Monsanto in Nepal
The Parliamentary Hearing at the Natural Resources and Means Committee, called by its member Gagan Thapa on Sunday, December 11, was, in a single word, enlightening. Sparked by the Monsanto controversy in Nepal, the hearing was called to demand clarity on the kinds of seeds being allowed for use in Nepal and what the country´s national policies regarding them are. Members of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, including its Secretary and Spokesperson, as well as members of Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), had been summoned to provide clarifications.
The hearing lasted almost three and a half hours, and was divided into three parts: opening statements by the Ministry, questions by the members of the Committee, and finally the Ministry and NARC´s responses to those questions.
The opening remark was largely a general picture of the role of hybrid seeds in Nepal, peppered with details:30 international companies have introduced more than 250 foreign seeds so far, 16 maize hybrids have been approved by the Ministry, and GMO and “terminator tech” seeds are not allowed in country.
“If the world is moving towards modernism, I am genuinely curious as to why we cannot allow the use of GMOs for agriculture here,” a Parliamentarian asked.
“How about corn growing on stalks that are like sugarcane, so when you bite on it it´s sweet?” mused another.
A flood of pertinent questions, however, came from MP Thapa. What seeds have been approved and through what process? Are we absolutely certain none of them are GMOs? Where else have those hybrids approved by NARC and MoAC been used? Have they been tested elsewhere before being used in Nepal? What will the cultivation of those approved seeds demand?
For example, Monsanto’s seeds are known to work effectively only when using other Monsanto farming supplements. Is this, or will this be the case in Nepal? Will the farmer be able to use those seeds for multiple seasons or will those seeds only last a single season? Has there been a discussion or a study on the economics of using these products or increased reliance on hybrids and chemicals for the Nepali farmer, and its effects on farmlands, farmers, and consumers? Are there any drawbacks to hybrids? And what is the confusion regarding theUSAID-Monsanto project?
The eight or nine journalists who had come mid-way through the opening remarks filmed MP Thapa’s questioning but left soon after the second or third MP began asking questions, seemingly uninterested in any of the answers.
The Ministry’s secretary tired his best to answer all the questions. The 2045 National Seed Act requires multi-location trials for all hybrids. If it tests successfully then it is registered, and only after its registration is it approved. The GMO testing lab runs test to make sure seeds are not GMOs. A ‘Seed Development Strategy Vision’ is being drafted and would address many of these issues and plan out long-term strategies. Farmer Right and Protection will be included in this Seed Vision document as will the issue of Seed Bank.
While the single use was cited as the biggest drawback for hybrids, dependency on companies was also mentioned as a major problem. However, the Secretary cautioned against building an anti-hybrid mood explaining that the nation needs it for food production. He also then argued for the conservation of indigenous seeds.
Addressing other questions, he noted that the Land Use Committee has not finalized its policies and climate change needs to be addressed more seriously in the agriculture context.
No international company has influenced our decisions, the Secretary said.
It was towards the end of the hearing when Hari Dahal, spokesperson for the Ministry, offered some blunt explanations including on the matter of Monsanto.
“Traditionally farmers have always had the right to plant, save, sell, exchange whatever grows in their land. But in 1961 the International Union for Protection of New Varieties of Plants was proposed and it has since raised a question mark on the farmer´s rights. Nepal has not ratified it, and we believe that we should not either,” he noted.
“It has wholly given the rights to manufacturers of seed varieties, not the farmers. And the WTO AgricultureAgreement has also wholly spoken on behalf of the breeders, not the farmers,” he added.
He stressed on the need to comprehend these treaties and conventions and highlighted the fact that there is no law in Nepal that actually addresses the issue of hybrid seeds.
“Ninety percent of Monsanto’s seeds are GMOs. One of the reasons people protest against Monsanto is because they are worried they will introduce GMOs in the name of hybrid. If we don’t have the capacity, we will not be able to know the difference. If you look at their history, Monsanto is a notorious company,” he said of the American corporation.
MP Thapa interjected: “So you are yourself saying that it is a notorious company. If we look at India, Monsanto is controversial there too. Considering everything, what is the answer to why Monsanto? If it is such a problematic company, why even take its hybrids?”
Dahal replied: “Because we are food insecure to some extent we do feel that we should use hybrids. Second thing is, there is tremendous pressure from the companies too. If there is a provision to file an application then companies will and have been filing applications. So we can’t pick and chose. There is no denying the companies are quite influential. Personally, I feel even hybrids need to be kept within a restriction—the quantity we use, the space we allocate and the regions we pick, that has to be clear. If a company like Monsanto comes it will eat us whole.
Which is why we need to be aware from the start; this is an extremely sensitive issue for us. We cannot accept hybrids just because China or India does so because their capacities and ours are starkly different. They can chase a company out, but not us. Our budget is dependent on the donor community and we are generally weaker. Yes, we need hybrid for food production. Sure, the companies need to do some business too. But it needs to be restricted.”
Then he added: “If an organization like USAID wants to help us with a company like Monsanto, we would hope that they would help us to actually develop our own hybrids instead, not to import their foreign seeds.”
USAID Project Confusion:
After repeated questioning the Ministry also explicitly said no agreement was signed with USAID but some Ministry officials had gone on an India field visit in relation to Monsanto although the visit was not project specific. Once again the Ministry made clear that they were as confused by USAID’s announcement of a Monsanto based pilot project as the general public and the Parliamentarians present at the hearing.
American Ambassador Scott H. DeLisi’s voice and views on this issue have been quite helpful in ensuring the discussion is about Nepal’s agriculture and not a single company, a sentiment already shared by Parliamentarians in the Natural Resources and Means Committee as well as the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. Although it must be noted that Monsanto as a single company has become an issue of national policy discourse in various countries, including America itself. Regardless, why has the Ambassador not offered even one explanation regarding USAID’s announcement? After all, the Ministry has clearly, publicly and repeatedly said no agreement was signed for the project. But neither USAID nor the Ambassador has offered any explanation regarding the partnership announcement.
Still, the hearing served as a unique opportunity for the Ministry officials to be open about their shortcomings as well as their own dilemmas and confusions about the way forward for agriculture in Nepal. By the end of the hearing it was clear there was hesitation within the Ministry about becoming dependent on hybrid seeds, especially foreign seeds. This concern was heighted not just because of prospect of seed dependency but also the chemical inputs they would require and the effect it would have in Nepali farmlands. As for the Parliamentarians, this hearing was only the foundation for a larger national policy discussion.
The Natural Resources and Means Committee chose not to give any directions at the end of the hearing. However, they requested the Ministry officials to produce an extensive report based on the issues raised during this hearing within 15 days. The Ministry requested a month. The deadline was extended and a second hearing on the matter scheduled for January 2012. For that, members of the Committee are considering expanding the conversation by also calling members of the Donor Community that work in this sector, as well as other local stakeholders.