Seeds, Power and Imperialism

“Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.”

Henry Kissinger, United States Secretary of State 1973-1976.


Mari Carmen Aponte, ambassador of the United States to El Salvador, has just announced that the imperial authorities need more shows of loyalty on the part of the elected Salvadoran government, not only to receive a $277 million grant from FOMILENIO, but also to be considered a friend and ally of the United States.

The empire is now demanding the repeal of agreements concerning the “Temporary Special Provisions to Promote the Production of Basic Grains” that since 2013 have allowed the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG) to buy Salvadoran seeds directly from the men and women who produce the country’s food without a tender process. According to Aponte, the US wants to ensure that Salvadoran economic policies are in line with Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) provisions, signed by El Salvador in 2004, allowing American companies unrestricted participation in tender offers and governmental purchases of seeds.

The repeal of this decree represents a regression of the few advances that have been made with respect to food self-sufficiency over the course of the 2009-2014 governmental administration. Under this decree, agricultural associations and cooperatives in 2013 were able to supply 92% of governmental seed purchases from the public sector. It is hoped that in 2014, local seed supply can cover 100% of the MAG’s demand. As expected, the new United States government imposition counts upon the support of companies making up the American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) and, of course, has the blessing of the Salvadoran Foundation for Development (FUSADES).

It is well known that the progressive control of the links making up a country’s agrifood chain (consumables, financing, technology, seeds, production, merchandising, storage, etc.) is one of the main objectives in the strategy of transnational companies to accumulate capital in this phase of global capitalism. These corporations have converted the chains of production not only into profit-making businesses, but also instruments of economic, social, cultural and political control of the men and women who produce and/or consume the food produced by these chains.

One important aspect of this strategy is to eliminate the ability of local food producers to conserve, reproduce and store their own seeds. In this way, they manage to make local production systems and community consumption dependent upon seed supplies produced and patented by transnationals. Toward that end, they impose provisions in free trade agreements obligating nations to allow unrestricted free trade and seed imports, under threat of economic and/or political sanctions.

Today, 10 transnational companies control 67% of the world seed market, and among them, two American companies (Monsanto and DuPont) and one Swiss (Syngenta), hold a concentrated 47% of the market. In 2008, Monsanto acquired the Cristiani Burkard seed company, one of the principal purveyors of seeds to the government of El Salvador before the temporary provisions to promote basic grains, and would be one of the American companies most in favour of repealing the provisions.

The penetration of transnationals in Central American agrifood chains was achieved through the coordinated action of international financial organisations (International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank) and other official organizations for bilateral cooperation (USAID) and multilateral cooperation agencies (The World Food Program and the United Nations Agricultural Fund). On the one hand, international financial organizations pressure governments to adopt commercial liberalization measures on consumables and agricultural products, as part of economic reforms they must enact in order to access loans; on the other, cooperation agencies design their programs and projects for food security and rural competitiveness out of a public-private cooperation model the includes measures that bolster the position of transnational companies in the links composing agrifood chains, such as suppliers and/or as buyers of consumables, products, technology, etc.

These strategies count on the complicity (direct or indirect) of national governments and parliaments, who find themselves forced to accept these impositions in order to maintain the flow of debt funding from international financial groups and/or non-reimbursable cooperation funds from the United States and the European Union, even though this leads to greater food dependency and the ruin of the men and women who produce the nation’s food. Sometimes, however, it is possible that the internal correlation of power allows some governments and parliaments to approve measures counter to transnational hegemony and/or are aimed at food sovereignty. That is what seems to have happened in El Salvador over the last two years, enabling temporary provisions promoting the national production of basic grains, and the purchase and use of national seeds to supply agriculture and other public sector requirements.

That seems, however, about to change.

Upon his return from his official visit to the United States, President-elect Salvador Sánchez Cerén assured that his government will comply with all the conditions imposed in order to grant FOMILENIO funds, and reiterated his intention to maintain this partnership for growth with the United States. Consequently, it is not strange to note that the government-elect has already embarked on a process to prepare an alternative plan to repeal the provisions protecting national seeds, thereby complying with the empire’s new imposition.

If neoliberalism has taught us anything, it is that public economic policies are above and before all the result of power relationships expressed in class struggle. This is the reason why neoliberalism has worked so hard to debilitate and politically demobilize unions and other social organizations that may take to the streets and obligate their governments to refuse to enact and/or retract neoliberal economic reforms. Therefore, at best, the moment has arrived for organizations involved in discussions and networks fighting for food sovereignty and national agricultural development to take to the streets and demand that the government and political parties act in favor of food sovereignty and the interest of the people. 

Translated by Danica Jorden.

The author is a professor of economics at the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” (UCA) in El Salvador.

Danica Jorden is a published translator of Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and other languages.

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