Tim Wise from the Small Planet Institute explains how a new seed policy in the southern African country of Malawi threatens farmers’ rights to save, exchange, and sell their seeds, and how a former Monsanto official turned out to be one of the policy’s co-authors
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Sub-Saharan Africa has been experiencing extreme drought with some 20 million people at risk of starvation and many more experiencing food insecurity. At times like this, when people are in crisis and starving, multinational companies, such as agribusiness company Monsanto, try to move in and offer aid and support and try to influence national policy regarding food production. While some experts say that genetically modified seeds are the answer to the problem of drought and poor growing conditions, other experts disagree. While the battle goes on, probably all sides would prefer it that GMO corporate giant Monsanto not be in charge of the countries’ national seed policies, which, it turns out, is exactly the case in the southern eastern African country of Malawi. Joining us now to discuss this today is Tim A. Wise from the Small Planet Institute. He’s just returned from Malawi. He’s senior researcher and director of the Land and Food Rights Program, who recently authored an article “Did Monsanto Write Malawi’s Seed Policy?” He is the author of the upcoming book “Feeding Illusions: Agribusiness, Family Farmers and the Future of Food.” Thanks for joining us, Tim. TIM WISE: It’s a pleasure to be here Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: Tim, first tell us about food producing conditions in Malawi at the moment. I understand that the entire Sub-Saharan African countries are in crisis at the moment, but for today, let’s just focus in on Malawi. TIM WISE: Yeah, I just came back from Malawi 10 days ago, and the, actually they had a better year this year than they had the previous two, which was encouraging to see. Two years ago, there’d been devastating floods. Last year they had a devastating drought, which swept across most of southern Africa, cutting food production dramatically. This year they had a new problem, but they had better rains. Most of the places I went in southern Malawi had seen better harvests despite the influx of, the infestation of fall army worms, which add a new pest to the region. Again people are trying to sort out where that came from, whether it’s related to climate change and changing conditions, but harvests were a little bit better this time. It was encouraging to see. SHARMINI PERIES: Good. Tell us about Monsanto’s presence in Malawi and how you found out about their presence in the country. TIM WISE: Well, I’ve been researching in southern Africa for the last four years as part of the research for me book. Monsanto is one of the major seed providers in a lot of countries in Africa. Probably the largest or second largest seed provider, commercial seed seller in Malawi. They’re not selling genetically modified seeds, not yet anyway. Most African countries ban the sale and cultivation of genetically modified seeds, particularly for food crops, which are considered more sensitive than something like cotton. Monsanto has had a significant commercial presence in Malawi for a long time. SHARMINI PERIES: How are they working in Malawi? How are they trying to influence national policies? TIM WISE: Well, as part of a broad effort that is being supported by the developed countries global alliance for food security and nutrition, an initiative supported and promoted by the Obama administration, there’s a specific effort in Africa to get private companies, multinational firms to invest and to create better business conditions for them to invest. Part of the deal is that the international donors provide money for agricultural development. The companies pledge to invest and the governments then sign on to a series of policy reforms that some have decried as a new set of conditionalities on aid. Included in those reforms are reforms to seed policies that are being promoted are very much policies that favor commercial seed producers in general and multinational seed producers in particular. They do that at the cost of the rights of farmers to save, exchange and sell the seeds that they’ve been developing on their own farms and that constitute in Malawi an estimated 80% of the seeds used in the country. SHARMINI PERIES: By small farmers and family farms who are growing things, preserving their seeds and then using it to grow the next year’s crop or next season’s crop, but you discovered that recently at a seed fair in Malawi, the government has applied some restrictions on that process where farmers could come and show their seeds and talk about their seeds and their experience with some of these seeds. Give us some specific examples of how that fair became the site of your uncovering, in terms of how Monsanto’s involved in the food policy in the country. TIM WISE: While I was in Malawi, I was in rural areas. I was talking with farmers who were engaged in a really creative project, kind of rescuing and rehabilitating, restoring the quality of a native variety of orange maize, a corn variety that is very rich in vitamin A and has a lot of other very favorable properties. Farm groups, under a program called the Malawi Agriology, Farmer to Farmer Exchange Agriology program in southern Malawi have been experimenting with this, using agriology methods to improve nutritional diversity by improving crop diversity on farms, and doing so without inputs. I’d come straight off of seeing these very successful cultivation of this new orange maize variety that’s been grown but in the shadows in Malawi for a long time in there, and the groups trying to promote its use and expand its use, sell seeds to other communities. At the time, just before I went to Malawi, a notice appeared in the paper saying the government, the Agriculture Ministry was going to restrict the seeds that could be shown and displayed at seed fairs. These are events that take place at a, sometimes at a large, larger level, organized by a state ministry office, but usually at a local or village level. It’s where all kinds of seed providers come and show their best seeds from the last season and try to sell some of them to other farmers who are looking to improve their crops. The notice indicated that only certified seeds should be displayed at these events. That essentially would restrict any sales or promotion to the commercial seed providers. I began to investigate that, what was behind that. In the course of that investigation, discovered that the seed policy that is actually not in place yet, but has been under discussion for many years, had the fingerprints of Monsanto all over it. SHARMINI PERIES: What are some of the issues associated with a GMO or Monsanto seeds that worry you? TIM WISE: Well, the immediate issue in Malawi isn’t so much GMOs. GMOs are still banned, but Monsanto and other companies sell a lot of so-called hybrid seeds. That is, improved seeds that are designed to get higher yields, generally perform much better with synthetic fertilizer. Both the seed and the fertilizer needs to be purchased every year. Malawi has had a program subsidizing those purchases for small scale farmers, so Monsanto’s real goal is to open up and continue to expand the sale of its hybrid corn seeds mainly in Malawi. That means that they have an interest in seeing pressures put on small scale farmers who are saving and exchanging seeds, and certainly pressures put on successful projects like this orange maize project, where they have a native variety that doesn’t need to be produced, doesn’t need to be purchased every year by farmers, so it saves them money. Doesn’t require synthetic fertilizer to grow at a high yield, produces a kind of corn that is really favorable for the uses that Malawian households make of it, grinding it often by hand into a meal that can be made into a kind of porridge and what’s called nsima, which is the real staple food of Malawi. That nutritious food is suddenly, suddenly stands as a threat to a company like Monsanto and one way to eliminate a threat is, instead of coming out with a product that is more desirable, is to try to outlaw it. The seed policy is, threatens to be very restrictive on the sales of such farmer saved seeds in the market. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Tim, you’ve done work on these issues in other parts of the world as well, for example Mexico. It’s important because especially maize corn is subsistence food for most of, in this case Malawi. How does these policies end up affecting the local food production and what people actually need to survive? TIM WISE: Well the, in Malawi, the effect of the government’s heavy commitment and promotion to so-called green revolution technologies, that is commitment to improved seeds, meaning hybrid seeds that have to be purchased every year and the fertilizers that are required to make them grow and yield in the way they’re supposed to, that commitment goes directly against the practice of the majority of, the vast majority of small scale farmers in Malawi who are largely subsistence farmers. Some are trying to grow for the market as well. They absolutely need good seeds and sometimes they need better seeds, but what they really need is better farming practices. Those farming practices need to be resilient to changing climate, to floods, to drought. They need to be adapted to local conditions, and a key resource in that adaptation is the farmer’s own saved seeds, which they have cultivated in their own local areas and adapted to their local conditions. Can those seeds be improved to have higher yields, to be more resilient? Absolutely. Is replacing them with purchased commercial seeds developed by companies like Monsanto the solution for food security and climate change in a place like Malawi? It certainly isn’t. It might be appropriate for some larger scale commercial operations. It’s really inappropriate for the small scale farmers in Malawi. As soon as the subsidies go away, and people fully expect that the subsidy program is just fiscally not sustainable for the government of Malawi. As soon as those seeds and those fertilizers stop being subsidized, those farmers are going to have to reach into very shallow pockets to find the money to buy those inputs every year, and they just won’t have the resources to do it. SHARMINI PERIES: Tim, tell us about how Monsanto ended up having such a big role in the national seed policy in Malawi. TIM WISE: Well, I hadn’t realized the extent of their influence until I was speaking with someone who has coordinated the civil society agriculture network, the network of different organizations, farmer organizations and others who work on agriculture policy. He’d been working for 10 years with that organization until very recently, and I was having dinner with him, and arguing with him about some of the restrictions in the seed policy on farmer-saved seeds. I said to him, you know it doesn’t have, there’s no reason this policy needed to be so severe. It’s easy to write a seed policy that recognizes farmer’s rights to save seeds and exchange [inaudible 00:15:47] and also puts in place better regulations for the so-called formal seed sector. Why … It’s almost, I said it’s almost as if Monsanto wrote the policy. There was this long pause, and he looked at me and he said, “Well, you know a Monsanto was one of the two people who wrote the policy.” I looked into it further and indeed it was a researcher at the agriculture university was commissioned to draft the policy, and he brought in the Malawi, the person who had just left the position of country manager for Monsanto in Malawi. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Tim, while you were there, did you find a pushback in organizing efforts on the part of the farmers, people working in this area in terms of what the government is planning to propose and what Monsanto’s influence in the country has been? TIM WISE: Oh absolutely. There’s very strong resistance on the part of farmer organizations to this policy. Frankly they were outraged when they learned, as I learned in the course of my time there, that a recently departed Monsanto executive from Malawi had been one of the coauthors of the seed policy that’s now under consideration. There’s a civil society groups, farmer groups, have called a meeting for, that I understand is to take place tomorrow to try to push back against the current imposition of the seed policy, which I was told by one of the government officials in charge of it is, as far as he’s concerned, finished and not open for further revision. Farm groups and civil society organizations have something else in mind. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Tim. I thank you so much for joining us today and all the best with the very important work you’re doing in this area. TIM WISE: Thank you Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here, on The Real News Network.