Bio-Serfdom and the New Feudalism

By Halweil, Brian | World Watch, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

Bio-Serfdom and the New Feudalism


Halweil, Brian, World Watch


In the latest European attack on the use of biotechnology in agriculture, 120 French farmers broke into a storage facility of the agribusiness multinational Novartis and destroyed 30 tons of transgenic corn seed. The attack - following the French government's much protested decision earlier this year to allow farmers to plant genetically modified corn - found popular support throughout France and much of Europe, where there is widespread resistance to the use of genetic engineering in food.

Unlike their counterparts in the United States, Europeans have demonstrated strong skepticism of the biotechnology industry's claims that there are no adverse health effects associated with consuming bioengineered food. Europeans are also wary of the unintentional - and deleterious - introduction of genes or substances into the environment.

The strongest cry against biotechnology in European agriculture has come from farmers who associate bioengineered seeds with a shift of power from farmers to agribusiness corporations. The Confederation Paysanne, an organization composed of small farmers throughout Europe, called the French decision "a grave error, a giant step toward more and more dangerous agriculture at the whims of the large agrochemical groups."

Genetically modified seed varieties often carry traits which necessitate the use of one or more agrochemicals. In this way, an agribusiness company - often producer of both seed and agrochemicals - can integrate the sale of several of its products and command substantial control over the farming process. In addition to the seed, the farmer must purchase the fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide and other inputs, without which the seed does not function optimally.

Moreover, seed companies often require farmers to sign a licensing agreement which essentially eliminates the age-old role of farmers as breeders and managers of genetic resources. …

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