To the rhythms of drums and chants, concerned people took to the streets across 436 cities in 52 countries yesterday. The message was clear: smash Monsanto. With thousands marching from coast to coast, Canada to Argentina, and around the world, the day of protest has emerged as one of the largest global events—and it has only been around for two years. However, more than small hopes for a mandatory labeling of genetically modified products, smashing Monsanto entails a larger transformation of the modern relationship between people and food.
It is not only GM products, but the continuing economy of globalization, that Monsanto represents. Thanks to major seed companies and agricultural conglomerates like Monsanto and Cargill, the very definition of farmer has changed throughout the world—from a person or group of people in a given community who specialized in producing food to a corporate, land-owning entity comprised more of machines, technological assemblages, and inputs than of people who work the land. Thus, the target of protest is not only GMs, although GMs are a central aspect, but also the supply chain of multinational corporations that transforms food into a commodity that many throughout the world cannot afford.
In the context of today’s historical epoch—the Global Land Grab, in which farmland is being grabbed by multinational corporations from vulnerable populations like small farmers, campesin@s, and Indigenous peoples throughout the world—the March Against Monsanto has taken on a particularly sharp edge. In Ethiopia, where Monsanto has taken up shop through the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, reports have emerged of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people flooding the streets of the capital city, Addis Ababa, to demonstrate against land grabbing.
Monsanto has also ingrained itself in Mali since the US-backed coup of 2012, in spite of renewed fighting in the North that only yesterday claimed the lives of 50 soldiers. Malian cotton farmers, who have resisted Monsanto’s genetically modified Bt Cotton seeds since 2004, are being brushed to the side. The process of side-stepping traditional agriculture moved forward in 2010 through the IMF-mandated privatization of La Compagnie malienne pour le développement du textile against the organized opposition of farmers who petitioned through the People’s Forum. A year after the coup, the USDA announced that Malian farmers are “ready to adopt Bt Cotton,” although Mali’s “biosafety law needs to be revised and made functional.” The biosafety law is to be removed, because it restricts the ability of researchers to run field tests.
Even in Ukraine, Monsanto’s influence can be seen in the wake of intervention. A looming food crisis hangs over Ukraine, as the fighting brought on by the EU-backed ”opposition” impeded the planting of around 20 percent of spring grains—11 tons of grain. Monsanto, however, is taking the opposition’s accession to power in stride, having announced plans last summer to build a $150 million non-GM seed plant in the strife-ridden country (part of a drive to spend more than half a billion dollars updating and expanding plants in France, Romania, Hungary, and Turkey). Dupont already has a seed plant in Ukraine, and Cargill has jumped into the agricultural business in Ukraine as well, purchasing a 5 percent share in the largest agricultural company worth $200 million.
Ukraine has suffered from climate conditions leading to export bans on grain in recent years. The country remains instrumental in the supply chain of global food products, and significant declines in food production could lead to export bans, significantly disturbing global food prices—particularly for the EU. It is unlikely that the new neoliberal regime will lift Ukraine’s recent GM ban, but Monsanto’s shift to non-GM seeds in Europe has allowed them to avoid the negative attention that such a move would draw. Russia is far more difficult; Putin warned Obama last year of a possible global war over Monsanto’s bee-killing, breast cancer-causing GM products. China, too, has banned GM products, and their significant investment in agricultural land throughout Central and Southeast Asia has caused consternation in their North Atlantic counterparts.
The Pivot to Asia
Last week’s military coup of Thailand could bear fruit for Monsanto and the whole neo-liberal cavalcade. Deposed Prime Minister Yingluck made bold statements demanding that the free trade area encompassed in the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership consider Thai farmers. The Red Shirt support for Prime Minister Yingluck came largely from the farmers of Thailand—considered “Asia’s rice bowl”—who enjoy economic protections under the Thai government. On the other side, the Yellow Shirt opposition, led by Sondhi, demonstrated against free trade, consumer-oriented society. When the military took power, they produced a list of arrestees including both Yingluck and Sondhi, along with a number of academics and activists.
In many ways, this may be a rerun of 2006, when the Thai military overthrew Yingluck’s predecessor (and brother), Thaksin. Although disavowed by the US, various conspirators from the counterinsurgency division of the Thai military executed a coup against Thaksin—ostensibly as a result of what many considered to be a feckless, heavy handed approach to suppressing the Malay insurgencies in the southern regions, but with much deeper intentions in mind. The counterinsurgency operations and operators in Thailand are closely linked to the US, and have mirrored US interests since Thailand acted as a staging point for US incursions into Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In the 1970s, the US-backed military regime instilled what George Katsiaficas calls, “repressive measures befitting a Pinochet,” but decided to undermine guerilla fighters by winning “hearts and minds” through amnesty to activists—this was the beginning of a new neoliberal politics in Thailand, which paved the way for a 1982 IMF package. Yet with the IMF crisis of 1997 coming on the heels of a new, hard-fought Constitution, political and economic restructuring ushered Thaksin into power. While Thaksin, a billionaire telecom industry mogul, and his business elites took power over much of the military, many within the military remained uneasy about the popularly elected Prime Minister.
Two years before Thaksin’s ouster, Monsanto declared its intentions to turn Thailand into a base for GE Round Up Ready corn and BT corn. The US attempted to push a Free Trade Agreement with Thailand, but a Thai GMO import ban, along with other “barriers to trade” has frustrated the USTR. In a position paper written in 2010 for the US Army War College, Colonel Siriphong Patcharakanokkul of the Royal Thai Army outlined the shifting goals of counterinsurgency in Thailand from Thaksin’s hardline policies to a return to the good old days of “hearts and minds”-style military guidance. The economic goal is explained clearly: ”The RTG [Royal Thai Government] should consider changing its focus from the tourist industry and entertainment towards the development and design a [sic] new product for agriculture and fishing products.”
What Comes Next?
While there are extensive rice and rubber plantations in the South, the insurgency comprised largely of Malay separatists remains intent on reclaiming Patani Muslim land from the monarchy. Transformations of COIN strategy has not actualized an incumbent transformation in territorial exploitation—i.e., a transformation of the large percentage of small scale fisher folk and farms in the South into larger monocrop plantations that utilize North-centered agricultural practices—and perhaps cannot do so without the necessary economic restructuring that would come about through a free trade agreement like the Trans Pacific Partnership or a military junta (or both).
As China’s historic North-South Economic Corridor with Thailand portends stronger economic ties through coming regional trade agreements (particularly among the farmers of Thailand’s northern region where the Sinawatra’s power-base lies), US policy makers worry about significant challenges to trade hegemony—in particular, the dreaded “barriers to trade,” which would give comparative advantage to China. This North-South Economic Corridor connects Laos, Burma, China, and Thailand—four countries that do not have free trade agreements with the US. Yingluck’s proximity to China via her support base in the North and her development of border economic zones and infrastructure networks along the North-South Economic Corridor, together with her administration’s denial of involvement with the TPP, may have contributed to her alienation from the US and vulnerability to coup forces. The US’s suspension of just over one third of its military aid to Thailand—a light slap on the wrist based more on US laws that force the severance of aid to illegal coup governments than on moral groundings—will be followed by renewed efforts to fortify US interests in Southeast Asia by pushing through the TPP, or at least pivoting the country’s economic and political orientation away from China.
Of course, nothing could be better for the Thai royalty, who are backing the coup from the lap of luxury in some of the UK’s most posh Imperial lodgings. It is no small irony that the crown prince of Thailand is waiting out the storm in fine style with the British—former Imperial overlords of the Malay Peninsula. All signs suggest that the coup serves the royalty, which reflects the North Atlantic’s determination to tighten its grip over the Global South through the “pivot to Asia.” It is only a matter of time, however, before the profound impulse to freedom and democracy stirs another mass revolt against the systems of control that are destroying the world—March Against Monsanto, in its third year, already shows these sparks flying.
Alexander Reid Ross is co-moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and editor of the forthcoming Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). His work can also be found in Life During Wartime: Resistance Against Counterinsurgency (AK Press 2013).