noun [ mass noun ]
the practice of commercially exploiting naturally occurring biochemical or genetic material, especially by obtaining patents that restrict its future use, while failing to pay fair compensation to the community from which it originates.
The US patent act clause 102 says that nothing can be patented if it is prior public knowledge. If the public has been aware of the material and its benefits, then it is not possible to patent. Clause 102 then goes on to define ‘public knowledge’ as only that of Americans’ and no one else. Not the billions of Indians, Native Americans or Africans, their knowledge. Their natural resources are not represented or protected by this act.
‘Incredible India!’ and its agricultural policy are in crisis and have been since the disastrous decision in the 1960s to adapt to a system driven by American agro chemicals and industrial seed – ‘The Green Revolution’. Most of Indian farmers are not in the fields by choice, they are there because there is no other alternative to putting food in their families’ mouths, they are subsistence farmers who often labour all day for the food they will eat in the evening.
The policy responsible for these horrific events are the very same policies that are being played out across the world as governments align themselves with the economic powerhouses of corporate Europe and America in an attempt to bring short term relief to their struggling economies. As Natabar Sarangi told us a few years ago, if you do the math, Indian farmers have now lost around two thirds of their income to companies as their once zero input method of farming became old fashioned and therefore frowned upon. These new short-term technologies were sold to farmers as the future; unfortunately it was just the companies’ future and not the farmers!
I watched a short film the other day on Youtube. The renowned Indian journalist P. Sainath talking about what happens in rural areas over 100 days in India due to the current government policy that seems to be replicating that of America’s during the 1930s. In just 100 days he says, 4,600 farmers will commit suicide, as well as those 4,600 farmers who will die, 69,000 other farmers will attempt but fail to kill themselves. In just 100 days, 200,000 Indian farmers will cease to be farmers, many of them either migrating to other rural areas or toward the cities looking for work that does not exist, only adding to the phenomenon of pseudo urbanism. This is the real legacy of our ‘progressive’ industrialised and commoditised agricultural and food systems, this is the other side, the largest and most dominant side to our industrialized agricultural systems.
As industrially driven climate change begins to affect the production of food across the world, large corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont as well as hundreds of others are racing to patent as many plant genomes as possible in the hope that when the original plant is no longer able to survive, the company will be able to produce a genetic variation to replace the original, only this time the seed will not be self replicating and will not be able to survive without the various chemicals to protect and nourish it. It will be a company seed, a product, a commodity and something to enable corporations to manipulate their supply and demand and ultimately their profit.
The reason that so much of what is happening with bio-piracy is not shocking the world, has much to do with the way that these economic institutions have managed to infiltrate our academic and media landscapes, controlling what is taught to our future generations and what is digested by our urban and disconnected populations. So many small organisations working on environmental and agricultural issues are now being funded by huge philanthropic bodies who have become rich through the very same practices that they are now suggesting they are trying to correct.
The reality, especially with the likes of the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation, is that a huge conflict of interests exists as investment in companies and commodities now fund projects that seem to be modelled more to suit corporate foreign policy than benefit the billions of farmers and marginalized people living in these rural areas.
Some years ago, the Gates foundation invested $250 million dollars in Monsanto stock while continuing to hold around $700 million stocks in oil companies like Exxon, BP and Shell. Everything we need to help bring forward a second green revolution, which ironically is exactly what they are now working on.
A recent report by GRAIN on Gates foundation funding found that ‘When it comes to agricultural grants by the foundation to universities and national research centres across the world, 79% went to grantees in the US and Europe, and a meagre 12% to recipients in Africa.
The North-South divide is most shocking, however, when we look at the NGOs that the Gates Foundation supports. One would assume that a significant portion of the frontline work that the foundation funds in Africa would be carried out by organisations based there. But of the $669 million that the Gates Foundation has granted to non-governmental organisations for agricultural work, over three quarters has gone to organisations based in the US. Africa-based NGOs get a meagre 4% of the overall agriculture-related grants to NGOs.’
For thousands of years, farmers have used science to understand and develop millions of varieties of seed into foods that have enabled us to establish our modern civilizations, creating a myriad of super seeds perfectly adapted to their local conditions and dietary requirements. When we went to the Sunderbans with Debal a few years ago, he explained how communities living and farming these thousands of small islands had been able to develop some very unique varieties of rice.
The Sunderbans are located in the Bay of Bengal, part of them belonging to Bangladesh. These tiny pieces of land cover a huge area in the delta and are often prone to flooding from the seawater, creating saline soil in which most crops will not grow. Added to this, the area suffers huge cyclonic variations, resulting in the flooding of their agricultural lands. By selecting the most resilient of plants, then cross pollinating them with others, these communities were able to produce rice varieties able to withstand extreme flooding, extreme drought and levels of salinity equal to that of pure seawater. The photograph below is of one of the farmers now working to preserve a variety of rice that will grow in up to 8 meters of water, then be harvested by boat.
All these thousands of years of pioneering science, knowledge and production was carried out in the most selfless ways, people did not produce these varieties to economically empower themselves, it was done out of necessity to survive and grow as has always been the case with evolution. But now everything has changed, as the ownership and control of our natural resources become one of the most contentious issues of modern history, the patenting of life.
So farmers are being hit at all angles, climate change is undermining their yields now that they have lost most of their indigenous seed stock, the cost of company inputs (seed, fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide) have taken most of their profits and now the very DNA that has produced these life giving plant species are being stolen and patented by large economically driven corporations.
My cousin Charlie Taylor made a program some time ago with Laurie Taylor, ‘Thinking Allowed’, in it they had someone who had written a paper about Cuban intellectual property rights, something that came under criticism as people began to suggest that the Cuban government was following the same corporate legal framework as America and Europe. But the reasoning behind this Cuban policy was not to control and profit from people’s ideas and inventions, it was in fact completely the opposite, it was to protect the intellectual property so that it could be protected and utilized by and for the majority of the populations and their future generations.
Dr Debal is one of just a handful of real scientists around the world who are standing up against this global exploitation of people and resources. Using science for the good of humanity, benefitting the majority of our growing populations, not the minority who seem indifferent to the ecocide taking place across the world in the name of development. Using science to help the majority is not so simple as we would wish and because of this, Debal has had almost no funding over the past few decades.
From small independent donations and money made from research projects with some of the more progressive organisations, he has managed to set up small farms to grow and conserve over 1,000 varieties of indigenous rice, documenting and publishing their characteristics so they can be protected against bio-piracy.
At the end of last year, after reading Debal’s book ‘Beyond Developmentality’, a successful Kolkata based businessman Avik Saha kindly donated a fully equipped laboratory so that Debal can develop and continue his work in molecular biological analysis of rice and tissue culture of rare and endangered species. Sequencing DNA profiles of these species, then publishing them is the only way we will ever be able to protect them from these new waves of international bio-piracy. It’s only because of Debal’s friends and well-wishers that any of his work has been possible over these past decades. If you feel you may know of a source of funding or want to help with his work, then please contact us for more information.
Dr Debal Deb
Navdanya Campaign on Biopiracy
Rice landraces characterisation training for farmer ~ conservators
Protecting Indian Traditional Knowledge from Biopiracy
Biopiracy in India: The case of the aubergine
India sets new rules against biopiracy