Timothy Wise has written a chilling account of the genesis of Malawi’s new seed policy in an Op-Ed entitled “Did Monsanto Write Malawi’s Seed Policy?”. The piece appears on the Foodtank website .
In short, the answer is basically yes.
Dr. Wise directs the Land and Food Rights Program at the Small Planet Institute, and is a Research Fellow in the Globalization Program at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute. In July, he traveled to Malawi on a research trip and had an opportunity to visit multiple regions of the country, where he spoke with farmers, breeders, agriculture ministry officials, NGO leaders, and ag industry representatives. Like peeling layers of an onion, he gained a progressively deeper understanding of what was going on, and why, as Malawi finalized a new, national seed policy.
One of the new policy’s primary goals was to “wean” farmers off the “primitive” practice of saving and exchanging locally adapted, open-pollinated seeds, and especially maize seed. Among the provisions in the new policy designed to accomplish this goal is one that defines open-pollinated, non-commercial seed as simply “grain,” so that it falls completely outside the new policy and, among other things, cannot be tested for purity and certified as quality seed.
Wise also describes another mystifying change in seed policy in Malawi – a directive from the agriculture ministry that “only qualified certified seed suppliers registered with the Government to produce and/or market seed should be allowed to display seed…” at seed fairs, the traditional way for local farmers to share their own varieties and obtain new germplasm from other farmers or research institutions.
Toward the end of his trip, Wise attended a dinner with the former director of an NGO that works on agricultural policy in Malawi. Wise told the ex-director that “the way the [new seed] policy reads, it could have been written by Monsanto.” Wise then writes:
“There was a long pause. ‘Actually,’ [the official] told me [Wise] with a sheepish smile, ‘a Monsanto official was one of the two authors of the seed policy.’”
Monsanto and other pesticide-seed-biotech companies have developed a number of tools and tactics to reduce the risk associated with developing and marketing new crop varieties. They have had to deploy these new tools and tactics most aggressively to break genetically engineered seeds into regions where farmers, consumers, the research community, NGOs, and combinations of the above, were skeptical about the benefits and safety of GE crops and/or concerned that the high cost of GE seed might not leave farmers better off.
This piece by Wise explains two of the objectives of Monsanto efforts in Malawi – “weaning” farmers off open-pollinated maize seed, and second, making it harder for farmers to trade locally adapted seed, so that they can remain a partner in the development of new varieties meeting their needs and do not have to buy new seed every year.
Monsanto and other pesticide-seed-biotech companies have learned from their experience, and success in the U.S. and South America, that control over the commercial corn, soybean, and cotton seed supply makes it pretty easy to break in new GE traits, regardless of whether farmers want them or need them. Since they control the seed supply and what traits are placed in the next year’s seed, farmers have to choose from the seed varieties the industry decided to produce the year before.
For their lock on choice in the seed market to hold, the companies had to obtain a large enough percent of total seed industry capacity to assure that only a few farmers would be able to obtain non-GE seed. They accomplished this in the early 1990s in the U.S., but face a more complicated challenge in replicating this strategy in Africa, where locally produced, open pollinated seed still accounts for most of the seed planted in most crops and countries.
Facing this reality, the companies had to broaden the scope of their efforts to tilt the playing field in their favor. Take a few minutes to read Timothy Wise’s account of how their efforts are playing out in Malawi.
Timothy Wise. “Did Monsanto Write Malawi’s Seed policy?”, Op-Ed, The Foodtank, August 2017.