Apparently there was a riot-and it stopped Monsanto in Nepal!
An interesting thing happened in April: elements of fiction turned up as news reports on the biotech giant Monsanto’s presence in Nepal. “Street Riots Form in Response to Monsanto Intrusion into Nepal,” said an initial headline. “Monsanto attempts to force seeds on Nepal,” said another. And an international video report started off by announcing “In Nepal massive protests broke out after notorious Monsanto forced its seeds unto the country’s farmers.” Its web edition reported “The Nepali government has teamed up with notorious agricultural giant Monsanto to force farmers to use its GMO seeds.”
The “street riots” headline was crafted by Anthony Gucciardi for NaturalSoceity.com. He is described as the site’s “Co-Founder, Editor, Investigative Journalist.” So what was the source of Anothony’s investigation? “According to some Nepal-based activists, Monsanto has been run out of the country by fierce protesting…Hundreds of thethe anti-Monsanto activists gathered in Kathmandu in front of the U.S. embassy, pouring out from their homes just shortly after the announcement was made.”
Why was an event – a single ‘Silent Protest’ organized by the Stop Monsanto in Nepal campaign in November 2011 – being fictionalized in April 2012? Even if you consider the other protest, one by farmers in Chitwan, and another a function organized by the Nepal chapter of South Asian Food (SAFSN) Sovereignty Network, none of them amount to April’s hyperbole.
On April 7, the Stop Monsanto posted the following note: “STOPPED MONSANTO IN NEPAL! Celebrating Victory!”
On April 26, an article titled ‘Stopping Monsanto in Nepal: The People’s Victory’ appeared on LivingGreenMag.com. Written by a Nepali who holds a “double major in International Relations and Communication, and a minor in Political Science,” she also appears to be speaking on behalf of the Stop Monsanto campaign and playing loosely with facts and fiction.
“At least for now, our farms are free and our food healthier,” she proclaims. If the campaigners really believe this based on the cancellation of a hybrid seed- based pilot project, there is a serious need for them to evaluate their work and the issue they are dealing with.
Whether activists like it or not, there are a few simple facts that anyone who is discussing the “victory” over Monsanto in Nepal must understand, or perhaps come to terms with.
As I first reported here last year, before the American Ambassador put out his statement, Monsanto’s products have been officially sold in Nepal at least since 2004. In 2009, the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) approved four Monsanto hybrids (Allrounder, 900M, DKC 7074, and Pinnacle) while the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives also approved Monsanto to become the first company in Nepal to receive phytosanitary clearance from the Ministry.
All in all, at least 30 international companies have introduced more than 250 foreign seeds so far, while 16 maize hybrids have been approved by the Ministry. That is just the official record of things.
One of Nepal’s most prominent agro-business owners told me this week, “you take away all of Monsanto’s products in Nepal and see how the farmers respond.” The implication being that the farmers may not know or care much for the Monsanto brands except that these agro-inputs they are using are working well for them at the moment.
On a field trip organized by USAID in January, we visited a large Agro-Vet store in Western Nepal. There, I asked the owner if he sold any Monsanto products. He said no. Then I pointed out the shelf behind him stocked with Monsanto products. The reason he may have been confused is because the boxes have big logos that say “Seminis.” Looking closer, one can see a fine print that says Monsanto Holdings Private Limited (pictured). Then, either conceding or through late realization, he shared with everyone present (Agriculture Ministry officials, journalists, USAID staff) that at least four varieties of that brand failed to yield crops recently, so he stopped selling those particular seeds. “It could be for a variety of reasons, including inputs, weather,” he explained. The shopkeeper noted that he offered farmers a different variety of seeds for free to replace the ones that did not work.
Still, hybrid seeds, Monsanto or otherwise, have for a long time dominated majority of Nepal’s commercial farming. Late last year, I met Jiban Lal Shrestha who manages his father’s Annapurna Beej Bhandar, Nepal’s first seed shop established in 1970 that is also a member of the Royal Horticulture Society of London. On the first floor of an old building in the center of an even older market, the small shop is filled with packets of hybrid vegetable seeds from Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese suppliers, as well as Annapurna’s own vast range.
“I would say almost 80% of the vegetables being grown in Nepal at this point are from hybrid seeds, essentially all commercial farming,” he told me. Hybrid maize, however, was first introduced by USAID in the late 1980s according to an Agronomist who has worked for USAID.
The ‘People’s Victory’ article also states, “Giving in to Monsanto means giving up the control of the seed supply, and ultimately the agricultural industry.”
In the context of the Stop Monsanto protests, USAID has stated that should the project have gone ahead, Monsanto had offered to give the seed germ-plasm of those hybrid seeds to NARC and the private sector in Nepal. What may be closer to truth is that two domestic private companies, Chaudhary Group included, were interested in partnering with Monsanto to either bring in the initial foundation seed for later production or just repackage it under their own brand. Either way, what may hold true as most anti-Monsanto campaigners know, is that the supplements those seeds would require may have had to be Monsanto products.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead:
Where the Stop Monsanto in Nepal campaign deserves full credit is in making enough noise to take both the USAID and the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives by surprise. This greatly helped speed up the process of questioning and possibly blocking this project at the Parliamentary level, a process that had begun to take nascent shape before the campaign.
Initiating an online petition that was eventually signed by 1,500 Nepalis and non-Nepalis, and automatically delivered to specific recipients at USAID and the Agriculture Ministry was the campaign’s most effective pressure tactic. Where the campaign faltered from the start, however, was in its attack on GMO technology even when it was clearly stated the project in question was hybrid- seed- based. “We don’t know why they are saying GMO when the project is hybrid- based,” USAID would rightfully argue.
What appears to have happened now is that the campaign has fallen into the trap of being just another online anti-Monsanto group self- satisfied at having played a role in stopping a USAID-Monsanto-Government of Nepal project. Fair enough. It was always a loosely formed group with no dedicated full time members, and that project was their primary target.
But “Stopped Monsanto in Nepal”? Not even by a long shot, if you go by the facts.
That is where the campaign did itself most damage: they neither corrected any of the fictionalized accounts of their actions and role, nor did they offer to correct or contextualize simple misinformation. Instead, they shared them on their Facebook page as it wasis. And this is something those who broadly supported the general intention of the campaign may find uncomfortable to be associated with too.
Where the USAID and the Government of Nepal failed was in refusing to explain the project. They needlessly put themselves in the corner, pitted against their own joint press statement and what I consider to be an (effective) impression of an angry mob. Most people I spoke to, related or aware of the case, expressed disappointment with the posturing of the American Embassy’s eventual and only response to the case, which in- turn reflected poorly on USAID. “If everything is so good, why are they refusing to touch the issue?” was the common and justified public response.
Also, no body was forced into anything. USAID had conducted a 2-day stakeholders’ conference before making the announcement that would come to haunt them. The Private sector was already interested in Monsanto, irrespective of USAID. Essentially, Policy Makers and Protestors were, and are, playing catch- up to the Market.
At an American Eembassy interaction meeting in January, I asked the Joint Secretary of the Agriculture Ministry how the Ministry decides what policies and programs to develop and implement.
“The thing is, the donor agencies have their set agendas, so all the programs we develop are based on the agenda they have outlined for that particular year,” the official, whose job is to liaison between development partners and his Ministry, explained.
As disappointing of a reality as that may be, at least it was an honest answer. It is also perhaps indicative of what went on with the Monsanto pilot project. And that is, perhaps, where the Nation’s leaders have long failed us.
Where we would fail as activists, writers, and readers in this privileged era of information accessibility is if we chose to perpetuate fiction as fact. After all, isn’t that what climate change deniers and pro-Monsanto forces are often accused of using?