NCER: Transforming agriculture – for whom?

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On 30 July, the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) master-plan was launched with much fanfare. Among other goals, the blueprint aims to transform agriculture in the rice-bowl region of Malaysia.The masterplan was designed by Sime Darby although the project will be implemented by a regional coordinating authority, chaired by the Prime Minister.

On the face of it, it all sounds great. After all, if we can increase our food production and be more self-sufficient, then we would achieve food security, right?

But there are some underlying issues that have not been highlighted in the mainstream media.

Sime Darby is not a disinterested party. It is eyeing the seed market and planning to produce patented “mother seed” for 10 popular crops, which it wants to sell, along with fertilisers, to contract farmers. Not only that, the firm will eventually buy the farmers’ produce, process it and market it via Tesco (in which Sime Darby has a 30 per cent stake).

To get this scheme started, Sime Darby will introduce mechanised agro-business methods on a 700-acre model farm to a core group of pioneer farmers, who would be paid monthly salaries higher than the average farmer’s income. The contract farmers, once trained, would become contract farmers working on land allocated to them by the government or on plots merged through cooperatives.

This scheme raises several concerns:

Loss of autonomy: The farmers will lose their sense of independence and autonomy. From independent decision makers, they will become contract farmers and passive receivers of agricultural inputs and technology, at the service of the big corporations for their survival. The entire food chain from from seed to retailing could end up being controlled by a few large corporations.

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If the government really wants to develop farming, it should adopt a bottom-up, people-based approach using cooperatives and using inputs based on the farmers’ traditional knowledge.

Dependency on seeds: The farmers will become increasingly dependent on Sime Darby for the seeds. Sime Darby is aiming to supply the farmers with ten popular seeds including tomatoes, chilli, watermelons, potatoes and maize (corn).

Control of seeds will move towards Sime Darby, which will work in a joint venture with a “renowned foreign institution” and sell these “patented” seeds to the farmers. The supply of seeds is a global business estimated to be worth US$26 billion, controlled by five major players. Guess who will benefit most from the supply of seeds in the Northern Corridor: Sime Darby or the farmers?

The threat of genetically engineered crops: Sime Darby also wants the farmers to plant corn in between the paddy seasons, which they say will boost the farmers’ income. Corn grows fast, claim Sime Darby officials, and it will return nutrients to the soil.

When I mentioned this to Sarojeni Rengam, the executive director of Pesticide Action Network’s Asia Pacific office, her first reaction was one of concern: ”There is a strong likelihood they might use genetically engineered seeds such as Bt corn or a herbicide-tolerant corn – because they are talking about biotechnology.”

That’s not all. “With the introduction of hi-technology on farms including the introduction of biotechnology in the country, our concern is that it might be a matter of time before Malaysians end up eating genetically engineered rice,” warned Indrani Thuraisingham, Chief Executive Officer of the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca).

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Entrenching the agrichemical giants: Whenever we have industrial scale farming, you can bet that the pesticide and fertiliser giants won’t be far behind. Farmers will become increasingly dependent on these agrichemical giants. The thing is the cost of these inputs will rise as the price of oil rises. Instead of looking at the actual pest problems, farmers will probably be compelled to spray their crops based on the time of year (“calendar spraying”).

Transfer of business risks to the farmers: While the large corporations control the agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, the actual risks are borne by the farmers. What happens if there is crop failure, after the farmers buy all these inputs from the big corporations? Who will rescue these farmers from debt then?

A shift to the private sector: Political activist Jeyakumar Devaraj has expressed alarm: “It boggles the imagination that the government has come to the stage of contracting out the planning for poverty alleviation to a corporation whose primary aim is to maximise profits for shareholders.”

Clearly there is room for conflict of interest when the firm charged with designing an economic plan for the people stands to benefit from the proposed plan.

”The whole approach to the management of the nation’s resources has been based on the misconception that the free market and the private sector can supply the goods and services more efficiently in all sectors of the economy,” Devaraj observed.

He pointed out that this belief had been disproved by the excessive expenditure on privatised health care in the United States and the failed water privatisation in Manila. ”Yet our planners are putting their full trust in the private sector and the free market approach.”

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Loss of biodiversity: Large scale agro-business will inevitably result in a loss of biodiversity as mono-culture or the use of specific high-yield crop varieties dominate the sector. We don’t know how this loss of diversity will affect the integrity of our ecological system.

From the United States, comes worrying news of collapse of commercial bee colonies across the country. No one knows for sure why these bees (the European honeybee variety), which are vital to pollinate crops, are disappearing.

As writer Chip Ward observes: “Once upon a time we had lots of small, local farms. Farmers relied on dispersed bee populations to pollinate their crops, enhanced and encouraged by the work of local beekeepers.” Before the advent of monoculture and industrial scale farms, local farmers might have kept a couple of their own bee hives.

“Before we replaced meadows and prairies with sprawling subdivisions, there was enough habitat for local bee populations to thrive and meet agricultural demands. Not anymore,” he said. “Today, when farms are massive and almost invariably dedicated to single crops, there just aren’t enough local bees to do the work required.”

What are we going to lose when we shift towards large farms and rice-fields?

The above piece was originally published in The Herald

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anilnetto
5 Dec 2007 8.40am

Hi Devlin!
Yes its cause for concern. Sime Darby has signed a joint venture deal with CAAS. CAAS will provide the joint venture firm with “suitable selected germplasm”. Beyond that, I don’t know where they are going to get it from. Might be worth checking out the CAAS website.
But the idea is also to reduce reliance on other imported seeds. We need to focus on what Sime Darby/CAAS will do at the seed centre they are setting up in Perlis, in northern Malaysia.

cheers

Devlin Kuyek
Devlin Kuyek
5 Dec 2007 5.25am

Dear Anil,

Interesting article. NCER sounds like a real disaster. Do you know who Sime Darby’s Chinese partner is in their seed venture? I heard mention of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), but typically these Chinese public instituions conduct foreign seed deals through their private spin-offs. There are a number of private seed companies associated with CAAS. Thanks if you can supply the info.

All the best,
Devlin
GRAIN (www.grain.org)