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Synthesis/Regeneration 33   (Winter 2004)

Biodevastation 7

Who Will (C)ontrol Ag(R)iculture and Knowledge?

by Michael K. Dorsey, Dartmouth College
Program in Environmental Studies

As the new millennium began, by the end of 2001, the top 10 agrochemical corporations controlled 84% of the $30 billion agrochemical market; the top 10 veterinary pharmaceutical companies controlled 60% of the $13.6 billion world market; and the top 10 pharmaceutical companies controlled an estimated 48% of the $317 billion world market. [1]

Only six corporations control 98% of the world’s market in genetically modified crops. [2] The same six firms also control 70% of the world’s pesticide market. And 94% of all genetically modified crops grown worldwide were from one company’s germplasm: Monsanto’s.

BASF, Bayer-Aventis, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta are recidivistic corporate criminals.

What is worrisome is that all six of the afore-mentioned “life science” firms—in alphabetical order: BASF, Bayer-Aventis, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta—are recidivistic corporate criminals.

Let us take a partial look at the proverbial police blotter…

BASF. In 1999, the German firm pleaded guilty and paid a $225 million fine for its role in a world-wide antitrust conspiracy to raise and fix prices and allocate market shares for certain vitamins. [3]

Bayer-Aventis. In October 2002 a report listed H.C. Starck (a wholly owned subsidiary of Bayer AG) as the buyer of over 80% of the coltan originating in the Democratic Republic of Congo. [4] By purchasing coltan from one or another of the warring factions in the DRC, H.C. Starck has been fuelling the two-year conflict.

Dow has been surreptitiously involved in the manufacture and illegal dumping of dioxin-laden chemicals for nearly the past half century.

Dupont’s subsidiary Pioneer HiBred is the largest seed company in the world. Recently the company and Monsanto decided to share proprietary agricultural biotechnologies. According to Hope Shand, Research Director at the ETC Group, the companies “are being allowed to create global technology cartels that run below the radar screens of anti-trust regulators”—clearly in violation of antitrust laws. [5] Further, Dupont and other chemical companies have been accused of trying to suppress evidence regarding the severe toxicity of dioxins, hardly surprising given the quantities of these carcinogens they churn out every year.

Monsanto. In 2002 a jury in the State of Alabama found Monsanto Co. guilty of releasing tons of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the city of Anniston and covering up its actions for 40 years. The jury held Monsanto liable on all six criminal counts including outrage. Under Alabama law, the rare crime of “outrage” typically requires conduct “so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society.”

Syngenta. In June 2002, the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) asked the US Environmental Protection Agency to ban the use of atrazine, the most widely used weed-killer in the US. NRDC further requested that EPA and the Justice Department launch a criminal investigation of Syngenta, atrazine’s principal manufacturer, for allegedly covering up the studies. The studies show that atrazine poses a significant threat to public health. Syngenta also attracted criticism for its continued manufacture and sale of the herbicide paraquat. Workers and farmers regularly exposed to paraquat experience serious ill health, even death.

The nature, extent and recurrence of these crimes underscore the fact that there is something fundamentally and systematically wrong with the “life science” industry as a whole. The fact that these firms are also the largest and arguably most powerful entities in their industry also hints that there is something fundamentally wrong, flawed or at minimum derisory with the very concept and social form deemed the large transnational corporation (TNC).

…what is profitable affects, or even determines, what is “scientifically true.”

Quixotically, the mantra endorsed by more and more governments at the behest and request of these recidivists is, “trust the recidivist,” variously presented as “corporate responsibility” or “our firm can self-regulate.” Agents provocateurs of the recidivists, variously cloaked as scholars, policy analysts and “experts,” effectively aid and abet these criminals. Collectively these savants are increasingly jockeying to elaborate, endorse and uphold the feasibility and possibility of “corporate responsibility” pacts and TNC voluntarism—in lieu of regulation and further criminal prosecution. The OECD has a different view; a June 2003 report titled “Voluntary Approaches for Environmental Policy: Effectiveness, Efficiency and Usage in Policy Mixes” makes clear that the “environmental effectiveness of voluntary approaches is still questionable.”

From market to knowledge monopolies

The extent of the sectoral concentration and control exercised by these criminal firms certainly means that they play a role in shaping markets, often illegally. These firms also have tremendous influence over knowledge, information and public perception of GMOs, GM crops and foods.

Because of intense competition, firms are seeking to concentrate their control on life and life processes by controlling knowledge itself in the form of intellectual property. 95% of patents on life or life processes are held in industrial countries. The average cost to solicit a patent is approximately $20,000, with an annual upkeep of $5000, while litigating a patent can cost on average over $1 million.

As Vandana Shiva put it recently in her regular ZNet posting, “Genetic engineering is not merely causing genetic pollution of biodiversity and creating bio-imperialism, monopolies over life itself. It is also causing knowledge pollution—by undermining independent science, and promoting pseudo science. It is leading to monopolies over knowledge and information.”

Conjoining tight control over markets and knowledge is a relatively new threat to ecosystems and humanity. Since the mid-1800s agriculture, as a social form, has become increasingly about making money—especially for capitalists, who increasingly position themselves to control the form.

As rural sociologist Jack Kloppenberg opined in First the Seed, “the agricultural sciences have over time become increasingly subordinated to capital and…this ongoing process has shaped both the content of research and, necessarily, the character of the products.”

Kloppenburg was only echoing the truism of turn-of-the-century biologist Hugo de Vries, who posited that what is profitable affects, or even determines, what is “scientifically true.” The trouble flowing out of the BioBelt, as Monsanto likes to refer to the collection of firms—would-be bio-boutiques—that have spawned in the vicinity of its St. Louis headquarters, could not be better stated.

No longer did Monsanto have to do the dirty work. It could suggest and encourage state police forces to suppress voices of dissent.

But as Brian Tokar argues in the book, Re-designing Life, “biotechnology seeks to alter the fundamental patterns of nature so as better to satisfy the demands of the commercial market place”—independent of the needs of the state and its people. So when soil fertility and plant health are compromised by monocropping and excessive pesticide use, the biotech solution is to engineer crops tolerant to herbicides and low soil fertility. When industrial scale irrigation projects or global warming handicap or threaten water supplies, biotechnologists argue for engineering drought-resistant crops. The seductive easy fix is to engineer away the problem or, worse, pretend root causes are non-existent.

Resistance is fertile

2003 marked the seventh gathering of the Bio-devastation conference cum protest. The gathering was held in St. Louis concurrently with the World Agricultural Forum—the self-described “only forum uniting [elite] leaders from disparate organizations—including government, academia, corporations, foundations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).” In July 1998 the “First International Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation” was called by members of the Gateway Green Alliance in St. Louis to bring together grassroots opponents of genetic engineering to learn and strategize. [6] The meeting brought together concerned scientists and representatives of popular movements from Ireland, England, Mexico, Canada, the European Parliament, India and the United States, as well as a large contingent of farmer and consumer activists from Japan.

In 2003, Monsanto collaborated closely with the St. Louis police department and the organizers of the World Agricultural Forum to disrupt Biodevastation 7. Members of a bicycle circus touring the US to spread the word about the problems of GMOs were detained for cycling without licenses under an ordinance that had been off the books for two years. Other activists were arrested in two buildings which were being renovated with city permits; city inspectors posted the buildings “condemned” immediately in advance of the police’s warrantless entry. Activists’ property was seized, destroyed, vandalized or displayed as weapons—e.g., roofing nails and juggling torches. No longer did Monsanto have to do the dirty work. It could suggest and encourage state police forces to suppress voices of dissent of a growing number of citizens.

In the space of seven Biodevastation conferences over the past half-decade a host of alternatives to both the material and knowledge hegemony of Monsanto and its peers have been showcased, discussed and debated. It’s worth elaborating at least two areas.

Beyond engineered security: Toward food sovereignty

Gordon Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, Norman Borlaug, and other scientists and policy mavens of (ill) repute hype and pimp “The Next Green Revolution” or a “Doubly Green Revolution,” often on the premise that “Roads, fertilizer and science can revive a continent.” In the global south and north other scientists are pressing for food sovereignty. [7] An alternative wave is cresting if only because, as Conway has admitted, the Green Revolution was “blunted” by “problems of social inequity, unequal access to resources, and policies that are short-sighted or benefit only the wealthy.”

In Africa the Zambian Agricultural Minister in September 2002, on the eve of one of the worst droughts in the recorded history of the region, noted that he would prefer starvation for himself and Zambians rather than receive GE crops and GMO- infested food aid.

In Rome in 2002 a gathering affirmed, “Food sovereignty is a right of countries and peoples to define their own agricultural, pastoral, fisheries and food policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate. Food sovereignty promotes the Right to Food for the entire population, through small and medium-sized production, respecting: the cultures, diversity of peasants, pastoralists, fisherfolk, Indigenous Peoples and their innovation systems, their ways and means of production, distribution and marketing and their management of rural areas and landscapes. Women play a fundamental role in ensuring food sovereignty.” [8]

Those calling for food sovereignty identify “the roots of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the international trade-led hegemonic economic model.”

Those calling for food sovereignty identify “the roots of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the international trade-led hegemonic economic model” that is variously propped up and enforced by the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Such an outlook frames agricultural issues in terms of global political economy, not in terms of a technological or engineering problem.

The proponents of sovereignty see GE crops not exclusively as dangerous per se but consider it a technology eminently capable of facilitating corporate oligopoly, or the monopolization of agriculture and ultimately the very meaning of food.

Opening knowledge: CopyLeft! to BioLinux

A word play on “copyright” the CopyLeft movement was born as a reaction to the increasing encroachment of intellectual property rights (IPRs) in the software industry. The idea behind Copyleft is that software should be protected by free licenses, so-called GNU General Public Licenses (GNU GPL), as a means to facilitate sharing and exchange without the imposition of restrictive copyright licenses and associated royalties. The movement gave birth to the Linux operating system programming effort.

BioLinux…would enable plant varieties to be in the public domain, freely exchangeable with unrestricted rights to others to experiment, improve, innovate and share…

Srinivas has argued for the extension of the GNU GPL into the protection of plant varieties, agro-machinery and related agricultural products. [9] Dubbed BioLinux, such a GNU GPL would enable plant varieties to be in the public domain, freely exchangeable with unrestricted rights to others to experiment, improve, innovate and share without concern for traditional intellectual property barriers.

“…any patent must be licensed for everyone’s free use or not licensed at all.”

For some the notion that IPRs would be substantially curtailed (even eliminated) strikes as a supreme heresy. IPRs represent the only mechanism to foster and secure continuous innovation in a given sector, agricultural or otherwise. Economists, however, are not unanimous on the efficacy of IPRs for securing and fostering innovation. Further, proponents of GNU GPL are cognizant that “any free program is threatened constantly by software patents.” Thus they argue they “wish to avoid the danger that redistributors of a free program will individually obtain patent licenses, in effect making the program proprietary. To prevent this, we have made it clear that any patent must be licensed for everyone’s free use or not licensed at all.” BioLinux would be analogously applied to agriculturally related items.


The life science industries, in total, are represented by at least eight overlapping subsectors. These include seed firms; agrochemical concerns; agroforestry; veterinary services and medicine; food processors, packagers and providers; biotechnology; pharmaceuticals; and the latest arrival, nanotech cum bioinformatics. Agriculture is the nexus that connects these seemingly disparate concerns.

Together these sectors represent a capitalized market valued between $2.5–4 trillion. Approximately one dozen firms control 3/4 of this market. Accordingly, rarely are the outcomes and outputs of these industries oriented to humanitarian ends—i.e., feeding and curing people, or tackling hunger or disease. Instead, increasingly these industries are committed, at best, to feeding themselves and their shareholders increasing profits, making well people better, and fomenting simultaneously social sickness and corporate wealth. The name of the game is, privatize benefits and socialize costs.

The response and resistance to the ideological and material hegemony of agri-capitalists is widespread. The foundation for resistance emerges from ethical concerns and reasoning. Chaia Heller suggests asking ourselves, “What ought to be the means through which we achieve a society that ought to be?” whereas the countervailing technologist is preoccupied with “efficient outcomes” that are largely based on instrumentalist thought. The challenge ahead for humane, democratized agriculture seems to be how to insert further rupture into instrumentalist outlooks.


1. All the three top tens are from: Globalization, Inc., Concentration in Corporate Power: The Unmentioned Agenda, Issue #71. ETC Group: Winnipeg, Canada, 2001.

2. Action Aid Crops and Robbers Report. 2001.

3. See US Department of Justice Press Release: F. Hoffmann-La Roche and BASF Agree To Pay Record Criminal Fines For Participating In International Vitamin Cartel Thursday, 20 May 1999. Available at: www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/1999/May/196at.htm

4. The Coltan Phenomenon: How a rare mineral has changed the life of the population of war-torn North Kivu province in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Original in French). The Pole Institute, 2001; www.pole-institute.org.

5. DuPont and Monsanto – Living in Sinergy. ETC Group, 5 September 2002, http://www.rafi.org/documents/nr2002apr9.pdf, viewed 7 October 2003.

6. See http://www.biodev.org/.

7. Borlaug opines on the pages of the New York Times (July 11, 2003) that “Biotechnology should be a part of African agricultural reform; African leaders will be making a grievous error if they turn their backs to it.”

8. This definition comes from the Action Agenda of the June 8–13, 2003 meeting. See www.forumfoodsovereignty.org.

9. Srinivas, R. 2002 The Case for Biolinuxes, and Other Pro-Commons Innovations,Sarai Reader, India.

[14 dec 03]

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