Monsanto, a Contemporary East India Company, and Corporate Knowledge in India

Economic growth, large technical workforce and lower research costs in India are attracting Research and Development (R&D) investment from multinational corporations (MNCs), particularly in agri-business. In the OECD economies, agri-business is the second most profitable industry, after pharmaceuticals. Contributing to its profitability is rapid development in biotechnology.

The Indian Biotechnology sector is gaining global visibility and is being picked for emerging investment opportunities. India has 40 state agriculture universities, five deemed universities, one central agricultural university and more than 200 agricultural colleges. These institutions produce about 14,000 graduates and 7,800 postgraduate and Ph.D. scholars every year.

With Monsanto’s progress in European markets frozen, growing economies like India and their markets took on greater significance. The company urgently needed to expand the market for its GM crops internationally. Monsanto’s agriculture division had already begun to focus on Asian, African and Latin American markets in the early 1990s, towards the goal of “transforming agriculture” in a number of countries, a target that became known as the “developing country goal”. Monsanto’s commercial vision has been projected as a benevolent vision for the world. When Robert Shapiro was appointed as Monsanto’s new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in 1995, he engaged in a program to reorient the company’s business around “sustainability”. He linked the urgent need to grow enough food to feed a growing population with “inadequate” existing technologies and agricultural practices. So Monsanto’s “sustainability” vision, it is claimed, could be realized through GM technology.

Monsanto India (MI), which began its operations in 1949 as a trader of industrial chemicals and later an agrochemical company in 1975 with the launch of the herbicide, Machete (butachlor), has evolved into an agribusiness giant of GM seeds. The Monsanto research centre established at Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc), Bangalore in 1998 is the only R&D centre established outside the US.

The foundation for Monsanto to tap into the research potential of students as well as the research facilities available in Indian universities was laid by a trade agreement between India and the United States, known as the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA) or Agricultural Knowledge Initiative (AKI). This trade deal was influenced by Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland Company and Wal-Mart.

Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA)

The India-US Agreement on Agriculture and Science and Technology emerged from a joint statement by Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, and George W. Bush, then US President, on July 18, 2005. This far-reaching bilateral pronouncement was the genesis of the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA). Later, in March 2006 Singh and Bush signed a joint declaration on enhanced cooperation in agricultural education and research. This cooperation is based on the KIA.

The KIA is implemented through KIA Board, which consists of US and Indian members from government, universities, and the private sector. Dr. Norman Borlaug and Dr. M.S. Swaminathan are honorary advisors for the KIA. The US private sector members are: Monsanto, the largest seller of GM seeds in the world; Archer Daniels Midland, a US grain purchaser and trader and is, with Cargill, one of the companies that maintains “oligopolistic control of the American food-manufacturing and food-processing markets”; and Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer.

The Board has decided to focus initially on four core areas: agricultural education, food processing and marketing, biotechnology and water management.1 “The KIA is part of the US comprehensive strategy on revitalizing the bilateral relationship in agriculture with India,” said Susan Owens, director of the FAS Research and Scientific Exchanges Division. A key feature of KIA is university-business partnership. Owen stated: “We want to broaden the scope of the AKI beyond just research…We want to use the AKI to increase agricultural production in India….”2 That means, industry helps in not only reshaping the universities’ curricula, but also identifying research areas that have the potential for rapid commercialization.1 This new Knowledge Initiative required development of “effective policy, regulatory, and institutional frameworks.”1 As Owen said, “The AKI aims to promote science and technology to create a sound regulatory environment that promotes investment and trade.”2

The KIA Board discussed rights (Intellectual Property Rights) to products that the research in public-funded universities will develop. US land-grant universities and industry representatives are asked to help reshape the curricula of Agricultural education. Some of suggested new courses were in entrepreneurship development, agribusiness, biotechnology, international trade, patent regimes and environmental science in various disciplines. Under KIA endowment of industry-sponsored chairs in Indian universities are allowed.

However, there is fear that India’s Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act could face threats under US pressure. Along with multinationals such as Monsanto, the US has been lobbying for a change in India’s intellectual property laws, to introduce patents on seeds and genes and dilute the provisions protecting farmers’ rights. Vandana Shiva, a physicist and environmentalist, said,

The Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement between the US and India establishes intellectual property protocols of research, bypassing consultation with Indian scientists and the Indian public which has been resisting IPR regimes that force countries to patent life, and create monopolies on seeds, medicine and software…For us, these agreements are instruments of corporate dictatorship; they are not instruments of democracy. And as dictatorship, they will fuel more anger, more discontent, more frustration.3

The Protection and Utilization of Public Funded Intellectual Property Bill 2008

Yielding to the pressures of both the US government and the MNCs such as Monsanto, Indian government introduced in the Parliament a controversial legislation titled “The Protection and Utilization of Public Funded Intellectual Property Bill 2008”. The Bill is modeled on the US’ 1980 Bayh-Dole Act. It provides for the protection and utilization of intellectual property originating from public-funded research. It would alter the existing IP rules to allow government funded universities and autonomous research institutions, rather than the government, to patent their innovations and research outcomes, and to reward institutions and inventors with a share of the royalties and licensing fees generated from the commercial products that result.4 It also recommends universities to have a committee, called an intellectual property management committee, to “identify, assess, document and protect public funded intellectual property having commercial potential.” The objective of the IP Bill, it is claimed, is to create an environment in which wealth can be generated from the university system, stimulate national competitiveness, and forge closer academia-industry partnerships.

The IP Bill has attracted considerable debate due to its perceived and potential adverse impact on the R&D, innovation and public interest.5 Pushpa Bhargava, who resigned in 2007 as vice-chairman of National Knowledge Commission, an Indian government advisory body that recommended the Bill, says that there was no major open discussion at the commission and he was “taken aback” by the recommendation. The IP Bill also goes against the National Knowledge Commission’s policy objectives of promoting, sharing and using new knowledge to maximize public good.

Supporters of the Bill, mostly government officials and some section of industry argued that “protection of IP creates incentive for more knowledge and technology generation as innovators are recognized and rewarded.”6 Officials from India’s Department of Biotechnology, which helped draft the bill, say that the Bill will promote innovation in Indian universities and research institutes by generating funds through patents. According to Somenath Ghosh, managing director of India’s National Research Development Corporation, it has brought “much-needed change,” as “there was no mechanism or incentive to protect knowledge and their research networks have limited interaction with industry.”

IP Legislation and Corporate Knowledge

Since “The Protection and Utilization of Public Funded Intellectual Property Bill 2008” is modeled on the 1980 US’ Bayh-Dole Act, the latter’s impact on US universities imparts some important lessons to Indian academia.

Jim Patrico gives three reasons for bringing US public universities and private companies closer7 :

1. Stagnant levels of public research funding by the Federal Government for agriculture research since 1980s. In 2008 National Budget under George Bush, surprisingly there was nearly one third cut in the public funding for agriculture research at the land grant institutions. This seems to be the government’s strategy to gradually eliminate regular public research funding. Giving the rationale for the massive reduction in grants, a USDA deputy secretary said, “We feel like our agricultural research should not be earmarked; it should be competitively awarded, and that’s how you’re going to get the most bang for the buck.”

Due to increase in cost of research, universities had to find their own ways to raise the extra amount of money from outside sources such as big companies. Because of its partnership with Monsanto, University of Missouri was nicknamed “University of Monsanto.”

2. The 1980’s US Bayh-Dole Act, which gave US universities, for the first time, ownership of patents arising from government funded research.

3. The 1980 US Supreme Court verdict that life forms could be patented. This made agriculture a prime target for patents. Private industry and universities mainly focused on the promising field of biotechnology. Patrico notes, “Within months of that Supreme Court decision, faculty members of UC-Davis created Calgene, a private company and one of the first biotech companies of the chute.”

Although the university-corporate relationship existed even before 1980, Boyh-Dole Act gave public institutions a kick towards the market by encouraging them to patent their public funded research. A shift in universities’ research focus towards creation of marketable products has dawned. The habit of patenting their research has developed a taste for private business deals. This put the public funded institutions in a conundrum, because they no longer existed as “public” institutions. Paul Gepts, professor of agronomy and plant genetics at UC Davis, says, “Public universities are a contradiction.”7

Patenting of research and university-industry alliance raise troublesome questions about academic freedom, the purity of research, and research agendas. Patenting of research necessitates confidentiality. Agricultural universities and research centers become no longer places of open academic sharing and collaboration. William Folk, a plant geneticist at the University of Missouri says, “When I started in the 70s, meetings were filled with people criticizing each other and sharing ideas…(But today) if you have an idea that has any potential commercial value, you are reluctant to share.”7 Thus, colleagues are seen as potential competitors.

Moreover, scientists who perform industry-sponsored research routinely sign agreements requiring them to keep both the methods and the results of their work confidential for a certain period of time. As biotech and pharmaceutical companies involve more in funding research, confidentiality becomes very important for the funding company. From a company’s point of view, confidentiality may be necessary to prevent potential competitors from pilfering ideas. However, one of the basic tenets of science is open sharing of ideas and information. That is why Steven Rosenberg, cancer researcher of the National Cancer Institute, says, “The ethics of business and the ethics of science do not mix well.”

There is also genuine fear that university-corporate relationship might lead to tampering the research manuscripts to serve corporate commercial interests. In 1996 four researchers working on a study of calcium channel blockers accused their sponsor Sandoz that passages highlighting the drug’s potential dangers were removed from a draft manuscript. They wrote in a letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association: “We believed that the sponsor…was attempting to wield undue influence on the nature of the final paper. This effort was so oppressive that we felt it inhibited academic freedom.”7

As the research in the public institutions is market-driven, there is a potential danger that the research focus or agenda of universities converge with corporate agendas and interests. The one possibly negative impact of research collaboration with industry is the impact on public sector research priorities. Major victim will be the “minor crops”, which are commercially not profitable for the companies. Market-driven research also suppresses ideas that may not have immediate commercial value. Organic farming will get affected for lack of not only public funds, but also enthusiasm among agricultural researchers. Students, who wish to pursue their research in organic farming, will face a bleak future.

University-Corporation relationship gives legitimacy to the company and its products. The company can use this legitimacy to promote its products. In 2007, Monsanto gave royalty-free license of its GM papaya seeds to the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, India. License will be valid for ten years and royalty will be decided thereafter. “This is the first product delivery from Monsanto to the university, and Monsanto has been working on this for the past year,” said Bhagirath Choudhary, National Coordinator, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications that assists universities acquire technology from private companies.8 The reason for the collaboration between the university and Monsanto was that famers buy papaya seeds from the university.

Therefore, IP law makes public funded universities and research centers excessively focus on income generation and sharing of royalties. This may derail public funded academic institutions from their mission of unqualified pursuit and public dissemination of truth and knowledge. The university serves the broad public interest, to the extent that it treasures informed analysis, critical inquiry and uncompromising standards of intellectual integrity. However, university-industry alliance converts these public centers of knowledge into centers to serve the greed of private companies. However, Rob Hersch, Monsanto’s vice president of product and technology cooperation, disagrees. He says, “The No.1 issue for us with universities and with science is to get good information…unbiased, believable, reproducible information.”7 Ignacio Chapela, a UC-Berkeley professor of microbial ecology, admits that a deal between university and company “institutionalizes the university’s relationship with one company, whose interest is profit. Our role should be to serve the public good.”9 Therefore, there is a real danger of “business of the universities” becoming business. Consequentially, the knowledge of universities will help widen the gap between the rich and the poor by providing knowledge that helps rich to become richer, rather than bridging the gap between the rich and the poor. So, research will be geared towards making profit for the big corporations.

Thus, university education system is converted to essentially profit making commercial enterprise. It is structured like any other commercial enterprise that looks primarily at its bottom line. A deeper analysis of nature, which has no immediate commercial market, is now being downgraded in favor of what the industry considers as “lucrative” research. It shifts research priorities away from what society needs as a whole to the greed of the corporations. Science is no longer for advancing knowledge and the well-being of society but almost entirely for generating profits for the educational enterprise, and consequently to the funding corporations. Professor Steve Rose of UK’s Open University, succinctly puts it,

Well I think there is a very real problem from the point of view of university research in the way that private companies have entered the university, both with direct companies in the universities and with contracts to university researchers. So that in fact the whole climate of what might be open and independent scientific research has disappeared, the old idea that universities were a place of independence has gone. Instead of which one’s got secrecy, one’s got patents, one’s got contracts and one’s got shareholders.

Stifling downstream R&D, hindering free scientific exchange of scientific information, data and materials and increasing opportunities for conflict of interest and other unethical practices not consistent with the best interests of science is not the way to go.

In India Monsanto has started country-wide campaign to attract research talent into the development of hybrid rice and wheat. For this, it has linked with some of the country’s premier universities and research institutes. In 2009 Monsanto announced $10 million grant to establish Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program (MBBISP) to improve research on breeding techniques for rice and wheat. The program will be administered by Texas AgriLife Research, and agency of the Texas A&M University system, for the next five years. What is alarming is not that agribusiness giant Monsanto is seeking answers from the Indian public funded universities and research institutions. It is that Monsanto is the one asking the questions at Indian public funded institutions. As Andrew Neighbour, former administrator at Washington University in St. Louis, who managed the university’s multiyear and multimillion dollar relationship with Monsanto, admits, “There’s no question that industry money comes with strings. It limits what you can do, when you can do it, who it has to be approved by.”7 This raises the question: if Agribusiness giant Monsanto is funding the research, will Indian agricultural researchers pursue such lines of scientific inquiry as “How will this new rice or wheat variety impact the Indian farmer, or health of Indian public?” The reality is, Monsanto is funding the research not for the benefit of either Indian farmer or public, but for its profit. It is paying researchers to ask questions that it is most interested in having answered.

Now, the basic role of the public funded agricultural institutions and research centers in a democratic society is at risk. The new developments in India are vehicles to empower food giants such as Monsanto, destroy small farmers, and harm the public health. In 1970 Henry Kissinger said: “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control people.”10 What we are witnessing in India today are developments towards that end, under the disguise of “food security.” Concentrating control in the hands of the US Agbusiness company Monsanto (and few others) places Indian public at risk, and leads to its control of India, as the British East India Company did.

  1. Dinesh C. Sharma, “Preparing for New Challenges,” Span, March/April 2007. [] [] []
  2. Julia Debes, “U.S.-India Agricultural Cooperation: A New Beginning,” FAS Worldwide, September 2006. [] []
  3. Rahul Goswami, “A Bargain-Basement Knowledge ‘Mandi’,” InfoChange News &Features, August 2006. []
  4. Rahul Vartak and Manish Saurashtri, “The Indian Version of Bayh-Dole Act,” Intellectual Asset Management, March/April 2009. []
  5. The Indian Public Funded IP Bill: Are We Ready?Indian J Med Res, 128, December 2008, 682-685. []
  6. Sharad Pawar, India’s Union Minister for Agriculture, at Conference of Vice-Chancellors of Agricultural Universities, New Delhi, February 16-17, 2009. []
  7. Jim Patrico, “Universities for Sale?Progressive Farmer, November 2001. [] [] [] [] [] []
  8. Padmaparna Ghosh, “Monsanto’s Gift to Tamil Nadu University: GM Papaya Licence,” livemint.com,india, October 24, 2007. []
  9. Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, “The Kept University,” The Atlantic Monthly, 285/3, March 2000, 39-54. []
  10. Stephen Lendman, “Destroying America’s Family Farm: HR 2749. A Stealth Agribusiness Empowering Act,” Global Research, June 12, 2009. []

Kamalakar Duvvuru teaches the New Testament in India with an objective of promoting peace, justice, unity and love. He can be reached at: kamalakar.duvvur@gmail.com. Read other articles by Kamalakar, or visit Kamalakar's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rikje Maria Ruiter said on July 27th, 2009 at 8:55am #

    If we accept gen- products….
    that is the begin of the end…..!
    Rikje Maria

  2. Stephen said on July 27th, 2009 at 12:33pm #

    Great article. Thanks for posting.

  3. ATUL V. BHOLE said on October 5th, 2009 at 11:43am #

    Natural Resources should be maintained,
    We should go toward researches for alternatives of natural resources.