Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Monsanto in Mesopotamia

As part of large-scale privatization scheme, shrewdly enacted before anyone got a chance to vote, the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq last spring issued Order 81, which governed "patent, industrial design, undisclosed information, integrated circuits and plant variety law." (Here's a list of links to all the orders--fascinating stuff.)

Appropriately for these times, the edict placed seed germoplasm within the rubric of industrial process, assigning it private ownership to be leveraged perpetually for profit. It was a neat and brazen trick: An occupying army, with the stroke of a pen, institutionalizes its brand of agriculture in one of the birthplaces of agriculture. It was as if Bush and his army had sacked Rome, and handed all the architectural decisions over to Century 21.

The order was, from what I can tell, widely ignored in media. Naomi Klein, in her excellent Harper's article dissecting the privatization scheme, didn't mention it. There has been a lot of loose analysis of order 81 on the Internet, characterized by this this writer, who declared that: "This order prohibits Iraqi farmers from using the methods of agriculture that they have used for centuries. The common worldwide practice of saving heirloom seeds from one year to the next is now illegal in Iraq. Order 81 wages war on Iraqi farmers. They have lost the freedom and liberty to choose their own methods of agriculture."

That's overstated. Here is a careful analysis of Order 81 from Grain, an international NGO that promotes sustainable agriculture. Here is the kernel of the report:

"The CPA has made it illegal for Iraqi farmers to re-use seeds harvested from new varieties registered under the law. Iraqis may continue to use and save from their traditional seed stocks or what’s left of them after the years of war and drought, but that is the not the agenda for reconstruction embedded in the ruling. The purpose of the law is to facilitate the establishment of a new seed market in Iraq, where transnational corporations can sell their seeds – genetically modified or not, which farmers would have to purchase afresh every single cropping season."

So while Order 81 doesn't ban seedsaving per se, it creates a rigorous framework for enforcing the claims of biotech seed companies when they do establish a presence in Iraq. The order awards Monsanto and its ilk a much more generous deal than what's being hammered out, for example, in Argentina, which has generally been heroic over the past couple of years in pursuing its own economic interests over those of the global investment class.

Order 81 gives patent holders a 20-year monopoly over germoplasm; last I checked, Argentina was considering offering only seven years. Degrees of obscenity, to quote J.M. Coetzee.

It will not likely be long before Monsanto is cashing in on this handiwork. According to the Grain piece, a government organization called the US Agency for International Development has been implementing an Agricultural Reconstruction and Development Program for Iraq (ARDI) since October 2003. Think they're encouraging farmers to save heirloom seeds? A little push from ARDI plus a bit of cross-pollination should spell a nice market for Monsanto.

Like all the Orders delivered by fiat of L. Paul Bremer, former occupation chief, Order 81 remains in effect unless and until the new Iraqi government specifically overturns it. Am I being cynical in assuming that the election process will throw up politicians sympathetic to the interests embedded in Bremer's scheme?

Let's close with a summary from Klein in her Harper's piece, discussing the U.S.'s pre-election economic reorganization of Iraq:" If these policies sound familiar, it’s because they are the same ones multinationals around the world lobby for from national governments and in international trade agreements. But while these reforms are only ever enacted in part, or in fits and starts, Bremer delivered them all, all at once."


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