|For sale - our genes, ourland, our places of knowledge (28/4/2007)|
Resisting the corporate take-over of everything:
1.Genes For Sale
[extract from the transcript of a radio programme that includes an interview with Pat Mooney of the ETC. group]
INTERVIEWER: ...of all these things that we've talked about here is there one that you put at the top of your list of concerns?
MOONEY: Can I give two? There are two very specific claims in this field that we find quite scary. One of them is one that Monsanto has where it's claimed the species of soybeans. Any biotech work on the crop of soybeans anywhere in the world is a violation of Monsanto's patent. The idea that you can actually own an entire species of a major crop is simply outrageous.
The second example I give is one by Syngenta, one of the other big company's based in Switzerland, Syngenta has actually got a claim on how a plant flowers. So it's actually the strip of DNA that allows a plant to flower. Ant it's said that this claim applies to 40 different species in the food system including rice and wheat, bananas and so on. So if Syngenta's patent claim is ever accepted, Syngenta would own the world's food supply basically all by itself. We think that if the company got the patent they'd be forced to back off. I think there'd be something of a revolution before that patent would be allowed to be implemented. But it shows the failures of the patent system and the inability of governments to address the questions who owns life and who owns nature.
INTERVIEWER: Is that still the right question? That was the question posed in 1994 in that story, Who Owns Life, are we still asking that question?
MOONEY: We're asking it, but we're, again, it's become more fundamental than that. It's not just life, it is the nature that builds life. In this field of synthetic biology or nano-biotechnology we're now seeing patent claims again that are on the building blocks of life. And that's the scariest thing of all because they're below the radar screen of politicians and policy makers of any kind because they don't seem to be consequential and then the patent is granted and suddenly you realize that you've given away the Garden of Eden.
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2.Commentary: Time to Re-Name the University
In the spirit of cities rolling out the welcome mat for private stadiums, a la Pac Bell Park and McAfee Coliseum, sometimes at the expense of funding such secondary needs as schools, lets have a contest for renaming the UC Berkeley. British Petroleum has made a strong bid for renaming the school the University of British Petroleum. But that's a little over the top--maybe we should just put department names up for sale, and at least keep the UCB acronym for the present.
But in deference to the university PR department (funded by little ol' you and me and the students) working feverishly to get the half-billion-dollar BP contract, perhaps something like "University for Corporate Bidding" would entice more special interests to fund academic freedom, as defined by shill man Randy Scheckman. He's the guy who, in the upstanding tradition of Joseph McCarthy, would misconstrue something a colleague critical of the oil company deal said, and have him fired. Having proclaimed this (according to the Daily Planet's 4-20-07 article) at the Academic Senate meeting rubber stamping the contract with BP, whatever it says, Scheckman reportedly got a round of applause from those faculty heroically defending academic freedom (for those toeing the line anyhow, or "bottom line" from the boardrooms, as it were). It seems Mr. Scheckman took offense at Professor Ignacio Chapela referring to the oil company research deal as prostitution. As a scientist disciplined in reporting data accurately, Scheckman found it more convenient to interpret Mr. Chapela's comment as calling the chancellor a prostitute. I know its been a while since all you rational professors took the SAT, so I looked it up..."prostitution" means "base or unworthy use, as of talent or ability." Let's brush up on our analogies here, too: a person is to selling her/his body as a university is to selling its...? You're right. Not applicable--a "working" person makes no pretense as to what she/he is doing.
Another candidate for renaming would be "University of Corrupt Boneheads." Reportedly it takes about as much energy to convert plants to liquid fuel as it yields, slightly less or even more depending on how comprehensive you choose to be in your analysis. I don't have a PhD, but I was awake during arithmetic class. If we burn one energy unit of oil to make one energy unit of ethanol, we get one minus one, or zero energy gain. Then we can take our unit of ethanol and burn it to make another unit of ethanol, which well need to burn to produce another unit, ad infinitum. Is there a quicker way to burn more energy to heat the atmosphere than this? Of course it will require a gargantuan expenditure of capital to get there, but who needs more windmills or solar tech? Then there is the matter of converting food crops to ethanol crops, which will necessitate getting any remaining rain forests out of the way and using any unfarmed waterways for new corporate monocultures of artificially mutated plants. More petrochemical fertilizers will be needed to replenish newly depleted soils, and new roads and fleets of trucks to transport it all. Presumably what microbiologist Scheckman and his new bosses think will make all of this work will be to create genetically engineered bugs that release enzymes that will break down plants far more aggressively than any that nature saw fit to evolve. Thank you, God and independent researchers, but you've done your part, and you're fired! BP and associates will take it from here.
Dale Becknell is a Berkeley resident.
The suicide of the Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae at the barricades in Cancun in September 2003 was a milestone in the development of farmers' resistance globally. Committed under a banner that read "WTO Kills Farmers," Lee's suicide was designed to draw international attention to the number of suicides by farmers in countries subjected to liberalization. He succeeded only too well. The event shocked the WTO delegates, who observed a minute of silence in Lee's memory. By adding to what was already a charged atmosphere, Lee's act was certainly a key factor in the unraveling of the talks.
In December 2005, invoking Lee's sacrifice, hundreds of Korean farmers tried to break through police lines in an effort to storm the Hong Kong Convention Center. Some 900 protesters, the bulk of them Korean farmers, were arrested.
Both Lee and the Korean farmers protesting in Hong Kong were members of Via Campesina, an international federation of farmers established in the mid-1990s. Since its founding, Via Campesina -- literally translated as the Peasants' Path -- has become known as one of the most militant opponents of the WTO and bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements. While there are other international farmers' networks, Via is distinguished by its position that small farmers must not only fight to survive in the current global system of corporate-dominated industrial farming, they should lead the process to transform or replace the current system. Commenting on the vision of Jose Bove the famous French activist who dismantled a MacDonald's restaurant in his hometown of Millau, France and other Via leaders, one progressive journal has described the aim of the organization as the creation of a Farmers' Internationale in much the same way that Communist and Social Democratic groups sought to establish the Communist International and Socialist International to unite workers in the 20th century.
The main battle cry of Via Campesina, whose coordinating center is located in Indonesia, is "WTO Out of Agriculture" and its alternative program is food sovereignty. Food sovereignty means first and foremost the immediate adoption of policies that favor small producers. This would include, according to Indonesian farmer Henry Saragih, Via's coordinator, and Ahmad Ya'kub, Deputy for Policy Studies of the Indonesian Peasant Union Federation (FSPI), "the protection of the domestic market from low-priced imports, remunerative prices for all farmers and fishers, abolition of all direct and indirect export subsidies, and the phasing out of domestic subsidies that promote unsustainable agriculture."
Via's program, however, goes beyond the adoption of pro-smallholder trade policies. It also calls for an end to the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights regime, which allows corporations to patent plant seeds, thus appropriating for private profit what has evolved through the creative interaction of the natural world with human communities over eons. Seeds and all other plant genetic resources should be considered part of the common heritage of humanity, the group believes, and not be subject to privatization.
Agrarian reform, long avoided by landed elites in countries like the Philippines, is a central element in Via's platform, as is sustainable, ecologically sensitive organic or biodynamic farming by small peasant producers. The organization has set itself apart from both the First Green Revolution based on chemical-intensive agriculture and the Second Green Revolution driven by genetic engineering (GE). The disastrous environmental side effects of the first are well known, says Via, which means all the more that the precautionary principle must be rigorously applied to the second, to avoid negative health and environmental outcomes.
The opposition to GE-based agriculture has created a powerful link between farmers and consumers who are angry at corporations for marketing genetically modified commodities without proper labeling, thus denying consumers a choice. In the European Union, a solid alliance of farmers, consumers, and environmentalists prevented the import of GE-modified products from the United States for several years. Although the EU has cautiously allowed in a few GE imports since 2004, 54% of European consumers continue to think GE food is "dangerous." Opposition to other harmful processes such as food irradiation has also contributed to the tightening of ties between farmers and consumers, large numbers of whom now think that public health and environmental impact should be more important determinants of consumer behavior than price.
More and more people are beginning to realize that local production and culinary traditions are intimately related, and that this relationship is threatened by corporate control of food production, processing, marketing, and consumption. This is why Jose Bove's justification for dismantling a MacDonald's resonated widely in Asia: "When we said we would protest by dismantling the half-built McDonald's in our town, everybody understood why -- the symbolism was so strong. It was for proper food against malbouffe [awful standardized food], agricultural workers against multinationals. The extreme right and other nationalists tried to make out it was anti-Americanism, but the vast majority knew it was no such thing. It was a protest against a form of production that wants to dominate the world."
Many economists, technocrats, policymakers, and urban intellectuals have long viewed small farmers as a doomed class. Once regarded as passive objects to be manipulated by elites, they are now resisting the capitalist, socialist, and developmentalist paradigms that would consign them to ruin. They have become what Karl Marx described as a politically conscious "class-for-itself." And even as peasants refuse to "go gently into that good night," to borrow a line from Dylan Thomas, developments in the 21st century are revealing traditional pro-development visions to be deeply flawed. The escalating protests of peasant groups such as Via Campesina, are not a return to the past. As environmental crises multiply and the social dysfunctions of urban-industrial life pile up, the farmers' movement has relevance not only to peasants but to everyone who is threatened by the catastrophic consequences of obsolete modernist paradigms for organizing production, community, and life.
Walden Bello is Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute, and a Professor of Sociology at the University of the Philippines at Diliman. A longer version of this piece comes out in the April 2007 issue of Global Asia. It is republished with permission.