Three sides to every story

Arthur Dunkel's legacy of proposals on patent, science and investment laws continues to be perceived differently. Even in individual countries, there are differences of opinion - acceptance, moderation and strong opposition. Supporters contend scepticism of the proposals arises from misunderstanding the market process. Others say countries with a strong genetic diversity base can - and should - protect their interests. Still others argue the proposals are only a way to ensure developed countries continue their domincance

By Gail Omvedt
Published: Saturday 31 July 1993

Three sides to every story

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)Fears over seed patents are exaggerated
THOUGH farmers differ widely on the effect the so-called Dunkel Draft (DD) will have on agriculture, the influential section of intellectuals seems convinced the DD and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) will be overwhelmingly destructive. Unfortunately, the fact is that most farmers and most intellectuals have neither read the DD nor given much thought to the issue; instead, they voice arguments that are based on the faith they place in the integrity of their leaders. Anti-DD opinion has been built up in mostly stage-managed forums, where raising questions is looked on with suspicion.

I have read the DD and I have some familiarity with the production process in agriculture. This is why it is hard for me to understand the alarmist prediction of DD opponents that "multinational corporations (MNCs) will come and take over our seeds." The fact is that patenting will not make any difference to traditional varieties as the agricultural process makes it necessary to buy them fresh each year to maintain productivity. So, if more MNCs come in, it will simply mean more seed varieties being available and though some may be high-priced, the farmers need not buy these. The argument that MNCs can force farmers to buy patented seeds that are both high-priced and less productive than traditional varieties, is an insult to farmers and a misunderstanding of market processes.

Traditional seed varieties are vanishing, but the remedy does not lie in widening the license-permit raj or banning MNCs, for these steps have not helped to preserve biodiversity in the past. Specific and positive steps are needed to save them along with more research in India. This requires several preconditions: an economic structure that forces Indian business to compete and innovate, rather than merely copy; motivating scientists by ensuring rewards for research; perhaps enacting more patent protection; providing an alternative to the fossilised bureaucracies of government establishments, and giving more freedom and economic power to farmers. We say that farmers are the original biotechnologists (and women, the original farmers), which raises the question as to why society has not been able to provide farmers with enough income, a decent living standard and better control of their own resources, which would enable them to influence the type of research being done or even to innovate on their own.

The current fear among intellectuals about the DD is an exaggerated fear of the market process and refusal to deal with the harmful effects of state intervention.

This is the most crucial area for Marxist rethinking today. The belief that the market generates "monopoly" control is a fallacy; the truth is business interests have always required state intervention to gain control. For example, small Indian seed companies could survive, compete and bargain with MNCs if the state does not favour the latter. Today's "global" economics is forcing big corporations to diversify their command structure and give autonomy to local divisions.

If we are concerned with agriculture, we should stop talking in emotive terms only and, instead, we must understand the political economy of food. Nearly two decades ago I wrote a booklet following the World Food Conference in Rome, where the prospect of famine and the use by the US of the "food weapon" were very much in the air. Since then, many countries have attained food self-sufficiency, but others remain famine-prone and dependent on food imports.

The major lesson of this era is that it was not free trade that has ruined Third World agriculture and made these countries dependent on foodgrain imports.

There have been two types of state intervention: large subsidies for agriculture, especially agriculture exports in Europe and North America, and the policy of most Third World governments of keeping foodgrain prices low in order to pacify the urban employed and keep down industry's wage bill. This has resulted in depressed food production by Third World farmers and encouraged, through subsidies, chemical input-intensive agriculture.

Nevertheless, there is an ongoing willingness on the part of some governments, including India, to accept "dumped" food from abroad, such as the recent import of three million tons of wheat. This has nothing to do with GATT or the free market; on the contrary, the Uruguay Round and GATT would end such dumping, through maybe not as fast or as thoroughly as we might like. In the interest of Indian farmers and the country's overall economic development, the government should push to open up trade and halt subsidies that actually hamstring production and block exports.

Intellectuals who claim to be safeguarding India's economic interests should stop talking nonsense, such as GATT would force us to halt farm subsidies.GATT does not represent "recolonisation" and those who assert the opposite are not basing their assertions on a Leninist theory of imperialism. They may be borrowing ideas from people like Andre Gunder Frank and the "neo-Marxists" of the 1960s and 1970s, who talked of free trade and "free trade imperialism" and of the unchanging relations of dependence.

In the development of imperialism, monopolies divide up the market and countries, the world. The GATT process is entirely different from such a division of the market for it concerns countries that are negotiating together on the basis, "You open up your market to our companies and products and we'll open our markets to yours."

This is not monopoly; it is regulated competitive capitalism.

Gail Omvedt is a Maharashtra-based social scientist and activist.

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