The 'bad idea virus'
Iraq, Order 81 and the biotech invasion
Andy Rowell, 29 March 2005

Just imagine the job of being a Minister in the Iraqi government. You have the responsibility of trying to resurrect the running of a government department from the ruins of war. You run the risk of assassination or suicide bombers from the continuing bloody insurgence. It would not be a job for the faint-hearted.

And so it must be for Dr. Al-Sharifi, the former Deputy Minister of Agriculture who has been promoted to head the Ministry. A former scientist, she is charged with planning the reconstruction of the Iraqi agricultural sector. It is a dangerous job. Earlier this month a suicide car bomb set ablaze the Agriculture Ministry, killing one security guard and wounding at least 20 others.

It is also a demanding job. Iraq's agriculture is in a mess. Iraq’s agricultural heritage goes back to the time when mankind first domesticated wheat some ten thousand years ago. But this ancient land is fertile no more. The years of Saddam’s corrupt regime have taken their toll as have the crippling years of UN sanctions. Only about half of Iraq's million hectares of land are currently under cultivation. By 1980 Iraq imported about half of its food. By 2002, between 80 and 100 percent of many basic staples -- wheat, rice, sugar, vegetable oil, and protein meals -- were imported.

So the provider has become the importer. The task facing Dr. Al-Sharifi is to make Iraqi fertile again. To assist the Iraqis in their task, the Americans appointed Dan Amstutz, a former executive with the world's largest grain company Cargill. Amstutz also served as an agricultural Under-Secretary during the Reagan administration, and chief agricultural negotiator for the US during the GATT trade talks.

So here is a man who understands the needs of America's multi-billion agribusiness, helping the poor Iraqi farmer. It was hardly surprising that when his appointment was announced, it was met by outrage. "Putting Dan Amstutz in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq is like putting Saddam Hussein in the chair of a human rights commission," said Kevin Watkins, Oxfam’s policy director.

But now Dr. Al-Sharifi has another problem to deal with. "Order 81" is one of the hundreds or so orders left behind by the Coalition Provisional Authority. It may sound rather innocuous, but Order 81 that covers "Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety," is causing a huge stir internationally. The controversy was started last October, when two non-governmental organisations, Focus on the Global South and GRAIN issued a report entitled: "Iraq's new patent law: A declaration of war against farmers"

The report argued that the Coalition Provisional Authority had "made it illegal for Iraqi farmers to re-use seeds harvested from new varieties registered under the law. What it will actually do is facilitate the penetration of Iraqi agriculture by the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow Chemical - the corporate giants that control seed trade across the globe".

The new patent law also explicitly promotes the commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) seeds in Iraq. And it is this that worries the experts. This month Dr. Al-Sharifi received an email. It was from the Independent Science Panel, whose members include some of the world's leading scientists on agriculture and genetic engineering. These include Dr Tewolde Egziabher, the head of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority and Dr. Arpad Pusztai, one of the world’s leading independent researchers into the health effects of GM foods.

The purpose of the email was to "highlight the damage that Order 81 will do to Iraq's agricultural future". According to the scientists: "The Order promotes the view that GM varieties are really no different from 'new' varieties developed through conventional breeding programmes. This view is scientifically indefensible, and the many unique health and environmental hazards associated with GM crops and foods are now well documented in the scientific literature". Their closing remarks to Dr. Al-Sharifi were stark: "We consider that the patrimony of your country is at stake here, and that your attitude to Order 81 will affect the lives of Iraqi people for generations to come."

There is no doubt that Dr. Al-Sharifi will be under intense US pressure to keep Order 81. But will she side with the interests of Iraqi farmers or American agribusiness and the biotech giants? Because the two are not compatible. For biotech companies such as Monsanto, the zeal with which they have tried to impose GM crops and food on the world’s rich and poor alike is staggering. They are backed by the brutal force of the Bush Administration that wants millions of people the world over to eat GM food, whereas millions do not want to.

President Bush is a huge enthusiast about biotechnology. He made the keynote speech to the Biotechnology Industry Association in 2003. "In the years to come, the contributions of your industry will help us to win the war on terror, will help us fight hunger around the world and will help us to save countless lives with new medicines" said the President . It was a remarkable speech and an incredible proposition: that biotechnology was essentially a panacea for all the world's problems: with the potential to end terrorism; end poverty; and save lives through medicines we can only yet dream of.

Like so many other statements about biotechnology and genetic engineering it was all hype. The commercial interests of the biotech companies have always come first; overriding key concerns about the health and environmental impacts of the technology. Overriding the real concerns of third world farmers from India to Iraq.

It was the Republican administration of Bush's father that in 1992, "streamlined the regulatory process" for getting biotech products to market. Approval was opposed by many of the scientists from the US Food and Drug Administration, but their concerns were overruled. The central premise of the US government decision was that genetic engineering was just a continuation of traditional plant breeding. This is not true and was even disputed by the FDA's own scientists at the time, but their concerns were overruled too.

Another lie by the biotech industry is that the technology is widely tested. This is not true, either. Much of the work that has been undertaken remains either unpublished or unscrutinised by independent scientists. To date no one knows if GM food is safe, despite what the American government would have you believe.

Dr. Chuck Benbrook, former executive director of the Board of Agriculture of the US National Academy of Sciences argues the US policy was one of "don’t look, don't see. As a results there really was no serious science done in the United States for most of the 1990s on the potential risks of biotechnology."

Because we have not looked we do not know the risks. Dr Sue Mayer from GeneWatch UK is an expert on genetic engineering. "I have always thought that what will become the biggest problem is something we haven’t thought of; there is likely to be an unprecedented impact somewhere because of the nature of GM technology and the way in which it is being used. There could be the horrible effect of someone dying because they can't avoid it".

But the concerns of hundreds of scientists like Dr. Mayer have been brushed aside by the biotech industry and its supporters who continue to push the technology against the interests of the people. This month, the head of Monsanto was in the UK trying to argue that farmers want to grow GM crops, even though surveys have shown that two-thirds of people do not want to eat GM food.

As the industry try to force-feed you their unproven technology they will argue that they are your friend. The argument goes that you can twist the truth if you repeat a lie long enough. So you tell people that biotechnology will feed the poor even though it was invented to increase the profits of the rich. You tell them it will help Iraqi farmers when it will do no such thing. You tell them it is safe when it is not. You say that biotech is profitable when a surprising number of companies have gone bust.

Last July, the Asian Times quoted an economist Joseph Cortright talking about how government officials had been caught up in the "bad-idea virus" that is biotechnology. So how does this "bad-idea virus" gain such a hold over so many? The medical bioethicist Leigh Turner of McGill University, Quebec, suggests that biotech fulfils many of the same needs as religious fanaticism: "In a scientific and technological era, biotech also offers a surrogate religious framework for many individuals".

GM technology will not help Iraq's farmers. But only time will tell if Dr. Al-Sharifi succumbs to the "bad-idea” virus of biotechnology, or whether she catches a cold dose of common sense and stuffs Order 81 into the dustbin where it belongs.

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