Arresting Monsanto in Kathmandu

May 3, 2012 • Slideshow, The Farm, Theme • Views: 577

by Sampada KC:

Monsanto, the U.S.-based GMO giant, has had its share of controversy. While a few of its admirers uphold the company as the world’s best hope of tackling the looming global food crisis, its critics identify it as a corporate giant that uses science to poison food.

Protesters in Kathmandu object to Monsanto’s presence in the country. (Courtesy Florian Gye)

In September 2011, as part of its “Feed the Future Initiative,” USAID announced that it was facilitating a project by Monsanto to promote hybrid maize seeds in Nepal. Street protests in the nation’s capital of Kathmandu followed the announcement, and a great many debates ensued in the newspapers and across social networking sites. With a population of 29 million people, of who 3.5 million are considered moderately to severely food insecure, Nepal is in immediate need of a long term agricultural strategy that will boost agricultural yield and productivity. Monsanto’s hybrid maize seeds may promise to do exactly that. But the protestors disagree.

The campaign against the seeds “has been more than just Monsanto bashing,” said Sabin Ninglekhu, one of the founders of “Stop Monsanto in Nepal,” the Facebook group that organized most of the protests in Kathmandu. “Our campaign questions the logic of promoting dependency among farmers in Nepal that a pact with a multinational company will create.”

Although farmers in Nepal have been using hybrid seeds from Monsanto and other companies for over a decade, there was no public outcry until this September. A governmental partnership with Monsanto seems to have served as the catalyst. Ninglekhu said that if the partnership goes ahead farmers will be forced to buy seeds from Monsanto for every planting “because Monsanto’s seeds are patented.” There are also wider fears of monoculture, destruction of heirloom varieties, and loss of agro-bio diversity.

But neither these allegations against hybrids nor the claims of Monsanto (or for that matter, of any biotech firm), that hybrids increase yield have been warranted by any conclusive independent study. However, the rejection of Monsanto is not unique to Nepal. Monsanto’s hybrid seeds have been the subject of public dissent in neighboring India and more recently in Haiti, where farmers burnt 470 tons worth of seeds donated by the company.

Although the seed campaign in Nepal has focused on criticizing USAID’s proposed project, it has also generated some debate regarding the alternatives to Monsanto’s hybrid seeds. Anil Bhattarai is the founder of Ajambari Foundation, an organization that has taught organic farming to families in the Chitwan valley in Nepal since 1995. According to Bhattarai, “Home-grown options of organic farming that combine traditional methods and seeds with science are a superior alternative.”

In the farm that Bhattarai supervises in Chitwan, Chandra Prasad Adhikari grows paddy and fish in the same field with azole as a companion plant. “The azole with its nitrogen fixing properties provides all the needed nitrogen for the plants while also blocking out light to prevent the growth of weeds,” Bhattarai said. He added, “The fish droppings add to the nutrient of the rice, additionally.” Bhattarai hopes that similar methods of organic farming can be made common in all of Nepal’s farming communities.

While such alternatives may be the answer to a future of sustainable agriculture in Nepal, their promise to increase agricultural yield in the face of a food crisis has not yet been recognized at the institutional level. Gyan Chandra Acharya, the current Chair of the Global Coordination Bureau for the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), said, “In Nepal we need biotechnology to address the challenges imposed by climate change in agriculture; we can no longer depend solely on traditional agricultural methods.”

And thanks to the Monsanto deal, the future of agriculture is finally a topic of public and policy debate in Nepal. Rather than leaving the plight of the hungry at the charity of international food aid organizations, Nepal is looking at ways in which its own farmers can feed the hungry. Nepal must integrate technology and tradition in agriculture without help from a foreign multi-national.

Sampada KC ‘15 is in Morse College. Contact her at sampada.kc@yale.edu.

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