by Sujatha Byravan

We have read about the many problems of genetically modified (GM) food in GeneWatch, but I would like for the moment to focus on something not often considered — the issue of ownership. Within the United States, as in some other parts of the world, farmland ownership has increasingly passed from family to business. And the same concentration of agricultural ownership under corporate control continues with GM crops. Currently, just five corporations hold three out of every four GM crop patents in the U.S.: Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, Aventis and Monsanto. Furthermore, the situation is much worse internationally. One company — Monsanto — owns 90% of genetically modified seeds and their licenses around the world. 

In the U.S., there are regulations to prevent monopolies. Foremost among these is the Sherman Act, passed by the US congress in 1890, which led to the breakup of Standard Oil and later of AT&T. The Federal Trade Commission is also suppposed to guard against monopolies. But there are no international institutions that govern the monopolistic behavior of transnational corporations. As a consequence, the future of food resources for the many now lies in the hands of a few. 

In this void, Monsanto has thrived. The recent hullabaloo over the transfer of GM food aid to Southern African countries might lead the uninitiated to think that genetically engineered food is still safely out of Africa, but in reality Monsanto has 11 offices there — in Kenya, South Africa, Malawi, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal, and Zimbabwe. What is Monsanto up to in Africa? The company claims that their aim is to address food security problems in the continent. They appear convinced that if something is repeated often enough, people will believe it is true.

It is now generally accepted that economic access to food is one of the most critical constraints to eradicating hunger. Although there is enough food for everyone in the world, hunger is likely to persist as long as poverty prevails. Indeed, look at those African countries now facing famine. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, civil strife, armed conflict and population displacement are largely to blame. Such upheavals disrupt food production and normal economic activities by scattering rural populations within a country and across borders. The displaced are unable to produce food and become either dependent on food aid or malnourished, eventually dying from starvation or disease. 

If Monsanto is really serious about food security in the developing world, perhaps it should focus on reducing armed conflict. If it chose the humanitarian path, Monsanto would do well to consider work that reduces arms exports. After all, from 1996-2000, 81% of global arms exports came from Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. As much as 68 % of the American arms exports went to developing countries. It may appear that I am veering off topic here, but I am not. The world and its activities are interconnected. Monsanto’s monopolistic control of the world’s food future is a major cause for concern and needs to be regulated. But with fewer armed struggles in the developing world, perhaps the chance of widespread famine would lessen, and we could indeed move toward food security. And that would make it harder for Monsanto and its ilk to say that they are saving our future.


Sujatha Byravan, PhD is Executive Director of the Council for Responsible Genetics
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