People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 13

March 31, 2013


MNC Control over World Agriculture


Prabhat Patnaik


UNTIL now, corporate giants like Monsanto had claimed patent rights over the seeds they developed and supplied to agriculturists. But now there is a case pending in a US court where Monsanto is claiming patent rights over the seeds of plants developed from Monsanto supplied seeds. It is quite likely that Monsanto will win the case; indeed Monsanto always wins cases involving itself in US courts. But the implications of its victory are serious.


What it would mean is that if Monsanto seeds are purchased once, then that company would acquire a perpetual right to extract a levy from the agriculturists. In fact, it is not just from those agriculturists that had purchased the seed originally. Monsanto claims that if pollen from plants grown from seeds supplied by it pollinate some neighbouring farmer’s crop, then it has a patent over the crop subsequently grown by that neighbouring farmer, even if the agent of that pollination may be wind or water or animals or any other force of nature. Since nobody can control such pollination across farms, this means that if Monsanto seeds are used by some farmers, then virtually the entire village will have to pay a levy to Monsanto in perpetuity.




This method of extracting a levy in perpetuity is the complement to the other method that Monsanto had employed till now, namely the sale of seeds that could not propagate themselves, resulting in the production of plants that got terminated rather than propagated. In these cases, the farmers had to go back again and again to Monsanto to buy fresh seeds every year, and hence had to make hefty payments every year. Now such payments will be supplemented by another set of payments, this time on account of seeds that do propagate themselves. These latter would arise from the fact that Monsanto acquires rights over the seeds, the seeds of seeds, the seeds of seeds of seeds, and so on ad infinitum, not just from farmers who had originally purchased such seeds from Monsanto, but from virtually everybody whose farm is open to the forces of nature and anywhere near those of the original seed-buyers.


Since food is an elemental necessity that the world cannot do without, what Monsanto is aiming at is the imposition of a levy on the world’s food intake. Property is synonymous with the extraction of the whole or part of the surplus from the output grown with the help of the means of production under the control of the claimant. Monsanto is thus claiming property rights over the world food economy through the seeds supplied by it. Who gets how much food, which social group can starve and which can escape starvation, which country will have food self-sufficiency after paying its levies and which will not, will now be increasingly determined by Monsanto and other similarly-placed corporate giants.


This is a new kind of imperialism, the like of which the world has not seen till now. Lenin, it may be recalled, had talked about imperialism, where a surplus of capital was exported abroad because it was not used in areas in the domestic economy like agriculture; he had said that “uneven development” so characterised capitalism that the neglect of agriculture was endemic to it, that capitalism would not be capitalism if it developed agriculture. Imperialism in short was something which was associated with the sidelining of agriculture. What we are witnessing today is imperialism that operates within and through agriculture itself, not exclusively through agriculture of course, but also through agriculture that now becomes the domain of corporate giants like Monsanto.


Such a denouement has been planned meticulously for a very long time. The very idea of including Intellectual Property Rights in multilateral trade negotiations, so that the various national IPR regimes which had been erected in the wake of decolonisation, in the interests of the newly independent peoples of the third world, to protect them against the depredations of metropolitan capital, could be supplanted by an international regime favouring the MNCs, was mooted by a bunch of American MNCs. The most prominent among them was Monsanto.


They cajoled the US administration to insist on the inclusion of IPR in the agenda of trade negotiations, they prepared the draft of the IPR regime that was to be imposed on the world, they lobbied hard among third world governments, they came in force to the negotiating sites with their army of “experts” who could browbeat the handful of ill-prepared bureaucrats that third world governments were represented by, and they bribed and threatened scientists, academics and technologists from the third world countries in order to stifle any informed opposition to the regimes they were promoting.


Finally, they succeeded in imposing upon the world an IPR regime that was not even necessarily voted upon by the national parliaments. For example, the commitment to make the Indian IPR regime TRIPS-compatible was itself never voted upon by the Indian parliament, on the juridically-dubious plea that signing international treaties was a constitutional prerogative of the executive and did not require approval by the legislature. Ironically, the Indian government committed itself to making the IPR regime TRIPS-compatible, even though two unanimous reports by two separate Parliamentary Committees, the I K Gujral Committee, and the Ashok Mitra committee, cutting across Party lines, had explicitly rejected the arguments for such TRIPS-compatibility. When legislation was eventually introduced in parliament to amend the Indian Patents Act of 1970, the fait accompli of India having already accepted the TRIPS agreement could not be ignored. All that could be hoped for was to make the best of a bad job.


The TRIPS-compatible IPR regime already gives the MNCs extensive monopoly rights, through twenty-year patents, the legalisation of not just process patents but of product patents as well, and so on. In the case of seed patents, in addition to this set of monopoly rights, there would be a further monopoly of an immeasurably powerful kind, once the courts decide, as they are likely to do, that the original patent also extends to second, third, fourth, and all later generation seeds.




We would then have a system of “bonded” agriculture that is even worse than the notorious “bonded” labour system. With “bonded” labour, there is at least a possibility that the labourer can get out of “bondage” if he can obtain a sufficient amount of money to repay the original debt together with the enormous interest burden that has accumulated in the interim; but with “bonded” agriculture, such as what Monsanto and others wish to impose upon the world, there is no such possibility: once the seeds supplied by them is used, then the “bondage” becomes perpetual, for, even if in later years the farmer buys seeds from elsewhere, he still has to pay a levy to Monsanto because off-shoots of the original seed can always be detected in his crop.


The only way to escape this bondage is for the State to act: by undertaking research and development for new seeds and agricultural practices; by disseminating the outcome of such research through countrywide public extension services; and by preventing any direct relationship between the MNCs and the peasants which is not mediated through the State itself. This is exactly what the pre-liberalisation regime in India had sought to do; and the Green Revolution, notwithstanding all its flaws and infirmities, was ushered in under that regime.


But this is precisely the regime that has been jettisoned under neo-liberalism. The once pervasive public extension services which had been built up painstakingly from the days of the “Grow-More-Food” campaign of the early fifties, have been dismantled. Research and development in public institutions has  atrophied, because of lack of funds and interest: in a situation where tax concessions to the rich and the corporates, and the need to keep the fiscal deficit in check to appease finance capital, combine to deflate public development expenditure, R&D too becomes a victim of such deflation. And MNCs supplying seeds, pesticides and other inputs, and buying crops from the peasants, are having a free run of the Indian countryside. Under these conditions the drift towards a “bonded” agriculture seems all too powerful.


A major fall-out of such a drift, needless to say, would be an accentuation of the impoverishment of the peasantry. Such impoverishment is already occurring. Peasant agriculture is already becoming unviable, incapable even of providing simple reproduction to the producers, as they get caught in the pincer of rising input prices (including of credit), and occasionally-collapsing output prices (in the case of cash crops) or generally sluggish output prices (in the case of foodgrains). And this pincer is operating despite double-digit inflation in the prices paid by the consumers (of which the peasants are scarcely the beneficiaries). This impoverishment however will be greatly accentuated once Monsanto seeds make their entry into a whole range of agricultural products.


The struggle against such entry must be joined right now, for the more it is postponed the more MNCs like Monsanto will get entrenched and acquire the capacity to launch counter-struggles.