Monsanto, Seed Regulation
and other Agricultural Controversies
in Puerto Rico
by Sadhu Govardhan
The following interview took place on August 11, 2013 between Dr. Juanse Ramirez (JR), Biology Department UPR Rio Piedras and Sadhu Govardhan (SG), author of "Oro Verde - Securing the Future of our Food."
JR: Before my first question, I would like to share something that is disturbing me: Puerto Rico's agricultural policy for the past fifty or more years has been to favor large-scale commercial agricultural operations to the detriment of medium- and small-sized commercial and subsistence farmers. This structure has greatly benefited multinational agrochemical corporations. They use our land as a test tube for their destructive practice, which leads to the depressed state of agriculture in the Island, thus putting us in a precarious position in terms of our food security, since "Big Agro" doesn't focus on food or environment, only on profit.
SG: You have already summarized about 50% of the problems that Puerto Rico’s agriculture is facing today. Yes, it is an unfortunate, but an undeniable fact that our government favors multinational corporations, while the concerns of small-scale farmers are largely ignored. Our government, their advisors, economists, even part of the academia, for some reason all are obsessed with their senseless belief that corporations are more important than the people of Puerto Rico.
We know of course why they "have" to make their deals with them. It’s all about the cash/bribes they are getting from the multinational corporations. They know very well what our farmers produce would "only" benefit the island but not the government. I think by now it is clear to anyone who studies the history of agriculture in Puerto Rico that we are following the standard U.S. model. This has not only created this trend, but is also promoted worldwide. Puerto Rico’s political leaders are the first to follow when it comes to inventing new taxes, taking bribes from the corporate world and working against their own people.
A nail was driven into the coffin of our agriculture in 2000 when the local government, corporations and part of the local academia decided to sign a law (which passed in 2009) that would make the development of biotechnology the number one priority within our agriculture. Entirely illegitimately, they fast tracked permits for these corporations that any regular farmer would never be able to receive.
Just look at who they idolize and favor: criminal corporations like Monsanto whose Agent Orange used in the Vietnam war is still responsible for staggering numbers of birth defects and cancer today – more than 40 (!) years after more than 72 million liters of it were dumped on large areas of Vietnam. Over 5 million hectares (approximately 12.5 million acres) of land are still poisoned there. The same product was used in Vieques not too long ago, but Secretary Comas (Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Agriculture Myrna Comas) seems to suffer from amnesia. Other Monsanto products are BGH (Bovine Growth Hormones) that has caused havoc in the health of animals as well as humans, NutraSweet, DDT, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenol), which was used for 40 years (1930-1970) and is still polluting our soil over 40 years later.
Another commonly used product is Lysol, which contains highly toxic chemicals known as dioxins. They are also the producers of Round Up, a glyphosate that is proven to have wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico's rivers and oceans and has caused incalculable damage and contamination to our soils. These dioxins are directly linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Since the 1970s, Doctors Lennart Hardell and Mikael Eriksson have been analyzing the effects of these dioxins on humans. By today we also know that it includes a hormone disruptor that is seriously affecting beneficial insects and is linked to birth defects in humans. Yet, according to Monsanto all of these toxic products are "completely safe". But instead of banning or jailing criminal corporations like Monsanto, the local government receives them with open arms. Interestingly, in the last seven years they received at least $4.9 million in local and federal subsidies, but they don’t pay a cent of tax here on Puerto Rico; instead of paying tax, they pay bribes and make sure that highly-positioned politicians are shareholders of their corporation.
Not only do we have to deal with Monsanto here, there are at least seven additional, dangerous biotech companies “working” on Puerto Rico – all of them fully supported by our government: Dow, Syngenta, Pioneer (DuPont), Bayer, AgReliant, BMG, Mycogen. Future generations will have to deal with their contaminating genetic germplasm, the side effects of their toxic wastes and destroyed agricultural lands.
JR: Most recently, Secretary of Agriculture Myrna Comas, who allegedly has made food security the cornerstone of her policies, has challenged several grassroots organizations who favor ecologically and economically sustainable agriculture to provide proof of the damage done by these agrochemical corporation. In doing so, she is, turning her back on public interests to favor corporate interests. How would you respond to Secretary Comas's challenge?
SG: Secretary Comas’s challenge is inappropriate and shameless.
It is not the duty of the citizens to protect the country from known criminal organizations that have caused billions of dollars in damage and are responsible for the deaths and diseases of hundreds of millions of people around the world. International criminal organizations should be kept in check by the respective governments, not by its citizens.
Anyone who is given the position of Secretary of Agriculture should be educated enough to know Monsanto’s toxic history. (If you are interested in a good documentary that summarizes Monsanto's history, please watch "The Seeds of Death" @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUd9rRSLY4A ). Every single product they have ever produced has proven to be extremely harmful to the planet. How can she ignore this well known fact? With her challenge, she proves that she is entirely unqualified to hold her current position. It is not by accident that Puerto Rico’s agriculture is completely derailed. After all, we have a long-standing tradition of entirely unqualified secretaries of agriculture. I can’t remember a single secretary in the past who did anything that benefitted the island and its people. To hold this position has nothing to do with qualification – it’s a political appointment made by governors who don’t have the slightest clue about agriculture.
The fact that our agriculture has steadily declined over time is a consequence of mixing politics with agriculture and having had entirely unqualified people make terrible decisions that affect our agriculture and the future of our food production.
JR: Do you think it is possible that Secretary Comas is just too afraid to openly challenge a heavy-handed corporation like Monsanto?
SG: Yes, that is quite possible. Nevertheless, it is the duty of a Secretary of Agriculture to oppose everything and anyone who harms our land and people. If she indeed acts out of fear, it would only confirm my point that the position of Secretary of Agriculture can under no circumstances be merely a political one. Anyone who takes up this position should adhere to the truth and principles that are beneficial for the country and its people. A true leader can not operate based on fear or political diplomacy. Instead, he has to base his decisions on knowledge and realization and always think and act for the long-term benefit of nature and society. So far, she has failed to do that.
JR: What would you consider a solution to the dilemma of unqualified secretaries being appointed by governors who don’t have any understanding of agriculture themselves?
SG: Understanding a solution always goes hand in hand with understanding the problem. Here is the problem: as a society, we have created a monster by establishing a mockery of democracy that is nothing short of a dictatorial system in which the leading class sees its own citizens as its enemies. For the system in power, the average citizen has merely two functions: to consume and to pay tax. Despite having created this trap, I do believe that we the people can improve the system. It is our duty to be independent government watchdogs who think and act for the welfare of society. Considering how unqualified, incompetent and corrupt many local politicians have been over the decades, we should look at reasonable alternatives for important government positions like that of the Secretary of Agriculture.
If we want a better secretary of agriculture, why not select our candidates among agricultural scholars or successful eco farmers who have a track record of valuable contributions to the country? And why not allow only those to vote on complex farming related issues who are actually ecologically conscious farmers, educated in the science of ecological agriculture? Why not have a non-political, qualified council that advises the Governor about the position of Secretary of Agriculture?
Secretary Comas may claim that she has an interest in food security but by her actions she is showing the opposite. She refuses to meet with eco farmers or hear their concerns and she is trying to force the private sector to investigate a criminal organization like Monsanto, who has no interest in producing healthy, diversified food. Monsanto’s Frankenfood has absolutely no phytonutrients (the most powerful type of nutrients that can tackle damaging free radicals). Monsanto claims that their herbicide tolerant (Roundup Ready) crops are supposed to control weeds and Bt crops are intended to control pests. Instead of controlling weeds and pests, genetically engineered crops have led to the emergence of super weeds and super pests that are getting out of control. Several studies, including a Brazilian study in 2009 found that female rats that were fed Monsanto’s GM soy for 15 months saw changes in their uterus and reproductive cycle that led to reproductive disorders. All of this is common knowledge amongst independent researchers and people updated on global agricultural developments. Secretary Comas, however, ignores all these facts. This means that she clearly does not understands food security and that she has absolutely no interest in a healthy, diversified and decentralized dynamic agriculture.
Just like the term “organic” was hijacked, then distorted and finally sold to the corporate world by the USDA, the term “food security” is similarly construed by people like Secretary Comas. Here is what her actions mean when she talks about “food security”: “We have to make sure that people get sufficient low quality food to eat, no matter where it comes from. The easiest way to accomplish this task it to invite biotech companies who know how to produce genetically altered, homogenous low quality food for all.” This type of “food security” is the opposite of what the term originally meant.
In order to understand the term “food security” properly, we have to look at the definition and meaning of the term “food sovereignty.” One of the most important aspects of food sovereignty is that the people of a country have full authority over their own food production. This means that our farmers in particular should be in charge of growing all food required for the country. The government’s role should be to fully support them in their endeavor. As of today, the government does exactly the opposite.
So, here is my challenge to Secretary Comas: does she understand even the basics of ecological agriculture? Is she able to differentiate between tropical and non-tropical crops? Can she set up a thriving sustainable garden that can feed her family? I can guarantee you that she will fail all these simple tests badly.
So here is the real question: what, if anything at all, qualifies her to be the Secretary of Agriculture?
Here is my question to the people of Puerto Rico: “Why do you still allow utterly unqualified government agencies to continue to ruin the remainder of our agricultural lands and even take away our agricultural future? So far, the Department of Agriculture’s main “contribution” over the past five decades was to push mono culture, toxic herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers.”
JR: Speaking of the future of our food production, Senator Ramón Ruiz Nieves who presides over the Agriculture Commission of the Senate of Puerto Rico, has recently presented Senate Project 624 a proposed law that will be known as "Ley de Producción, Distribución y Certificación de Semillas de Puerto Rico" (Law of Production, Distribution and Certification of Seeds of Puerto Rico). Ruiz Nieves proposes to create a governing body to regulate and control the sale of seeds on the Island. Find full law here: http://noticiasmicrojuris.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/ps624.pdf)
Under the proposed law, which would come into effect immediately after it passes through the Senate, all seed producers and sellers must posses a government approved license to be able to legally sell seeds, which must be inspected and approved by the newly formed Seed Evaluating Board ("Junta de Evaluación de Semillas") for quality and purity.
What do you think about this proposed law?
SG: I have read the entire paper, and I have briefly discussed it with some leading agronomists on Puerto Rico. Our consensus was that the paper is very poorly written and makes little to no sense. It will only anger our local farmers and not benefit anyone. At the same time, I want to point out that Senator Ruiz Nieves was at least brave enough to try and regulate Monsanto, which is commendable. Unfortunately, he is going about the issue in a counterproductive way. In his proposed law he talks about “genetically pure seeds.” In general, all seeds, except for genetically modified seeds are essentially pure and safe. So, instead of wasting our farmers’ time with a foolish and oppressive law proposal, he should have just demanded to have a government oversight of genetically modified seeds. As of now, no one knows what the substances are that are introduced into genetically modified seeds. Considering that every single product Monsanto has ever produced has been dangerous and toxic, it would be unreasonable to not monitor their genetic manipulation business very closely.
JR: It is not surprising then how Monsanto reacted to Senator Nieves' request to come to a public hearing. Monsanto representatives declined to participate citing that this law would not apply to them since the seeds produced by their company are not intended for sale in Puerto Rico.
SG: Yes, of course. A corporation that is willing to kill millions of people, which will have negative repercussions on large areas of our planet for hundreds, if not thousands of years, will not comply with a request by an “insignificant” Puerto Rican Senator. They are heavyweights who have the most powerful government in the world in their pocket.
As far as the proposed law goes, Secretary Comas issued a statement saying that they will not approve the law as currently presented. Even she understands that his proposal is ludicrous. I have no doubt though that our politicians will continue to try and meddle with our agriculture in other counterproductive ways.
JR: In light of all these recent developments, what impact do you think that the passage of Project 624 into law would have on the future of our food security?
SG: Not much more than public anger. It’s a senseless proposal that is absolutely unrealistic from a logistical perspective. Over ninety percent of all seeds sold or used on Puerto Rico are imported. All organic and heirloom seeds are safe and are usually imported in minute quantities; imports of large quantities of conventional seeds are usually dealt with by a local committee of University of Puerto Rico’s agriculture department, as well as APHIS/USDA.
Several people wrote Senator Ruiz’s paper and none of them has much insight into the actual world of agriculture. If I were to give him the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that his intentions are well meaning, I would have advised him to limit his attempt of seed regulation to seeds that are used in mono culture and genetically engineered (GE) seeds. In poly culture settings, even “bad” seeds can hardly cause any significant damage. In monoculture or GE crops, it is crucial, however, to make sure that any seed material is thoroughly tested by independent agencies. As of now, Monsanto claims that they do all their testing themselves. I think by now, every educated person knows what that means.
JR: What can individuals and eco-conscious organizations do to ensure that the genetic diversity of our crops is not high jacked by governmental oversight?
We don’t have strong non-political watchdog organizations on Puerto Rico, which puts the island into a very precarious situation. I have been proposing a strong civil rights movement that acts as a united and professional government watchdog organization. The fact that such a movement does not exist shows that our population is largely living in a coma, and that they will continue to be ambushed by our government. If you observe how governments have developed over the last five decades, you will find that they have become increasingly invasive and oppressive. We are living in a mock democracy that is hardly different from a regular dictatorship. One of the biggest mistakes people have made here is to still think that there are political solutions to their problems. If unchecked, our local government, no matter which administration or party, will simply continue to bankrupt the colony.
In addition to a non-political watchdog organization, we also need more unity among our ecologically conscious farmers. Unfortunately, the movement is currently divided on too many issues. Our conventional farmers are still promoting mono crops,
synthetic fertilizers, toxic pesticides and herbicides. So, we can’t expect much help from their side.
Individuals have the advantage of keeping their own projects/farms clean by using tropical heirloom or organic seeds, remaining dedicated to poly culture and ecological farming practices. In addition, all those individuals who are actually concerned about ethical principles or our future, should never stop sharpening their “cognitive machetes,” and continue to cut through the manipulation and false propaganda we are all bombarded with on a daily basis. The power of individuals is to act on principle and set up inspiring role model projects. Historically speaking, positive societal changes never happen voluntarily, but when the time will be ripe, the seeds of sustainable and ethical practices will sprout.
© Sadhu Govardhan, 2013