10:35 AM Apr 15, 1997


Geneva 15 Apr (TWN/Kanaga Raja) -- A combination of factors -- technology, intellectual property rights enabling privatization and monopolization of genetic resources and information in the hands of big corporations -- are accentuating the industrialization of agriculture and converting proprietary farmers into farm labourers.

In reporting these trends resulting in erosion of farmers' rights in the North, the Canada-based Rural Advancement Fund International (RAFI) says that the terms "Bioserfdom", and "Gene licensing agreements" are becoming synonymous with this reality.

And the potential gainers from this new "agricultural revolution" are likely to be the major agrochemical corporations, military/aerospace corporations and farm equipment manufacturers, RAFI says in its March/April bulletin.

With a decline in public sector research and use of intellectual property rights to monopolize knowledge and privatize genetic resources (under the WIPO's UPOV rules, WTO's TRIPs and the plans in WIPO for a treaty to protect 'data-bases'), and application of new information technologies (including concepts like 'precision-farming') for management of large-scale commercial agriculture, many large-scale commercial farmers are losing their right to plant and animal germplasm on their own farms.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1989 recognized the principle of Farmers' Rights, that is, recognition that farmers who have consciously selected and improved crop genetic resources since origins of agriculture should be rewarded no less than plant breeders who benefit from the patent-like plant-breeders rights (of the WIPO's UPOV) and which WTO members are required to provide under the TRIPS agreements).

Many governments and civil society have recognised the principle of efforts in the creation, exchange of knowledge on and preservation of genetic resources. With the emergence of bioserfdom, the farmer could lose his rights to the land, the ability to save seed and exchange germplasm with fellow farmers and lose control over his decision- making ability with regards to his farm.

The principle of Farmers' rights, RAFI underlines, extends beyond the issue of compensation for farmers and farming communities; it includes rights to land and secure tenure, the farmers' fundamental right to save seed and exchange germplasm -- in direct contradiction to the evolving IPR regimes - and right of farming communities to 'say no' and choose not to make their germplasm knowledge available.

The Farmers' Rights issue is thus not one merely relating to the poor farmers and peasants in the South.

RAFI says there are two trends contributing to erosion of Farmers' Rights and leading to "bioserfdom" -- such Monsanto's 1996 gene-licensing agreements (for genetically altered soya and cotton seeds) and use-tailored, identity-preserved crops and the new concepts of "precision-farming" and its potential role in commodification of information technology and the growing influence of the life-industry in farm-level decision-making.

Under "bioserfdom", a possible scenario arising for farmers in the near future, is that they would have to grow their crops to a particular formula dictated by large industrial processors. They would have to sign contracts or negotiate agreements stipulating what seed, chemicals, irrigation and harvesting techniques and so on are to be used. They may become "renters" of proprietary germplasm and information, rather than relying on indigenous knowledge and experiences.

One of the tools that could contribute to the erosion of farmers' rights and lead to "bioserfdom" is the "gene licensing agreement".

In 1996, Monsanto, a US transnational, created controversy by its introduction of the genetically engineered soybean, called "Roundup Ready" soybean which is resistant to Monsanto's herbicide glyphosate, and sold under the brand name, Roundup. Monsanto's claims that Roundup is environmentally benign are refuted by many consumer and environmental groups, who note that crushed soybean is ubiquitous and ends up in myriads of products ranging from salad dressing to infant formula and chocolate bars.

Many NGOs, from Europe and North America contend that the genetically engineered soybeans have been inadequately tested and are therefore, not safe for human consumption. They have also called for the labelling of these genetically engineered beans to distinguish them from other harvested beans, so as to afford the consumer, the right to chose non-genetically engineered soybeans from the engineered beans.

As a result of this controversy, the demand for non-Roundup soybeans has increased. Canadian soybean exports to Europe reportedly increased by 80,000 metric tonnes over the previous year.

As with the genetically engineered soybean, Monsanto's "1996 Roundup Ready Gene Agreement" has also raised some serious questions.

Monsanto's "Gene Agreement" is a licensing agreement between the farmer and the company, where in order for a farmer to buy Monsanto's genetically engineered seed, the farmer must agree to sign a licensing agreement with Monsanto. He is bound by this agreement which comprises some of the following terms:

* any farmer who has signed the licensing agreement gives Monsanto the right to inspect and test his soybean fields for up to 3 years. This also encompasses the right to "monitor" the farm for three years, to ensure that the farmer complies with the terms of the agreement.

* the farmer must also agree to use only Monsanto's "Roundup" brand of pesticide on the engineered beans. The use of any other glyphosate herbicide is a violation of the agreement.

* the farmer gives up his right to save or replant the patented seed or to sell seed derived from it to anyone. To do so even for research is strictly forbidden.

If the farmer violates the agreement, he agrees " to pay Monsanto as liquidated damages a sum equal to 100 times the then applicable fee for the Roundup Ready gene, times the number of units of transferred seed, plus reasonable attorney's fees and expenses."

It does not however, limit the amount of damages that Monsanto can recover for any violation of the agreement. This means that a farmer who violates the agreement could potentially stand to lose his farm and other assets.

Not only has Monsanto total control over its proprietary seeds but also dictates to the farmer as to how he should run his farming operations, and diminishes his role in farm-level decision making and most importantly, his right to privacy.

As far as Monsanto is concerned, farmers who save their seed and exchange them with neighbouring farmers are in violation of patent law. In the US, IPR laws already restrict the farmers' right to re- sell or re-plant seeds protected under industrial patents or under the Plant Variety Protection. The farmer is also being practically asked to sign away his right to privacy by allowing Monsanto to monitor his farm for up to 3 years, as per the terms of the licensing agreement.

Monsanto's "gene licensing agreement" is an issue of great concern, as Monsanto is a major player in the field of plant biotechnology and seed. According to Monsanto, about one million acres of Roundup Ready soybeans were planted by US farmers in 1996, which is approximately 2% of the total soybean crop and the company predicts that between 5-10 million acres will be planted in 1997.

Monsanto's licensing agreement does not extend solely to its soybeans. The company has a similar licensing agreement for its genetically engineered Bollgard cotton, and the company plans to introduce a similar licensing agreement with all genetically engineered seeds that it brings to the market, including Roundup Ready canola, maize, sugarbeets and so on.

According to Karen Marshall of Monsanto, the gene licensing agreement for the soybeans will be modified in 1997 to contain less stringent conditions with regards to the inspection and monitoring of farmers' fields. She adds that, "the farmers didn't like it, and we listened."

However, whether gene licensing agreements will over a time, become an industry standard or will farmers' rights give in to the dictates of agrochemical TNCs, remains to be seen.

The gene-licensing agreement is consistent with other trends in industrial agriculture, including the transformation of farm commodities to proprietary products.

Thus instead of growing 'generic' commodity, increasing numbers of large-scale farmers have to use customized agronomic practices to grow a patented product with special characteristics tailored to end-user (food processor or consumer). The farmer may have to use pre-specified input package selected for biological and chemical characteristics.

Within five years, according to some observers, farmers will find themselves growing high-starch maize for ethanol production or high-protein low-fat soybean for human consumption. Starch, protein, fibre, moisture and sugar content; nutritional value; colour, texture and processing properties; volume and availability; freshness and timing of delivery would all be part of such a production system set out by the seed corporations.

"As the life industry dictates more and more of the farm-level management decisions, the farmer becomes little more than a 'renter' of proprietary germplasm and information, a step in the food/industrial manufacturing process," says RAFI.

"Farmers and consumers thus increasingly lose control over what products they grow and consume, and which food production processes they choose to support."

Precision-farming is another concept that is being applied to industrial agriculture.

The term 'site-specific' and 'prescription' farming describe a bundle of new information technologies applied to management of large-scale commercial agriculture, mostly in the industrial world.

Precision-farming technologies include personal computers , satellite positioning systems, geographic information systems, automated machine guidance, remote sensing devices and telecommunications.

Various combinations of thee enable gathering of unprecedented levels of information about every square metre of geographic area to be cultivated and used to tailor the application of inputs -- pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, seed spacing etc -- to the precise levels needed to grow a specific crop.

The site-specific information can be used to identify variability within a field and manage crop production to localized condition. Satellite images can show exactly where a farmer's crop is suffering from weeds, lack of nitrogen or other plant stress.

Data collected by remote sensors on variables like yield, soil type, crop moisture, topography, weed infestation, etc can be stored in a farmer's computer and later transferred to a chemical applicator attached to a tractor. As the sprayer or seeder travels over a field, a satellite receiver can sense its position and automatically apply the chemical at a chosen rate for each area.

This technology is still in its infancy.

But just as the agro-chemical industry grew out of military uses of chemicals during World War II, the satellite technology and other systems now involved in industrial agriculture were developed for US Department of defense over the past 20 years.

"These star-wars military technology made their debut during the 1991 Gulf War and not surprisingly military-industrial giants such as 'Lockheed Martin' and 'Rockwell International' are among the corporations promoting these new technologies for agricultural application."

[And under the asymmetric rules of the WTO's agriculture and subsidy rules, these technologies and practices developed under publicly funded US military contracts, can be privatized and the corporations can market them at home and abroad, without offending the subsidy rules of the GATT or the agriculture agreements, while Third World countries have many restrictions in subsidising and promoting interests of their marginal and subsistence farmers.]

But this technology reinforces the uniformity and chemical-intensive requirements of industrial agriculture.

Proponents claim it will improve efficiency on the farm, help reduce input costs and enhance farmers' ability to protect the environment.

But, according to social scientists Steven Wolf and Fred Buttel, this technology legitimates chemically-based agriculture and has less to do with mitigating agricultural pollution than with advancing industrial modes of production.

Few empirical studies have been conducted on the profitability of precision-farming, notes RAFI. But the tools are expensive and most easily accessible only to largest, highly capitalized farm operations. It needs approximately 15000-20000 dollars to purchase an yield monitor, global positioning receivers, computers, software and variable controllers for application equipment. Services for data management, analysis, interpretation etc are extra.

Given the technical complexity, vast majority of farmers who use the technology would become heavily dependent on off-farm service support.

Precision-farming, RAFI notes, is thus an information-based industry. But the information it depends on is a commodity that is not bought and sold like other industrial farm inputs.

Traditionally US farmers got all this information through publicly funded research and extension services. Now agricultural information is an increasingly privately-held, marketable product.

According to Steven Wolf and Spencer Wood, precision-farming will increase marginalization of public sector research and extension, affording farmers fewer choices.

Site-specific data collected on a farmer's land is often considered proprietary information by the company that supplies or gathers the information and incorporates them in a data-base which becomes the farmer's blue-print for future management decisions.

According to Purdue University Economist, Jess Lowenberg-Edboer, one difficult with this approach is that "if fine-tuned crop production 'recipes' are proprietary, farmers may become labourers implementing management plans created elsewhere."

In December 1996, at the WIPO diplomatic conference, a treaty to confer intellectual property protection for data-bases was presented -- based on proposals of the European Community and the USA.

The negotiations on such a treaty has been postponed to a future date. But the draft text of the treaty would grant protection to databases "regardless of the form or medium in which the database is embodied and regardless of whether or not the database is made available to the public." It would protect any database that "represents a substantial investment in the collection, assembly, verification, organization or presentation of the contents of the database" even though the data itself is in public domain.

Like most forms of IPRs, stronger database protection is more likely to serve the interests of large-scale enterprises than rights of farmers.

Not all farmers in the industrialized world are victims of 'bioserfdom': there are many farmers, farm organizations and peoples organizations working to build alternative food and farming systems based on principles of social justice and environmental sustainability.

"The farmers' fundamental right to save seed and exchange germplasm is central to achieving these goals," says RAFI. "And Farmers' Rights is an integral part of the wider issue of 'right to food' and should be debated by intergovernmental bodies in this broader context.