Zara Rahman: Welcome to Collusion, a podcast about technology and power. My name’s Zara
Luiza Prado: And my name is Luiza.
Zara: And in this first full episode, we’ll be talking about seeds.
Luiza: This may seem like an odd choice. Seeds are usually not associated with technology. They are part of nature, something that is perceived as wholly separate from the things that we create.
Zara: Humans understanding how to plant seeds, and understanding crops and agriculture has changed the way our society evolved. We’ve bred crops into forms and varieties that provide us with what we need or what we like. Many forms that we take for granted are a result of careful breeding by humans, like broccoli. Others, like the banana, have changed hugely from their origins thousands of years ago, thanks to our interventions.
Luiza: So of course seeds have been an important part of how we have evolved, not only as a species but as societies. Understanding seeds and their power has allowed societies to plant crops and settle, to cure diseases, to subsist. We have selectively bred plants, genetically engineered them, and designed them according to our needs. We have observed them, studied them. In fact, we have created an entire branch of science dedicated to understanding plants: botany.
Zara: And botany has actually had an extraordinary impact on the political configuration of the world. The commerce of plants and their seeds was very very profitable in the colonial era, and today the seed industry is huge and more concentrated than it ever was before. The ten largest seed corporations dominate three quarters of the commercial seed market, and just the top three of those represent more than half of the entire commercial market.
In this episode, we’ll take a broad understanding of the term “technology” and look at how processes and techniques have affected the way in which societal benefits from certain types of seeds have spread across the world, from indigenous knowledges, to biotechnology, and patenting and privatization of seeds.
Luiza: We’ll start our discussion of seeds by analyzing a very interesting case, that of the cinchona tree. Native to the tropical Andean forests of western South America, mainly Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, the plant’s medicinal properties were well known by the Quechua people. They used it to treat and cure a number of ailments, including malaria. The plant is a source of quinine (weird name), a chemical compound with strong anti-malarial properties. And yes, in case you were wondering, quinine is what gives your tonic water its bitter taste.
Malaria probably did not exist in the Americas before the European invasion. It wasn’t mentioned in any Mayan or Aztec medical books, so apparently the Quechua were the first human population to find and develop a cure for this disease that had plagued humanity for centuries. At the time, European doctors were still treating malaria with primitive methods like bloodletting, amputation, or purging, not exactly effective and not very pleasant. Despite all of this, most books and papers associate the use of the plant with men like Sir Robert Talbor, credited with establishing the therapeutic use of cinchona in England, or with Bernabé Cobo, a Jesuit missionary credited with bringing knowledge of the cinchona tree to Europe.
The Quechua are barely mentioned in the history of the cinchona tree. Usually they appear in nothing more than a vague supporting role. Scientific literature says nothing of the people who observed, tested, and developed a cure for one of the most fatal illnesses of that time. Anyway, Spanish Jesuits were apparently the first Europeans to learn of the use of the cinchona tree. Some accounts say that they were told about it by their converts, while others say that the Jesuits themselves observed the use of the tree by indigenous populations. Either way, the fact is that this information was passed along to the Spanish crown. The commerce of plants and seeds was an extremely profitable business at the time.
As we mentioned, colonial powers were stumbling all over each other to collect, classify, and make a profit out of the incredibly diverse flora of their new colonies ever since Columbus returned from the Americas with ships full of precious cargo. So of course the Spanish immediately seized this opportunity, and the extraction and commercialization of the cinchona’s bark became an extremely profitable business. In fact, business was so good that it caught the eye of other colonial powers like France and Britain. In order for Spain to maintain its monopoly, the export of saplings and seeds was outlawed in the 19th century. Of course that didn’t stop other Europeans from trying to smuggle the precious plants out of Spanish domains.
Charles Ledger, for instance, was a British adventurer (which I guess is code for biopirate) who managed to smuggle cinchona seeds to London, where they were bought by the Dutch. These seeds were then planted in Java, a Dutch colony at the time, where they adapted very well and finally allowed the Dutch to break Spain’s monopoly. In fact, Java became the world’s leading producer of quinine until the 1940s.
There is, however, another side to this story. Manuel Incra Manami was an Aymara native who worked for Ledger. Many accounts say that Manami voluntarily became Ledger’s servant after the British adventurer saved him from drowning. But the story fits so much into that racist, docile savage stereotype I can’t believe it for a minute. Anyway, in one way or another, Manami ended up working for Ledger, and he was the one who collected the cinchona seeds. Due to the plant’s peculiar biological cycles, sourcing these seeds was a long and difficult process, and it took Manami four years to get a decent amount. After handing the seeds to Ledger, however, Manami was somehow discovered by the Bolivian colonial government, and he was subsequently brutally tortured and beaten to death, and his role in spreading cinchona seeds throughout the world is now barely remembered. Again, a European took the credit for the work of an American native. Ledger apparently didn’t suffer any consequences for smuggling the seeds. No document mentions him being arrested, punished, or prosecuted.
Quite the contrary, actually. The variety of cinchona he had sold to the Dutch became known as “cinchona ledgeriana” in his honor. Up until this point, the story of the cinchona tree shows quite clearly how colonial power relations are built upon white supremacist beliefs, where Europeans are considered as the only ones able to produce true scientific knowledge about the world. Up until Talbor or Cobo brought the plant to the spotlight, knowledge about it was considered merely folk, indigenous knowledge, a lesser type of knowledge that needs to be assimilated and appropriated by European systems of knowledge in order to be considered valid. Obviously this mentality is still alive and kicking, considering the tone of most books and scientific papers on the history of the cinchona tree.
But the parallels between the history of the plant and the history of colonial power don’t end here. The cinchona tree wasn’t only a profitable business for colonial empires, it was also a strategic asset for colonial expansion. Access to an effective anti-malarial medication allowed for the colonization of other tropical parts of the world where malaria was also endemic. In fact, Clifford Conner points out that access to quinine was essential to the European invasion and colonization of the Gulf Coast, Nigeria, and other parts of West Africa, which had been known up until that point as “the white man’s grave,” partly due to the dangers of malaria.
In the 20th century, the combination of access to quinine and colonial domination played an essential role in World War II. Remember Java and the seeds that the Dutch had bought from Ledger and planted there? Well, when Germany invaded the Neterlands and Japan seized Java during the conflict, the Allies were cut off from what had been the world’s largest supply of quinine up until that point. Soon, malaria became a huge problem for Allied troops fighting in the Pacific. Many studies report that there were more American soldiers dying of malaria than by Japanese bullets. There was a synthetic anti-malarial available called atabrine. However, it produced horrendous side-effects and lacked the efficiency of quinine. Adding to that, the Japanese successfully spread the rumor that it caught impotency, so Allied soldiers avoided it like the plague. And I guess I should mention that the company that originally manufactured atabrine was German, so getting a hold of a reliable source of quinine became a matter of national security.
The US government approached the main cinchona-producing countries in Latin America and offered a deal. These countries would provide technical and logistical aid in the harvesting and processing of the cinchona bark and the US would enjoy sole buying privileges for the product, and in return the US would establish a proper cinchona cultivation program in those countries. However, harvesting the bark was not an easy task. The amount of quinine in the bark varied wildly between different varieties of cinchona and most American botanists were not familiar with the weather nor the environment, and conflicts arose between those involved in the trade. The program was a total flop. In 1944, the cinchona missions were closed and all of the agreements with Latin American countries were terminated in 1945.
In the meantime, also in 1944, a synthetic quinine compound had finally been synthesized. Even though it couldn’t cure malaria, it managed to successfully control the disease. But again, it was too late. The war ended soon after, in August 1945. What I find most interesting in the history of the cinchona tree, and the reason why I chose it to introduce our subject today, was precisely how important it was for the political formation of the world as we know it.
Cinchona trees, and cinchona seeds helped expand colonial empires, and played a strategic role in World War II. They gave life to those suffering from a deadly disease, but were also the reason for many to be tortured and murdered, and they were one of the oldest and clearest examples we could find of how indigenous communities and colonized people are hurt by biopiracy and bioprospecting.
But wait. What exactly are biopiracy and bioprospecting, and how exactly do they work?
Zara: “Biopiracy” is a way to describe the appropriation or use of indigenous forms of knowledge by commercial actors. In practice this could be, for example, scientists or researchers coming to an area like indigenous communities in Mexico to learn about their medicines and compounds, then taking samples of this back to their research institutions and eventually getting a patent on them. They might do this to search for previously-unknown compounds in organisms that have never been used in the West before.
A form of biopiracy is bioprospecting, when researchers find compounds, plants, or medicines used by indigenous and patent it without recognizing that the knowledge is neither new nor invented by the patenter. Somewhat incredibly, this patent might later be used against the community from whom the knowledge was first found, and usually the rights to the commercial profits from this kind of technology are denied to the indigenous community. This kind of behavior increases inequality between developing countries with rich and diverse biodiversity and developed countries who host companies with commercial intent and huge global reach.
Luiza: So this is pretty clearly what happened to the cinchona tree, too. Even though patents weren’t a thing in the 17th century, men like Sir Robert Talbor essentially took this indigenous knowledge and used it to make profit, not only financially but also academically, professionally, and so on. He essentially appropriated this knowledge as his own trademark.
Zara: In the past, as we’ve heard, this kind of behavior went fairly unnoticed. One of the first, most well-known cases of biopiracy was the Maya International Cooperative Biodiversity Group. It began as an alliance between the University of Georgia in the US, a small Welsh pharmaceutical group, and an NGO intended to represent the indigenous Maya of Chiapas, as well as various US federal agencies. The aim of the project was to promote drug discovery from natural sources, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable economic growth in developing countries. But even though the project had a code of ethics, and the two main researchers had years of experience in working with communities in the region, lots of concerns were raised by people within the community.
The major issue here was the idea of gaining prior informed consent from those communities. According to Sebastian Luna, an indigenous spokesperson from the council, “the project is a robbery of traditional indigenous knowledge and resources with the sole purpose of producing pharmaceuticals that will not benefit the communities that have managed and nurtured these resources for thousands of years.” Luna explains in a written statement how the project aimed explicitly at privatizing and commercializing knowledge that up until that point had always been collectively owned, and this move contradicted strongly with the culture and traditions of the communities involved. It was also difficult given that some individual members of the community took the decision to actually collaborate with the researchers in return for a relatively small amount of money but one that made a big difference to their personal economic situations, which were very difficult at the time.
As well as the indigenous activists who spoke out against the project, it was also criticized widely by Mexican intellectuals and activists, who questioned how the results of the research would ever be shared back with the local communities involved. Because of the controversy around it, the local Mexican partner withdrew and in 2001, the project closed down without having produced significant results.
So what kind of responses are there in response to biopiracy?
Luiza: Again, a parallel with the cinchona case. The collaboration between the US and the Latin American countries that produced cinchona during the war worked in a pretty similar fashion. The US government had enough power over these countries to lure them into signing that agreement, and as soon as it realized the process wouldn’t be immediately profitable to them, as they had imagined, they pulled and left those who were involved in the trade to fend for themselves
But the history of seeds is not merely that of the powerful screwing over the powerless. There is another side to it, too.
Zara: India started the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library Project, an Indian digital knowledge repository of the traditional knowledge, especially about medicinal plants and formulations used in Indian systems of medicine. It was set up in 2001 and seeks to classify and keep a public record of medicines that have been used for years in India. It protects the traditional knowledge of the country from exploitation by biopiracy and unethical patents, and it also makes access to the database much easier than before.
It essentially started as a response to biopiracy and patent claims. For example, in the past patents have been granted on turmeric and even basmati rice, and one of the main obstacles around this issue is that the patent examiners couldn’t search through traditional knowledge to see if it had already existed prior to the patent being brought about.
In part, this was because of a language barrier. Traditional Indian knowledge might exist in any local language such as Sanskrit, Urdu, Tamil, among many, whereas the patent examiners, in these cases likely coming from the US, were unlikely to be able to understand these languages. Within the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, that information is now available in English, French, Spanish, German, and Japanese, meaning that hopefully it’s more likely to be used and referred to by patent examiners. It gives modern names to medicines and aims to bridge the gap between traditional knowledge and modern knowledges.
On the web site, they’ve been keeping a record of patents coming largely from the US, Canada, and Europe that have been withdrawn thanks to reference to the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library and up til now, they’ve classified about 200,000 different formulations.
Another response that can be seen among community activists is the establishment of community seed banks aimed at protecting indigenous seeds, helping farmers return to organic farming, and reducing dependency upon multi-national corporations. This is all great when we think about the response or the kind of effect that multi-national corporations have had on a very low level at affecting what farmers can do on an individual basis. But another way that we can see involvement in the way that seeds are used across the world is on a much higher level, thinking about it on a policy level.
For example, in 2010 in Colombia, a new seed law was brought in, Law 970, which gave control of the country’s seeds to the government, making it officially illegal to share, trade, or sell native seeds among farmers. Farmers were asked to register as breeders of certified seeds, and those caught with uncertified seeds faced 3 to 4 years in jail. Basically it would have forced farmers to buy commercial seeds from private companies and transnational corporations, forcing dependence on foreign seed imports.
In 2012, the Colombian government attempted to enforce the resolution and sent riot squads to confiscate and destroy all “illegal” crops. In total, 2 million tons of food were destroyed in the raids and this destruction was documented in a film by Victoria Solano, which helped raise public awareness of the issue.
Thanks to massive public outcry and a three-week long general strike in September 2013, the law was suspended. This is just one example of how International pressure has forced food-producing nations to modify the technology they used for producing food.
We can see another example in El Salvador, where farmers united to block a stipulation in a US aid package to their country that would’ve indirectly required the purchase of Monsanto genetically-modified seeds. Basically, as one of the preconditions to authorizing close to $277 million dollars in aid, the United States attempted to pressure El Salvador into purchasing the seeds instead of using non-GM seeds from local farmers.
In this case, the US involvement is much more direct than in the Colombian example just mentioned. Essentially, saying no to Monsanto and no to buying the seeds meant also saying no to the aid money. This kind of blackmail picked up quite a lot of traction in the media. Thanks to International media coverage and the farmers in El Salvador uniting against the move, from what I can find it looks as though the stipulation was changed, though actually I couldn’t find anything that confirmed that El Salvador had actually received the aid after changing that stipulation.
Sadly, these kinds of policies can be seen across the world. In Ghana, for example, there’s a new bill under consideration officially called the Plant Breeders Bill and otherwise known as the “Monsanto Law.” In essence, similar to the Colombian bill mentioned previously, for certain crops, farmers would have to depend upon certain certified seeds coming from multi-national companies and other GMO seed producers. The proposed legislation contains rules that would restrict farmers from an age-old practice: freely saving and breeding seeds.
The argument for this law says that it would incentivize the development of new seed varieties, but people campaigning against the law fear that it would allow corporations to exploit farmers and push genetically-modified seeds into the country. This kind of narrative of law and policies being changed in food-producing countries to the benefit of multi-national corporations is popping up more and more. Through various public/private partnerships (that is, governments partnering with private-sector companies) many of these policies are gaining legitimacy, and thanks to philanthropic funders who are able to intervene in poorer countries without much oversight, it’s becoming difficult to know what’s really been agreed upon.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that is the philanthropic foundation of Bill Gates, organized a meeting together with US Aid to talk about the commercialization of agriculture in Africa. Attendees at the meeting included corporations, development bodies, trade bodies, and aid donors, but excluded any African farmers or representatives of affected organizations.
In theory, the projects that the Gates Foundation are supporting sound rather noble. For example, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (or AGRA) aims to, in their words, benefit small-scale farmers by providing them with high-yield seed varieties in the future. However, in practice, the use of high-yield isn’t quite as simple as it seems.
According to the Bio-Foundation, a research institute based in Switzerland, use of these seeds brings with it many problems such as environmental pollution, water shortages, soil erosion, and reduction in biodiversity. In addition, the high-yield seeds often require huge quantities of fertilizers and pesticides in order to achieve the desired yields. So the farmers would be forced to purchase these, too.
Heidi Chow, a food sovereignty compaigner at Global Justice Now said about this meeting,
The measures being promoted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will enable big agribusiness companies to take even more control over seeds across Africa at the expense of small-scale farmers. This is not ‘aid’ — it’s another form of colonialism. We need to ensure that the control of seeds and other agricultural resources stay firmly in the hands of small farmers who feed the majority of the population in Africa rather than allowing big agribusiness to dominate even more aspects of the food system.
Heidi Chow, “Food sovereignty activists protest at Bill Gate’s corporate seed conference”
Luiza: Though it’s easy to think of seeds and technology being used as a form of control in the past through colonialism in the 17th or 18th centuries, it’s happening even more effectively today, as we’ve seen. Biotechnology companies such as Monsanto have massive reaches and with the support of rich governments and foundations like the Gates Foundation, they definitely have money and sadly influence on their side.
Zara: Nowadays there seem to be two major ways in which rich nations are affecting the use of seeds in poorer countries. Firstly, bottom up through modifying the seeds that farmers use and either selling these or giving these to farmers.
Luiza: And secondly top down by influencing policy in country governments, which might limit farmers to use certain types of seeds and restrict sharing and modifying.
Zara: The scariest part of looking into this topic for me is that many of these interventions might go entirely unseen by the farmer, that they might not even have a clue that the seeds they’ve been planting have been modified at all. Equally, those living in rural areas with little contact to national administration might have no idea that policies are changing or have been changed, until it’s too late.
Luiza: What struck me the most when researching for this episode was how looking into seeds and the ways they have been used throughout history gave me a clearer glimpse of the foundations of neoliberalism and the values upon which it was built. Spain, Britain, France, and other colonial powers expanded their empires through the appropriation, exploitation, and commercialization of natural resources coming from the lands they had invaded. They appropriated knowledge that had been developed by indigenous peoples, used it to their profit, depleted the natural resources that sustained these peoples, and enslaved non-white populations in order to further their economic interests.
The history of seeds reflects the history of colonialism, of white supremacy, and ultimately of neoliberalism.
Zara: Just thinking through how different uses for seeds were used as a form of control on different populations, we can see multiple trends repeating themselves from colonial times until today.
We hope you found our journey into seeds as interesting as we did. Thanks for listening to the first full episode of Collusion. Until next time.
Research and links for this episode at the Collusion Tumblr site.