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Latha Jishnu: Order 81 and the plunder of farming

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

In recent days, the multinational force in Iraq has been putting out rather curious news releases. These state that visiting agriculture experts from the US have been helping Iraqi farmers to learn new farming techniques to help them “to compete in a free market economy by reducing prices”. Team Borlaug, as the expert group is called, is working to set up model farms where farmers can see the newest technology and techniques in action, according to a statement attributed to Dustin Kinder, the leader. Kirkuk is the third province in northern Iraq that the team has studied and after a six-month tour it will put together recommendations to improve Iraqi agriculture that has been in a shambles since the mid-1990s when global sanctions were imposed on the country.

There is an intolerable air of patronage — and duplicity — about the latest statement emanating from the military command of the occupying forces. It reflects a gross ignorance of the history of agriculture in the country which is now paying the price for Saddam Hussein’s adventurism and the Rambo-like invasion by US. Iraq, it must be remembered, has the oldest history of farming and one of the longest traditions of cultivation in the civilised world. Modern Iraq is part of the ‘fertile crescent’ of Mesopotamia where man first domesticated wheat more than 8,000 years ago, and is home to several thousand varieties of local wheat.

True, its production of wheat has declined to just a quarter of what it was in 1995 (1.2 million tonnes) and the land is degraded to a shocking degree. But the focus of the revival strategy that is under way in Iraq is intended not to help its farmers so much as to allow multinational seed companies to capture the market. Listen to Kinder whose entire team is linked to Texas A&M University: “We are going to help 25th Infantry Division put on an agricultural conference, and we will help them develop a strategic plan for agriculture in Iraq.” What the nation or its farmers want is not really the centre piece of this effort since the US has effectively tied up the Iraqi market for its seed giant.

This happened five years ago when Paul Bremer as head of Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) imposed far-reaching laws on the country and made a mockery of the US claim it was bringing democracy to Iraq. Of the 100 laws that Bremer inflicted on the Iraqi people, one of the most pernicious is Order 81, which deals with ‘Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety’ and hence the interest of this column in the current goings-on in. There are several reasons why this patent law is lethal.

Without any discussion or debate, it made sweeping changes in Iraq’s 1970 patent law by allowing the patenting of plant forms and facilitating the introduction of genetically modified crops or organisms and introduced clauses that will be the death of traditional varieties of seeds. The Plant Variety Protection rules are for seeds that are “new, distinct, uniform and stable”, criteria that the traditional varieties all Iraqi farmers now use can never meet. These seeds are the product of millennia of traditional development and by their very nature share common traits and thus do not qualify to be ‘new’. Nor can they be termed stable or uniform because of their biodiversity. But the seeds that American and European seed giants are actively pushing in Iraq will, of course, qualify since Order 81 is designed to specifically to protect their interests.

Worse still is the injunction against farmers using their own seeds. Almost all Iraqi farmers (97 per cent, according to FAO) use their own seeds but Bremer’s more than clever order decrees that “farmers shall be prohibited from re-using seeds of protected varieties or any variety”, changing in one stroke the character of Iraq’s agriculture.

Five years after Order 81 was passed, farm activists across the world have got together to mark April 26 as International Seeds Day to help Iraqi farmers to break the vice-like grip of the global seed companies. The campaign is coordinated by the Institute of Near Eastern & African Studies (INEAS), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has got the backing of some organisations in India. I met Wafaa Al-Natheema of INEAS, when she was in India earlier in the year to drum up support for the campaign, and she says the world needs to respond to this threat to agriculture. Iraqi farmers, like the rest of the nation, are unaware of this law and how it could turn their world upside down. “They need our help to learn how to retain their seeds under these circumstances and how to lobby against this unjust law.”

Will the world rally to their cause?

First Published: Wed, April 01 2009. 00:52 IST