Monsanto Comes to Nepal

A terrace farm in Makwanpur district of Nepal (2009).

A terrace farm in Makwanpur district of Nepal (2009). All Photos: Kashish Das Shrestha

Traveling through Nepal anytime of the year is to watch a country engage in some form of agriculture. This is not just work, but a way of life; festivals, rituals, even politics, are planned around plantation and harvest seasons here. But Nepal is a hungry agrarian nation. An estimated 75% of the country’s labor force is engaged in agriculture and the sector accounts for nearly 35% of the GDP.

Still, the World Food Programme in Nepal estimates about 3.5 million of Nepal’s 26.6 million people are food insecure in 35 out of 75 districts.

Last year when President Obama announced his $3.5 billion Feed The Future initiative, Nepal was listed as one of the 20 beneficiary countries.

This year, the generally liked US Agency for International Development (USAID) has found itself mired in controversy over a new pilot project that is part of that initiative.

On September 13, the USAID announced: “The Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, the Department of Agriculture, USAID, and Monsanto have partnered to promote the use of hybrid maize seeds and provide training to farmers in Nepal.”

WFP reports that in 2010/2011 maize production here was 2.06 million metric tons, an increase of 11.45 percent compared to the previous year. And in 2011/2012 it will have reached 2.18 million metric tons.

“On average, 70 percent of the maize is used for human consumption. The rest (30 percent) accounts for poultry feeding and post-harvest loss,” they explained.

Women carry home their World Food Program rice ration in Humla, one of the most remote and food insecure parts of Nepal (2010).

Women carry home their World Food Program rice ration in Humla, one of the most remote and food insecure parts of Nepal (2010).

Confusion and Controversy:

“Policies must be shaped in our national interest. We will not allow anyone to work unchecked,” Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, who had been in office for only about a month and was unaware of this particular case, told me in New York later that month.

Back in Kathmandu, things have become confusing since. An anti-Monsanto campaign has slowly gained momentum in the local press, the capital, and online, culminating in a silent protest near the US embassy last Friday afternoon. And the USAID and the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives are in an awkward standoff.

The USAID, having initially declared a partnership and a pilot program, has backtracked and said they will do whatever the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives decides, shifting the pressure squarely on the government.

They explained on a Facebook post: “…no new programs have been entered into by the US Government with the Government of Nepal to introduce hybrid maize seed as some articles suggest.”

In private conversations the Minister of Agriculture, Nandan Kumar Dutta has also categorically denied any formal partnership or approval of a project as defined in the USAID press release and is surprised that the initial public statement declaring a partnership was put out by the American agency without any consultation.

But no one has still explained what exactly will happen moving forward.

Things may become clearer soon though: Gagan Thapa, a member of parliament, is one of the more pro-active members of its Committee on Natural Resources and Means.

The Monsanto case has been on his mind and he is working to file an application in the committee to call a formal hearing on the matter. “As policymakers of the country, it is imperative that we are well informed about a case like this.

Right now we are not even clear if an agreement has been signed or not. On top of that the possibility of GMOs being introduced in Nepal and the role of a company like Monsanto are things that definitely demand an open public discourse,” he said in conversation earlier this week.

Monsanto Already in Nepal:

While hybrid seeds are used in about 80% of the country’s commercial farming already, Monsanto has established itself here for sometime too: its products have been sold here since 2004.

At a seed shop in Western Nepal, the bright and colorful front side of the Dekalb Corn All-rounder seed may not indicate it but its producer's name is printed in bold on the back: Monsanto India Limited. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

At a seed shop in Western Nepal, the bright and colorful front side of the Dekalb Corn All-rounder seed may not indicate it but its producer’s name is printed in bold on the back: Monsanto India Limited (January 2012).

And while the ministry may be finding it difficult to take a stand now, in 2009 the Nepal Agricultural Research Council approved four Monsanto hybrids (Allrounder, 900M, DKC 7074, and Pinnacle) while earlier this year Monsanto became the first company in Nepal to receive phytosanitary clearance from the ministry.

However, the case here is evolving as a matter of “who” and not the “what.”

Drawing from the devastating experience of Indian cotton farmers and their relationship with Monsanto, and the company’s controversial history around the world, there is a distinct wariness toward them. Still, this is a conversation that has not percolated to the farming community at large in Nepal.

The ‘Stop Monsanto in Nepal’ Facebook campaign that held a protest near the US embassy last week was almost 50% non-Nepalis, and essentially void of farmers.

It is hard to imagine that farmers across Nepal have a sense of all this activity centered in Kathmandu that could alter how farming is done in Nepal in the years ahead, and what its implications are. The BBC Nepali service on the the case last Friday might have been an exception.

This single issue has also sidelined many of USAID’s successful farming projects in Nepal. After all, the organization helped establish the old Rampur Agriculture Campus and the Pokhara Forestry School, both of which are still operating.

They are also currently engaged in various farming projects including Hill Maize Research Program, which impacts 35,000 families and is supposed to eventually help meet as much as 30% of the national maize seed requirement in the hills.

More importantly, a spokesperson for USAID explained to me, that this program only works with Open Pollinated Variety maize seeds and not hybrid seeds.

Anti-Monsanto protest in Kathmandu. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

Anti-Monsanto protest in Kathmandu.

Who Decides?

The ministry, which already has some history with the company, has remained largely silent about this project even as USAID makes a public case about the decision being sovereign to the ministry. But no one really takes seriously that suggested independence with which the ministry can decide.

The implications are of course who can lobby harder, how long it might take to weather this storm, or more importantly, what the Americans really want the ministry to do.

Given the PR disaster this has been for the USAID, and the second and hard look the local agency staff must have given Monsanto since, it is hard to imagine some within the organization here have not considered dropping the pilot project for everyone’s sake. But the decision may not be USAID-Nepal’s to make alone.

Michael Taylor, a former vice-president as well as a former attorney and lobbyist for Monsanto, is currently serving as a senior advisor to the Commissioner of America’s Food and Drug Administration. And as Ronnie Cummins, the founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, reported in July: “Roger Beachy, former director of the Monsanto-funded Danforth Plant Science Center, is now the director of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Islam Siddiqui, vice-president of the Monsanto and Dupont-funded pesticide-promoting lobbying group, CropLife, is now the Agriculture Negotiator for the US Trade Representative. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who took Monsanto’s side against organic farmers in the Roundup Ready alfalfa case, has been nominated to the Supreme Court.”

And, “Rajiv Shah, former agricultural-development director for the pro-biotech Gates Foundation (a frequent Monsanto partner), served as Obama’s USDA Under Secretary for Research Education and Economics and Chief Scientist and is now head of USAID.”

While Monsanto is an easy target in many ways, one cannot ignore the larger domestic issues at play. Large swaths of farmlands across the country have been sold to real estate developers.

Every season there are both false fertilizer shortages and flooding of expired fertilizers in the market that put farmers at a disadvantage, and everyone at risk.

The rapid rate of illegal deforestation with political patronage is no friend of Nepal’s agro sector either. And neither are the numerous illegal sand, rock and soil-mining projects that continue to operate with political impunity.

While irrigation remains a problem, so does rampant over-extraction of ground water.

Farmers from the plains in the south to the mountains in far northwest all mention growing unreliability of seasonal rain and snowfall in recent years. Add to that a growing population in impoverished regions, migration to urban centers and a generally widening wealth disparity.

The list of domestic missteps and deliberate short-term actions is much longer.

The USAID’s partnership announcement, for which a private decision might already be made, has forced the multinational corporation Monsanto’s operations in Nepal into light.

But it is addressing the many domestic issues, including holding policy makers accountable in a country with volatile politics and rampant corruption at the highest public offices that will be the real challenge to ensuring Nepal’s food security.