Why Iraqi Farmers Might Prefer Death to Paul Bremer's Order 81
Anyone hearing about central India's ongoing epidemic of farmer suicides, where
growers are killing themselves at a terrifying clip, has to be horrified. But among the more disturbed must be the once-grand poobah of post-invasion Iraq, U.S. diplomat L. Paul Bremer.
Why Iraqi Farmers Might Prefer Death to Paul Bremer's Order 81
By Nancy Scola, AlterNet
Posted on September 19, 2007, Printed on September 19, 2007
Anyone hearing about central India's ongoing epidemic of farmer suicides
2007-07-06T163214Z_01_NOOTR_RTRMDNC_0_India-283485-1.xml> , where
growers are killing themselves at a terrifying clip, has to be
horrified. But among the more disturbed must be the once-grand poobah of
post-invasion Iraq, U.S. diplomat L. Paul Bremer.
Why Bremer? Because Indian farmers are choosing death after finding
themselves caught in a loop of crop failure and debt rooted in
genetically modified and patented agriculture -- the same farming model
that Bremer introduced to Iraq during his tenure as administrator of the
Coalition Provisional Authority, the American body that ruled the "new
Iraq" in its chaotic early days.
In his 400 days of service as CPA administrator, Bremer issued a series
of directives known collectively as the "100 Orders." Bremer's orders
set up the building blocks of the new Iraq, and among them is Order 81
[PDF] /www.export.gov/iraq/pdf/cpa_order_81.pdf> , officially
titled Amendments to Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information,
Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety Law, enacted by Bremer on April
Order 81 generated very little press attention when it was issued. And
what coverage it did spark tended to get the details wrong. Reports
claimed that what the United States' man in Iraq had done was no less
than tell each and every Iraqi farmer -- growers who had been tilling
the soil of Mesopotamia for thousands of years -- that from here on out
they could not reuse seeds /www.grain.org/articles/?id=6> from
their fields or trade seeds with their neighbors, but instead they would
be required to purchase all of their seeds from the likes of U.S.
agriculture conglomerates like Monsanto.
That's not quite right. Order 81 wasn't that draconian, and it was not
so clearly a colonial mandate. In fact, the edict was more or less a
What Order 81 did was to establish the strong intellectual property
protections on seed and plant products that a company like the St.
Louis-based Monsanto -- purveyors of genetically modified (GM) seeds and
other patented agricultural goods -- requires before they'll set up shop
in a new market like the new Iraq. With these new protections, Iraq was
open for business. In short, Order 81 was Bremer's way of telling
Monsanto that the same conditions had been created in Iraq that had led
to the company's stunning successes in India.
In issuing Order 81, Bremer didn't order Iraqi farmers to march over to
the closest Monsanto-supplied shop and stock up. But if Monsanto's
experience in India is any guide, he didn't need to.
Here's the way it works in India. In the central region of Vidarbha, for
example, Monsanto salesmen travel from village to village touting the
tremendous, game-changing benefits of Bt cotton, Monsanto's genetically
modified seed sold in India under the Bollgard(r) label. The salesmen
tell farmers of the amazing yields other Vidarbha growers have enjoyed
while using their products, plastering villages with posters detailing
"True Stories of Farmers Who Have Sown Bt Cotton." Old-fashioned cotton
seeds pale in comparison to Monsanto's patented wonder seeds, say the
salesmen, as much as an average old steer is humbled by a fine Jersey
Part of the trick to Bt cotton's remarkable promise, say the salesmen,
is that Bollgard(r) was genetically engineered in the lab to contain
bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that the company claims drastically
reduces the need for pesticides. When pesticides are needed, Bt cotton
plants are Roundup(r) Ready -- a Monsanto designation meaning that the
plants can be drowned in the company's signature herbicide, none the
worse for wear. (Roundup(r) mercilessly kills nonengineered plants.)
Sounds great, right? The catch is that Bollgard(r) and Roundup(r) cost
real money. And so Vidarbha's farmers, somewhat desperate to grow the
anemic profit margin that comes with raising cotton in that dry and
dusty region, have rushed to both banks and local moneylenders to secure
the cash needed to get on board with Monsanto. Of a $3,000 bank loan a
Vidarbha farmer might take out, as much as half might go to purchasing a
growing season's worth of Bt seeds.
And the same goes the next season, and the next season after that. In
traditional agricultural, farmers can recycle seeds from one harvest to
plant the next, or swap seeds with their neighbors at little or no cost.
But when it comes to engineered seeds like Bt cotton, Monsanto owns the
tiny speck of intellectual property inside each hull, and thus controls
the patent. And a farmer wishing to reuse seeds from a Monsanto plant
must pay to relicense them from the company each and every growing
But farmers who chose to bet the farm, literally, on Bt cotton or other
GM seeds aren't necessarily crazy or deluded. Genetically modified
agricultural does hold the tremendous promise of leading to increased
yields -- incredibly important for farmers feeding their families and
communities from limited land and labor.
But when it comes to GM seeds, all's well when all is well. Farming is a
gamble, and the flip side of the great potential reward that genetically
modified seeds offer is, of course, great risk. When all goes badly,
farmers who have sunk money into Monsanto-driven farming find themselves
at the bottom of a far deeper hole than farmers who stuck with
traditional growing. Farmers who suffer a failed harvest may find it
nearly impossible to secure a new loan from either a bank or local
moneylender. With no money to dig him or herself out, that hole only
And that hole is exactly where farmers have found themselves in India's
Vidarbha region, where crop failure -- especially the failure of Bt
cotton crops -- has reached the level of pandemic.
In may be that Bt cotton isn't well-suited to central India's
rain-driven farming methods; Bollgard(r) and parched Vidarbha may be as
ill-suited as Bremer's combat boots and Brooks Brothers suits. It may be
the unpredictable and unusually dry monsoon seasons that have plagued
India of late. But in any case, the result is that more and more of
India's farmers are finding themselves in debt, and with little hope for
finding their way out.
And the final way out that so many of them -- thousands upon thousands
-- have chosen is death, and by their own hands. Firm statistics are
difficult to come by, but even numbers on the low end of the scale are
downright horrifying. The Indian government and NGOs have estimated
that, so far this year, at last count more than a thousand farmers
2007-07-06T163214Z_01_NOOTR_RTRMDNC_0_India-283485-1.xml> have killed
themselves in the state of Maharashtra alone. The New York Times pinned
it as 17,000 Indian farmers in 2003 alone
&en=025df5acd4ef3e36&ei=5070> . A PBS special that aired last month,
called "The Dying Fields
/www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/shows/vidarbha/index.html> ," claimed
that one farmer commits suicide in Vidarbha every eight hours.
But let's not be so pessimistic for a moment, and say that Iraqi farmers
see the risks of investing in unproven GM seeds. Let's say they reject
the idea that the intellectual property buried inside the seeds they
plant is "owned" not by nature, but by Monsanto. Let's say they decide
to keep on keeping on with nonengineered, nonpatented agriculture.
The fact is, they may not have a choice.
Here is where Order 81 starts to look a lot like the forced and
mandatory GM-driven agricultural system that cynics tagged it as when it
was first announced. Read the letter of the law, and the impact of Order
81 seems limited to using public policy to construct an architecture
that's simply favorable to a company like Monsanto. The directive
promotes a corporate agribusiness model a lot like the one we have in
the United States today, but it doesn't really and truly put Monsanto in
the driver's seat of that system.
Actually handing the keys to Monsanto is instead biology's job.
Biology -- how so? That's a good question for Percy Schmeiser, the
Saskatchewan farmer featured in the film The Future of Food
/www.thefutureoffood.com/> , who found himself tangled with
Monsanto in a heated lawsuit
the presence of Roundup(r) Ready canola plants on the margins of his
The Canadian farmer argued that he had purchased no Monsanto canola
seeds, had never planted Monsanto seeds, and was frankly horrified to
find that the genetically modified crops had taken hold in his acreage.
Perhaps, suggested Schmeiser, the plants in question were the product of
a few rogue GM seeds blown from a truck passing by his land?
Monsanto was uninterested in Schmeiser's theory on how the Roundup(r)
Ready plants got there. As far as the company was concerned, Schmeiser
was in possession of an agricultural product whose intellectual property
belonged to Monsanto. And it didn't matter much how that came to pass.
Monsanto's interpretation of the impact of seed contamination is, of
course, a good one if its goal is to eventually own the rights to the
world's seed supply. And that goal may well be in sight. In fact, a 2004
study by the Union of Concerned Scientists
/www.csmonitor.com/2004/0311/p14s01-sten.html> found that much
of the U.S. seed pool is already contaminated by GM seeds. If that
contamination continues unabated, eventually much of the world's seeds
could labor under patents controlled by one agribusiness or another.
In one agricultural realm like Iraq's, GM contamination could in short
order give a company like Monsanto a stranglehold over the market.
Post-Order 81 Iraqi farmers who want to resist genetically modified
seeds and stick to traditional farming methods may not have that choice.
Future generations of Iraqi growers may find that one seed shop in
Karbala is selling the same patented seeds as every other shop in town.
And when that happens, what had been a traditional farming community --
where financial risk is divided and genetic diversity multiplied through
the simple interactions between neighboring farmers -- finds itself
nothing more than the home to lone farmers caught up in the high-stakes
world of international agribusiness.
It's a world not unfamiliar to former CPA honcho Bremer, if the company
he keeps is any indication. Robert Cohen, author of the book Milk A-Z
talks about the Bush administration as the "Monsanto Cabinet."
Among the many connections between that company and the current White
House: Former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman served on the board of
directors of Calgene, a Monsanto subsidiary; one-time Secretary of
Defense Don Rumsfeld had an eight-year stint as president of Searle,
another Monsanto subsidiary; Clarence Thomas worked as an attorney in
Monsanto's pesticide and agriculture division before coming to the
Supreme Court as a George H.W. Bush appointee.
Those connections, as much as anything else, might help to explain the
impetus behind and timing of Order 81. Let's suppose for a minute that
GM-driven globalized agriculture is, indeed, in the long-term best
interests of the new Iraq. Even in the best of circumstances, such a
significant policy shift in so core an economic sector can be expected
to cause short-term pain. When Bremer issued the directive, Iraq was
hardly in a good place: It had recently been invaded, its government
dismantled. Considering the desperate need for immediate stability in
Iraq in April 2004, Order 81 begins to look like the triumph of
connections and ideology over clear-headed policymaking.
In India, seed activists like Vandana Shiva are working to weaken the
connection between that world of U.S. agribusiness and the farmers in
villages and towns across India. Shiva, featured in the PBS special The
Dying Fields, implores local farmers to stop forking over their money to
commercial seed producers and return to the days of homegrown seeds.
While Monsanto sells seeds that become India's corn, rice, potatoes, and
tomatoes, it's cotton where Monsanto is king, as Shiva well knows. "You
have become addicted to Bt cotton," she chides farmers. Though if the
perpetuation of the GMO-seed/crop-failure cycle is any indication, few
Indian farmers are listening.
Will Iraqi farmers making their way in the new post-Order 81
agricultural world fare any better? Maybe. Can they manage to reap the
benefits of genetically modified farming, trading their newfound
dependence on Monsanto and other corporate behemoths for the increased
yield their patented and IP-protected seeds promise? Hopefully.
But it's possible that Iraq's farmers will indeed find themselves in the
same predicament that India's farmers have ended up in -- a world where
growers no longer rely upon their fields and their communities to meet
their needs but in a world in which, when hard times strike, the only
way out seems like the final exit. A world in which, in a twist perhaps
worthy of Shakespeare, the farmer borrows one last time from whatever
bank or moneylender will hand over a few last rupees, buys one last
bottle of Roundup(r), and -- as has happened so many times in India --
ends it all by drinking it down.
Monsanto to the end.
Nancy Scola /www.nancyscola.com> is a Brooklyn-based freelance
writer. Nancy has worked on Capitol Hill and on the prepresidential
campaign of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, and is currently a blogger
at the political blog MyDD.
contribute to this article
contribute to this article
add comment to discussion