The Parable of the Golden Snail
December 27, 1999
When a group of Filipino farmers were asked recently for their thoughts on genetically engineered rice seeds, a peasant leader responded with what might be called the Parable of the Golden Snail. It seems that rice farmers have long supplemented the protein in their diet with local snails that live in rice paddies. At the time of the Marcos dictatorship, Imelda Marcos had the idea of introducing a snail from South America that was said to be more productive and, as such, a means to help end hunger and protein malnutrition. But no one liked the taste, and the project was abandoned. The snails, however, escaped, driving the local snail species to the brink of extinction—thus eliminating a key protein source—and forcing peasants to apply toxic pesticides to keep them from eating the young rice plants. "So when you ask what we think of the new GE rice seeds, we say that’s easy," the leader said. "They are another Golden Snail."
Third World governments and farmers are being told over and over again that genetically engineered seeds are being created to end hunger and that they should brush aside other concerns in the name of ending it quickly. Yet the reality is that far more than enough food exists today to provide an adequate diet for every human being on the planet. In fact, overproduction is a leading problem. The truth is that many people are too poor to have access to the abundance around them. Furthermore, the diverse, integrated farming systems found on smaller farms can be far more productive than the uniform monocultures that genetically engineered seeds are designed for. Meanwhile, patents on life allow biotech companies to privatize the genomes of crop varieties bred by farmers, without compensation, while the escape of novel genes through pollen threatens local crop varieties and food security.
Five hundred angry South Asian farmers recently took a bus caravan across Europe to dramatize their opposition to genetically engineered crops and the free-trade measures embodied in the World Trade Organization. They say that WTO regulations allowing transnational corporations to patent germ plasm from seeds their ancestors have bred over millennia amounts to "bio-piracy." Indian peasant leader Lal Shankar called their struggle "a fight of indigenous agriculture and traditional systems against the North-dominated gene technology and free market." He added, "They are stealing and creating hybrid seeds and then selling them back to us." Indian farmers have singled out biotech giant Monsanto for its heavily hyped public relations claims and full-page ads about ending hunger. Last year the Karnataka State Farmers’ Association, which claims 10 million Indian peasants as members, announced its "Cremate Monsanto" campaign. Since then they have been publicly burning Monsanto’s experimental plots in India. In London, on the caravan, farmer Kumud Chowdury said, "My husband is taking care of our farm, while I am here to kill Monsanto before it kills families like mine."
In Brazil, the powerful Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) has made stopping Monsanto soybeans a top priority, vowing to destroy any genetically engineered crops planted in Rio Grande do Sul state, where the sympathetic governor has banned them. Meanwhile, a Brazilian federal court judge has suspended commercial release of Monsanto’s soy pending further testing. In Mexico, where the maize plant originated when it was bred in pre-Columbian times from wild relatives, Mexican farmers still maintain 25,000 native varieties. Fears that pollen from imported, genetically engineered corn could contaminate and irreversibly damage this invaluable genetic heritage recently led the Mexican government to announce a ban on its import from the United States. Meanwhile Mexico’s largest corn-flour company moved to calm consumer fears by eliminating genetically engineered corn from its products.
In Thailand, the government, consumers, environmentalists and even exporters are concerned about genetically engineered crops. Arriving there in mid-October to attend a conference, I found that such foods were the number-one topic in newspapers, on television and even among people on the streets. On October 13 the Thai government slapped a temporary ban on genetically engineered seeds, just as a controversy exploded over genetically engineered cotton plants being grown illegally by farmers near a Monsanto experimental plot. Thai environmental and consumer organizations immediately voiced their opposition to such crops because of their impact on native biodiversity and food safety. With the new ban in place, the commerce minister suggested that Thailand capitalize on the concerns of European consumers by promoting Thai food exports internationally as free from genetic engineering. Thai cooking oil and seasoning exporters rushed to jump on the bandwagon.
It seems that Filipino peasants are not the only ones concerned about a repeat of the Golden Snail. Growing legions throughout the Third World are asking if they really need these so-called miracle seeds. Certainly the sordid history of technology "altruistically" sent by the North to solve the problems of the South—like large dams that displace thousands, only to silt up rapidly, or pesticides that poison millions, only to become ineffective as pests develop resistance—is enough to make anyone think twice about Golden Snails and magic bullets.