CIAT is an international plant breeding institute that maintains a gene bank containing more than 27,000 samples of Phaseolus seeds collected from farmers’ fields, including beans that are identical to Proctor’s patented yellow bean. CIAT legally challenged the patent to keep these beans in the public domain.

Furthermore, plant geneticists recently performed genetic fingerprinting of Proctor’s patented yellow bean and found that it is identical to a bean variety of Mexican origin.  Nevertheless, more than three years since the patent was challenged, the PTO has not issued a final ruling. And even if the PTO decides to overturn the patent, the Patent Office makes no provision to compensate Mexican or U.S. farmers who suffered damages as a result of the unjust monopoly.

Patents and Monopoly Power
The yellow bean controversy starkly illustrates the power of exclusive monopoly patents to block agricultural imports, to disrupt or destroy export markets for Third World farmers, and to legally appropriate staple food crops or sacred medicinal plants. But it’s only one example: South Asian basmati, Bolivian quinoa, Amazonian ayahuasca, Peruvian maca and Indian chickpeas have all been subject to intellectual property claims that are predatory on the knowledge and genetic resources of Indigenous peoples and farming communities.

The 10-year-old United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)—a treaty created to conserve biodiversity and promote fair and equitable benefit sharing—has failed to adopt meaningful regulations to stop biopiracy. By encouraging bilateral deals and contracts (often called “bioprospecting” agreements) that are linked to intellectual property and the concept of benefit sharing, the CBD has essentially facilitated the monopolization of biological resources. According to Alejandro Argumedo of the Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Network, “Equitable benefit sharing is not achievable in the context of predatory patent regimes and in the absence of regulatory mechanisms that safeguard the rights and interests of farmers, Indigenous peoples and local communities.”

Battling Biopiracy
Fortunately, there is a global movement of resistance to biopiracy. A growing number of people’s organizations, institutions and governments have condemned biopiracy, defeated predatory patents, and defended the intellectual integrity of farmers and Indigenous peoples. At the last three meetings of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, civil society and Indigenous people’s organizations hosted the “Captain Hook Awards” ceremony ( to highlight the most egregious cases of biopiracy, and to demonstrate that the CBD has done nothing to stop it.

The ceremony has also celebrated peoples’ organizations and others who have resisted biopiracy. For example, Indigenous peoples in Mexico were recognized in 2002 for defeating the U.S. government's $2.5 million bioprospecting project in Chiapas. And a coalition of Peruvian farmer and Indigenous people’s organizations were honored this year for opposing patent claims by U.S.-based PureWorld, Inc., on maca, a traditional Andean food and medicinal crop.

At the international level there is also growing recognition that patent regimes require urgent societal review, and that property “rights” must not be allowed to trample human rights. The U.N. Human Rights Commission has identified intellectual property as an obstacle to the rights of poor people in the global South. In 2002, an independent commission in the United Kingdom concluded that intellectual property rights impose costs on most developing countries—and do not reduce poverty.

Ultimately, the most important way to stop biopiracy is to strengthen and protect the control of local communities over the biodiversity they nurture, and to resist legal systems, international treaties or contract agreements that seek to privatize our rich biodiversity. 

Hope Shand is research director of the ETC Group (formerly known as RAFI) , an international civil society organization that is dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights (

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