By Don Quijones, Spain & Mexico, editor at Wolf Street. Originally published as Wolf Street.
Monsanto & Friends are already rejoicing.
Resisting Monsanto, the world’s largest, most influential GMO giant, is an almost impossible task. The corporation boasts more back channels and revolving doors with national governments and regulators than just about any other company on the planet, not to mention a fearsome army of corporate lawyers and lobbyists.
Few countries are more aware of this fact than Mexico, where a small collective of activist groups, scientists, artists and gourmet chefs have been engaged in a titanic legal struggle with Monsanto. Although they keep winning crucial battles, the war is still likely to be won by Monsanto, thanks to one key weapon in its arsenal: the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
An Existential Struggle
For Mexican smallholders and consumers, the struggle with Monsanto & Friends is an existential one. In a 2013 ruling banning the cultivation of GMOs in Mexico, Judge Manuel Zaleta cited the potential risks to the environment posed by GMO corn. If the biotech industry got its way, he argued, more than 7000 years of indigenous maize cultivation in Mexico would be endangered, with the country’s 60 varieties of corn directly threatened by cross-pollination from transgenic strands.
In the last two years scores of appeals were brought against Zaleta’s ruling by the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dupont as well as Mexico’s Ministries of Agriculture and Environment. All of them were quashed. But then in August this year, a judge with a more sympathetic ear overturned Zaleta’s ruling [read… Mexican Gourmet Chefs Sharpen Knives in Global Food War]. The resistance, it seemed, had finally crumbled.
But a lot can happen in three months. In early November, federal judge Benjamin Soto Sánchez “upheld a provisional suspension prohibiting federal agencies from processing and granting the privilege of sowing or releasing into the environment of transgenic maize in the country.” In other words, Monsanto & Friends were back to square one.
Not only that: on Wednesday, in a separate lawsuit brought by Mayan beekeepers, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled to block a move to allow the planting of genetically modified soy seeds in the southern Mexican states of Campeche and Yucatan, arguing that indigenous communities that had fought the move should be consulted before it was approved. In other words, Monsanto & Friends will have to directly ask indigenous communities in Southern Mexico – communities that are on the whole fiercely opposed to GM cultivation – for permission to sell and grow their produce.
The Ultimate Weapon
For a company that is long accustomed to getting its way in just about every jurisdiction on planet Earth, the constant obstructionism of the Mexican justice system is beginning to wear thin for Monsanto. But the company and its rivals still have one ace up their sleeves, a weapon that has the potential to obliterate Mexico’s judicial resistance in one fell swoop: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the world’s biggest trade agreement that was recently signed by the governments of 12 Pacific-rim nations, including Mexico.
Buried deep within the 5,000-plus page deal is the Intellectual Property Rights charter which, among many other sinister things, requires all 12 TPP countries to join a number of global intellectual property treaties. One of those treaties is the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991 (UPOV 91), an agreement that elevates the rights of seed companies over farmers’ rights.
UPOV91 requires IP protection to be provided for all plant varieties; it requires protection for 20 to 25 years; and it stops farmers and breeders from exchanging protected seeds, a timeless practice in many countries around the world.
Of the TPP countries, Brunei, Malaysia, Mexico and New Zealand are not yet members of UPOV 91. To join the convention, these countries will have to apply to the Geneva-based UPOV91 Office of the Union, which then reviews the country’s laws on plant variety protection and declares which laws need to be changed, or added, in order to come into compliance and join the convention. As Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy warns, changes in plant patent laws could be particularly controversial in Mexico:
Farm groups in Mexico, considered the birthplace of corn, are leading a campaign called “Sin Maíz, No Hay Paíz” (Without corn, there is no country) that advocates for a ban on GMO corn… Farm organizations argue that the country’s biodiversity and genetic resources are at risk from contamination of GMO corn.
The Privatization of Seeds
It would not be the first time that the world’s biggest agribusiness corporations had tried to use so-called free trade agreements to consolidate their stranglehold over a nation’s food chain. As I reported in Corporate Colonialism – Winners and Losers of Global ‘Free’ Trade, one of the conditions that former US President Bush and then President Obama put on passing the latest trade agreement with Washington’s closest South American ally, Colombia, was the passage of a law to privatize the nation’s seeds:
The Colombian government was more than happy to oblige, decreeing in the now infamous Decreto 970 that only certified seeds could be sown. The problem for Colombian farmers is that only big capital – i.e. multinationals like Monsanto – can afford the certification process. As a result, only their seeds could be grown.
Within months of the passage of Decreto 970, 64 tons of uncertified rice seeds had been confiscated and destroyed in Columbia’s Huila region. According to the farmers, the government hadn’t even informed them of the new law.
The response of the Colombian campesinos was to mount a collective resistance struggle that brought large swathes of the country’s rural heartland to a crunching standstill and resulted in direct, bloody clashes with government and paramilitary forces. Two campesinos were killed and many more injured.
In the face of the public backlash, the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, decided to suspend the law. Then, at the tail end of 2013, Colombia’s Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional since indigenous communities had not been consulted before its implementation.
Colombia’s recent experience could well be a potent portent of things to come. According to Alejandro de Coss, a Mexican internationalist who teaches at the London School of Economics, the new generation of trade agreements like TPP could herald a recolonization of Latin America – no longer through the actual physical possession of the land, but through the seeds grown on it.
For the people of Mexico, the TPP could be the ultimate kick in the teeth. They have fought their own government, industry and some of the world’s largest, most powerful corporations tooth and nail to preserve their food sovereignty — the basic right to grow and consume their own food the way it has been grown and consumed for millennia, using ecologically sound and sustainable methods .
If TPP is passed by the U.S. Congress and all the other TPP signatory governments, including Mexico’s, they will almost certainly lose that right. Instead the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont will be granted a new right — the right to sue the Mexican government (or any other signatory government) in front of private U.S.-based arbitration panels for billions of dollars if a single judge dare to put the needs of the people before the interests of foreign corporations and investors. By Don Quijones, Raging Bull-Shit.
But who is the governments’ strongest ally in their War on Cash? Read… “First They Came for the Pennies…” in the War on Cash