Seed companies hauled into court

Mexico City, 24 Sep 1999 (IPS) -- Activists from 30 countries have taken action against the world's biggest life science companies by taking them to court over the question of genetically-modified food which, they say, represents an attempt to free agriculture from the control of a few.

"The action reflects humanity's growing pre-occupation with its future," says professor Sebastian Pinheiro of the Federal University of Rio Grande in Brazil. "Genetically-modified crops represent an economic threat to agriculture and put humanity's survival at risk."

Spearheading the drive against big business is US biotechnology activist and head of the Foundation on Economic Trends, Jeremy Rifkin. He is leading a campaign that will see activists and farmers from Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America challenge the power of the world's most dominant genetic food engines later this year.

"Transnational companies such as Monsanto and Dupont are not worried by world hunger or the quality of life of the rest of humanity. They want power, to dominate the politics of food and are merely driven by commercial interests," says Pinheiro.

"When the lawsuit gets underway either in the United States or a foreign court it is billed to become the biggest anti-trust action in the world with the exception of the Microsoft case."

The activists claim that the likes of Monsanto, DuPont, Pioneer Hi-Bred, and Novartis are exploiting bio-technology unfairly and in such a way that they gain control of global agricultural markets.

Modified crops are protected by patents and contracts. Farmers who plant them must promise not to keep seeds for future use.

Using new bio-technologies the big corporations are attempting to extend control to the 45% of the world economy that is based on biological products by using a patent system designed for machines and making it work with plants and animals, activists say.

Monsanto, dubbed the "Microsoft of micro-biology", together with other seed companies also is developing ways to genetically alter plants so they do not produce usable seeds. This could force farmers to buy seeds year after year and give these companies power to dictate the future of plant breeding, activists say.

"A central concern will be that, throughout the history of civilization, farmers have been able to grow food and sow their own fields with their own seeds. These companies are trying to change that," declared US attorney Rich Lewis, one of the many lawyers involved in the case.

Law firms, operating on a no-win-no-fee basis, are looking for some provision of anti-trust or contract law that would let Rifkin challenge the seed restrictions in a state, federal or foreign court.

Agricultural analysts say that a few big corporations now own 30 percent of the global trade in seed, valued at $23 billion annually - roughly the gross domestic product of Vietnam.

Five of these companies Monsanto, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Aventis and DuPont virtually control the entire genetically modified crops sector, analysts say.

When Monsanto last year bought the seed operations of Cargill in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe for $1.4 billion it gained control of seed research and production centres in 24 countries and distribution systems in more than 50 others.

The law-suit comes at a time when there is growing concern over the implications of genetically modified crops and resistance from certain economic blocs such as the European Union towards the consumption and import of such crops.

Developing countries have adopted differing positions to genetic crops, some such as Argentina and Mexico embracing the technology while others especially in Africa hesitant about the safety of the science.

In India, Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) says the anti-trust action would be a useful addition to local campaigns like the "Monsanto Quit India" movement which is over a year old. However, by itself the action would not be able to do more than create awareness among farmers who are targets of Monsanto and Cargill.

RFTSE is one of several pressure groups that challenged India's new patent act in the country's supreme court earlier this year. The act grants monopolies and marketing rights to drug and agro- chemical transnationals.

Hundreds of cotton farmers in India's southern Andhra Pradesh state committed suicide last year following crop failures. They had bought costly pesticides but could not afford to buy another batch of seeds.

Brazil, one of the worlds 10 largest economies, has been against commercialising the biotech sector of the economy. The country's environment ministry says more studies need to be carried out and Brazil also is fearful of losing strategic European markets.

At the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle, scheduled for November, Africa has lodged a challenge to the patenting of life forms citing that it could have a devastating impact on agriculture, the mainstay of the majority of its economies.

To drive the point home, Rifkin currently is seeking a patent on using DNA splicing to create human-animal hybrids. This is so he can create mutants with the hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will then ban the issuance of patents on human life.

"The biotech revolution will force each of us to put a mirror to our most deeply held values, making us ponder the ultimate question of the purpose and meaning of existence," notes Rifkin.

In the pending lawsuit, Rifkin is assisted by 20 U.S. law firms including Washington-based Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld and Toll which recently won a case that forced Swiss banks to pay $1.25 billion to holocaust survivors.

"The action of these 30 countries can be beneficial to Brazil if it stimulates the creation of mechanisms to prevention monopolies," says Antonio Donizeti Beraldo of the National Confederation of Agriculture which represents farmers rights.

If successful, the challenge will be beneficial to all developing countries, according to activists.

When the WR Grace firm in the United States took out a patent a few years ago on a soybean species, it took with it the rights to control a food crop worth $27 billion in developing countries.

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .