TURNING THE PADDY GOLD: CORN IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Genetically-modified Bt corn was due to be tested for the first time on Philippine soil in June 1999. The country's National Committee on Biosafety had approved the 30-day public notice for testing its efficacy against the corn borer. But public opposition has so far prevented the tests from going ahead. An important battle is underway, and for once local government is siding with the public. Local officials have expressed "grave concern over the field release of genetically-engineered corn," temporarily calling a halt to field testing in their area of jurisdiction.
They recognise that genetically-modified (GM) crops present a huge threat to food security and agricultural sustainability in Southeast Asia. They see the potential for these crops to wreak environmental havoc, destroy ecological balance, erode biodiversity and undermine farmers' autonomy and productive capacity. The Philippine government's proposal to allow 100% foreign ownership of prime agricultural lands to be used for research and development (R&D) and production further exacerbates these threats. Farmers fear being trapped into a form of industrial slavery through the introduction of GM crops. As one farmer recenlty declared, "the shift from the chemical, conventional farming system to the diversified integrated farming is the single determining factor for our self-sufficiency. If the government can understand this, our country as a whole would benefit from it."
The way things are going, it may not be long before products of genetic engineering reach farmers' fields in Asia. In Thailand, Monsanto is now conducting field tests on Bt corn and both Pioneer and Monsanto are conducting tests on Bt cotton. Monsanto and Pioneer have already carried out limited field tests of Bt corn in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture in Indonesia. And Monsanto is bent on field testing its Bt corn in the Philippines later this year despite growing opposition from the public.
After rice, corn is perhaps Southeast Asia's most important crop. It is also one of industry's most profitable crops. Given the biotech industry's relentless pursuit of new territories and markets, what is corn's future here? Will the biotech giants succeed in turning Asia's rich patchwork of rice paddies into a golden sea of corn reminiscent of the US's Great Plains or can corn remain an integral part of the biodiverse farming systems of local farmers?
Multinationals muscling in
Farmers continue to play a vital role in the production of a diverse range of corn varieties in the field. Almost 40% of the corn area in Southeast Asia is still planted to farmers varieties (table 1). Breeders from the public and private sector still regularly visit farmers' field in search of new breeding materials.
Table 1. Corn varieties grown on the farm, 1997
Source: World Maize Facts and Trends 1997/98, CIMMYT, March 1999 and FAO Agricultural Production Data, updated 21 June 1999.
Nevertheless, many traditional cultivated varieties of corn have already been replaced by modern varieties in many areas in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. In Vietnam, numerous glutinous corn varieties important for human consumption and food security have already disappeared. Meanwhile, in Indonesia there are fears over the rapid disappearance of local varieties due to current government thrusts to promote new high yielding varieties. Increased efforts both by the government and the private sector will push more hybrid seeds into farmers' fields in the future.
Governments are relying more and more on private companies to supply corn seed (table 2). A handful of multinational and national companies operating in the region are now responsible for supplying hybrid seed for 25% of the total corn area. Only three companies (Cargill, Pioneer and CP-DeKalb) control almost 70% of the Asian seed market. The recent acquisition of DeKalb and Cargill Seeds International by Monsanto means that there are really only two competitors. Novartis, meanwhile, is gearing up its corn seed business in the region and is seeking tie-ups with local companies such as Cornworld in the Philippines.
Table 2. Major corn seed companies in selected Southeast Asian countries, 1997
Source: Dr. Danilo Baldos, former Agronomist/Coordinator of CIMMYT Maize Program Crop Management Training in Thailand. Based on his research of the Asian seed industry.
What is equally alarming is the rapid consolidation among chemical companies, biotechnology firms and seed suppliers at one end of the spectrum and the growing alliances with food handlers and processors at the other. This phenomenon, known as "vertical integration," should more appropriately be called "vertical disintegration" in terms of its impact on farmers and food production. With corporations controlling all the steps of production and processing, farmers are becoming mere slaves of industry, as they watch their profits shrinking and their autonomy disappearing.
The increasing trend towards genetically-modified (GM) crops will only lead to further consolidation of larger companies through mergers and acquisitions. In the past three years alone, Monsanto has spent more than $8 billion buying up seed and agricultural companies in order to deploy its GM technologies in the field. Monsanto, which ranks second after DuPont/Pioneer in the global seed company rankings, is planning to let loose transgenic corn hybrids on Southeast Asian farms by 2001. With its recent acquisitions, it is set to fast track research and development on GM corn. Its current R&D portfolio emphasises the needs of the feed and processing industries, and ignoring the needs of those who rely on corn as a staple.
The widespread adoption of patents or patent-like plant variety protection, which are being pushed by industrialised countries and the World Trade Organisation, would have profound implications to many farmers in the developing world where more than 80% of seed requirement is generated through local seed supply systems. Such legislation would largely place control of the seed market in the hands of a few multinational corporations promoting a few proprietary seeds of their choosing. This situation would have a profound impact on food security.
The majority of patents on transgenic corn are held by a handful of major US companies. Half of the 333 biotechnology patents granted or applied for on corn worldwide can be traced to only six of the world's agrochemical giants. Not surprisingly, the top three (DuPont-Pioneer, Monsanto and Novartis) are also the top three companies controlling the seed trade worldwide. Some of the patent claims are very broad and sweeping and have been the subject of legal disputes. The breadth or narrowness of the patents granted by the US court system will have a huge impact on the future of corn production, trade and food security in Asia.
The future of corn in Southeast Asia
The region is just beginning to deal with changes in trade policies imposed by the WTO, the impact of which is already being felt by small farmers who are being forced to compete globally. Now more than ever, farmers are unprotected from the vagaries of the markets. With trade liberalisation, governments are promoting imports as a recourse to meet local demand, which undermines local capacity to produce food. Local producers are finding it ever harder to compete with cheap imports.
It may not be long before products of genetic engineering reach farmers' field in Asia. The importation, testing and commercial release of transgenic crops is the most urgent threat to farmers, consumers and the environment in the region. In the US, genetically modified crops had long been approved for planting without much opposition. But in Asia, as in Europe, opposition to these crops is growing amongst farmers and the public. There is a real opportunity for the public in SE Asia to persuade their governments that introducing GM crops spells the kiss of death for food security and self-sufficiency.
GM crops are being touted as the answer to the South's prayers for food security and sustainability. In reality, they will take the region in the opposite direction ñ towards environmental upheaval, extreme food insecurity and the enslavement of farmers and consumers alike. GM crops may be bad news for the industrialised world, but they present far greater threats to countries in the South, where peoples' livelihoods are so much more closely linked to their ability to grow food and where local markets are crucial to community survival. Action must be taken immediately to prevent Southeast Asian farmlands from becoming a playground for the biotech industry.
This article appeared in GRAIN's quarterly
newsletter, Seedling and has been edited from, "Whose agenda: The
corporate takeover of corn in SE Asia,"which was researched, written
and published as a joint effort between BIOTHAI, GRAIN, MASIPAG and PAN
Indonesia. Paper and email versions are available from GRAIN, and it is
also on the web at http://www.grain.org/publications/reports/takeover.htm