This last weekend just before Eid wasn’t a happy one for Monsanto. Not just farmers and peasants, but also consumers at large, concerned citizens and activists demanded protection of the food supply, health and environment “from poison, corruption and domination." They poured into the streets in over 500 cities in a globally co-ordinated ‘March against Monsanto’ in over 50 countries around the world – mostly in the US and Europe, followed by Latin America, Africa and India, where most damage has been done.
The roots of this global march lay in an earlier backroom deal by the Monsanto and biotech lobby. In March, a ‘rider’ deceptively titled “Farmer Assurance Provision”, was slipped into Senate while most legislators were absent, to be ultimately sneaked into the US Farmers Bill and the Agriculture Appropriations Bill.
The legislation had nothing to assure independent farmers with; it was to provide corporate interests with blanket immunity from any official action against any GMOs under review -- even if proven that they posed dangers to human health or the environment! In other words, even if government or civil society brought charges against sale and propagation of GMOs and seeds, the federal courts would have no authority to hear them. It went through.
It was not just a hit at family agriculture; it was striking at democracy itself. Needless to say, such immunity on American soil was bound to have economic, trade and social repercussions all over the world. As it is, Russia has already allowed GMOs; last August, a top court lifted a ban on GM corn which had been in place in France since March 2012. Even though, this July, in the face of widespread opposition, Monsanto gave up trying to push more GM crops into Europe.
It was not the first such subterfuge attempted. People did not take it lying down either. Public opposition to what was dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” exploded, led to the first “March against Monsanto” in May this year. A quarter of a million voters signed a petition demanding President Obama veto the bill. Among the countless groups, major and minor, that took a stand, were the American Civil Liberties Union, The Union of Concerned Scientists, and the National Family Farm Coalition.
In the US alone, protests took place in 47 states. But the current march was not restricted towards repeal of the Act or just to America. It encompassed the whole world, wherever objections were raised against GM crops, their devastating chemical use, the warping of DNA by mixing up animal, human, microbial and plant genes, and the threat to survival itself.
A website was put up where marches around the world were recorded and live-updated with photos. A world map marked all the locations where protests were taking place. There were so many in the US and Europe, they were impossible to count.
Novel approaches were taken. In Florida, the 'Musicians Against Monsanto' educated the public through song about the ills of Monsanto and GMOs. Pesticides and herbicides responsible for the mass deaths of pollinator bees -- a third of their numbers in America and Europe -- have affected a third of their crops. Protestors dressed as bees demanded agro-business take responsibility for their poisonous monocultural farming methods. Otherwise in a few years, a vast part of foodcrops dependant on pollinators may be gone forever.
An organic farmer made an offer towards breaking the Monsanto seed monopoly: “If you know a farmer who would like to drop their Monsanto contract and get seed (from) us for free, send them to us.” Just like in the pre-commercial seed era.
October was made Agent Orange Awareness Month, promoted by the Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance. It was important not to let present generations forget that the US dropped 76 million litres of poisonous chemicals (also used in agriculture) – supplied mainly by Monsanto and Dow -- in Vietnam, Laos and of Cambodia during the 10-year Vietnam War. 400,000 people were killed or maimed, 500,000 children born with birth defects, and a million rendered disabled or chronically ill. To date the US has made no compensation or attempt to help.
Hawaiians were fed up with their beautiful islands being destroyed as testing ground for GMO crops. Alarms were sounded over super weeds and super pests resulting from GMO crops that required constantly increasing quantities and stronger insecticides and herbicides, rendering all GMO foodcrops poisonous. It trapped farmers in a vicious circle, and greater profits from chemicals than GMO seeds. Americans consumers demanded labeling of foods – in place in Europe -- so they could avoid GM foods. As one placard read, "If you're so proud of your product, why don’t you label it?"
There were the unending ‘peace-time’ victims and representatives of disabilities caused by agricultural-chemicals. -- Monsanto was originally and remains primarily a chemical company.
But there’s been victory too – for the moment. Under pressure, the US government is allowing the Monsanto Protection Act to lapse by the end of this month.
In Pakistan too preoccupied with relentless drone and targeted killings, terrorism, skyrocketing prices, spreading unemployment and hunger, there was no march. But there are other GMO concerns brought on by Monsanto.
The GM Crops regulatory approval process in Pakistan was supposed to follow the National Biosafety Guidelines of 2005. But no capacity or capabilities exist to conduct testing and monitoring. Since no Biosafety Law or Act or Legislation has been passed, it really has no legal basis, irrespective of any claims made by various departments. It would appear that confusion has deliberately been allowed to prevail to enable actions to be taken or withdrawn at will.
On 24th September, the Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights made the approval of any GM/Bt crop a provincial subject after the 18th amendment in the Pakistani Constitution. The National Biosafety Committee (NBC), and Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) are no longer competent to do so. Consequently, new laws will have to be enacted at the provincial levels. Whether it will help or hinder Monsanto’s plans to flood Pakistan with its Bt cotton and other Bt crops, remains to be seen.
The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.