During the monsoon months of 1998, unrest swept the agricultural communities of several developing nations, and watchdog organizations mobilized a legion of experts to warn of imminent danger. The concern: biotech giant Monsanto’s acquisition of a patent on genetic use restriction technology (GURT), otherwise known as the “terminator seed.”
The ingenuity of terminator technology lies in making the seed incapable of producing fertile offspring, and therefore making the farmer incapable of saving seed from one year’s harvest to plant in the next. This development was expected to bring record profits for massive agro multinationals like Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dupont, but seemed to spell ruin for the nearly 1.4 billion people who rely on saving seed because they can’t afford not to. A global uproar followed.
In the year after the approval of Monsanto’s patent, advocacy groups around the world put up calls to action on websites and blogs, urging readers to sign their petitions or write letters to the US Department of Agriculture. The controversy inspired grassroots protests, such as those in India, where farmers in Karnataka banded together to destroy alleged terminator test fields, and others in Andhra Pradesh marched through the streets bearing signs that read, “Monsanto Quit India.” In the United States, environmental groups even threatened the USDA with litigation. These efforts were matched by those of thousands worldwide caught up in the fervor over this potentially disastrous new piece of biotechnology.
While proponents claimed GURT had legitimate uses, including increased yields and incentives to produce more efficient seeds in countries with weak patent laws, opponents levied a wave of compelling economic and environmental accusations against major seed and chemical companies— especially Monsanto. The result was a public relations obstacle that the companies could not surmount. By the end of the 1990s, all of the companies that had patents on GURT issued statements articulating a commitment to never commercialize it.
Then, in 2000, at the fifth meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), 193 nations unanimously agreed to a de facto moratorium on the sale of terminator seeds. In 2006, at the eighth meeting of the UNCBD, another vote was taken on the moratorium, which was not only reaffirmed, but strengthened, especially with respect to terminator seed research; the new language explicitly bans field testing, whereas before it was simply implied. The new language also included a recommendation for states to “respect traditional knowledge and Farmers’ Rights to the preservation of seeds under traditional cultivation” and “[disseminate] in appropriate language and simplified form” information on issues relating to GURTs. With the second unanimous affirmation of the moratorium, it seemed that the discussion on GURTs was over—until today.
In December 2013, a bill that would legalize the commercial use of GURT was proposed in the Brazilian Congress. Landowning groups had been putting pressure on Brazil’s legislators to draft a bill allowing for certain, non-food uses of terminator technology since 2007, but were stymied by environmental groups. Now, however, in the nation that hosted the eighth UNCBD, such a bill threatens to violate the thirteen-year-old moratorium.
As the world’s third-largest agricultural exporter—and the B in the BRIC economies—Brazil’s actions could set a crucial precedent for the rest of the world. A Guardian article from late last year quotes a Brazilian NGO staffer: “Brazil is the frontline. If the agro-industry breaks the moratorium here, they’ll break it everywhere.” If Brazil, then maybe India, and then maybe countries in sub-Saharan Africa: One country after another until global agricultural safety is undermined, and those 1.4 billion subsistence farmers languish in total penury.
That Brazil’s violation of the GURT moratorium would result in the collapse of the world’s agricultural security is extreme, but the precedent set by it would still present frightening implications. Yes, the precedent might motivate other states to violate the UNCBD moratorium, but it could also motivate states to violate other treaties as well, leading to a new trend of non-compliance.
Arguably, the strength of an international treaty lies in how well its violation can be prevented, and if unpreventable, that one can at least know when violations occur. In the example of the GURT moratorium, both of these roles—which I’m loosely defining as enforcement and monitoring—are undertaken by the very same groups that whipped up frenzy in the late 1990s: NGOs and human rights groups.
Though the causal link between the efforts of international advocacy groups and the establishment of the 2000 UN moratorium is not proven, without backlash on the issue, international leaders would have been less inclined to even draft such a declaration. Luckily, the influence that advocacy groups wield over governments on the terminator technology issue is made clear by the groups’ activities in 2006.
At the time, the moratorium was being challenged by Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, who were insisting on a “case-by-case risk assessment” of GURT, as opposed to the blanket ban championed by advocacy groups. This challenge was met by counter efforts from farmers, indigenous peoples, and a broad swath of civil society organizations, which pressed governments meeting in Brazil to reject the “threatening” new language. A press release from the time describes the following situation:
“On Tuesday morning, as delegates arrived at the conference venue, they faced more than 100 peasant and indigenous rights activists at the main gates staging a demonstration in support of a complete ban on the sale and use of Terminator seeds, officially known as Genetic Use Restriction Technology. ‘Terminate the Terminator,’ the activists chanted in unison, while demanding tough laws against field testing and sale of so-called ‘Terminator’ technology...”
This series of events allows us to see how the concerted efforts of traditionally marginalized groups can effect large-scale change by pressuring governments. This phenomenon is well-described in political science literature and represents a glimmer of hope for the world’s most vulnerable populations: an individual does not need access to government, which is very limited, to ensure one’s interests are represented. One simply needs access to advocates, who are much more abundant.
However, now, eight years after the successful defeat of government interests by the interests of the people, advocacy is working to reinforce government interests over popular ones. Moreover the oppositional group, large landowners, has substantially more resources than the involved populist groups, which almost by definition have few assets.
If the Brazilian Congress were to oblige large landowners over groups representing the socio-politically disadvantaged, would this create a slippery slope wherein nations blatantly ignore the substantial pleas of the most vulnerable in favor of the demands of its bankrollers? (Many of them do, but rarely when it comes to an unanimous, international agreement.) Or are the precedent and subsequent actions of other nations unrelated?
Unfortunately, there is no satisfactory theory to explain which specific characteristics of an advocacy network—or any campaigns undertaken by NGOs—affect success. Furthermore, scholars are silent on what happens at the desired policy level (domestic and/or international) when the advocacy network is opposed by an equally or perhaps even more capable network.
One could probably guess what the answers might be to the questions I have posed, but guesswork is not the mark of a field that deigns to call itself a “science.” There is a disappointing paucity of work—especially recent work and especially recent, rigorous work—on the relationship between precedent-setting and subsequent international response, as well as advocacy groups’ roles in norms propagation/agenda setting, treaty compliance, and domestic policy outcomes.
The new millennium seems to have ushered in an age of trickle down norms; issues are agreed upon (often unanimously) at the international level, with states then expected to go home and to start implementing and propagating them. The Millennium Development Goals would be one instance of this phenomenon; norms of equality, empowerment, and increased social participation were agreed upon at the highest level, then delegations returned and states—hypothetically—went to work. But as the Brazil example shows, what’s agreed upon internationally can be attacked domestically, leading to a revocation of commitment in such a way that could inspire other states to revoke. Just like GURT itself, a pattern of revocation, here defined as non-compliance, would spell disaster for exactly the populations these norms seek to support.
The slippery slope could really be a harmless bunny hill. That the international community currently has no way of telling what will happen and why is detrimental to future efforts of norms adoption. This in turn is detrimental to the “unanimous” world vision that’s started to emerge over the last two decades.
Advocacy literature reports that the Brazilian Judicial Commission has delayed voting on the bill until the end of February, which will have come and gone by the time this article goes to print. Within Brazil’s legislature, positions on the bill are fractionalized: it was approved by the agricultural commission, rejected by the environmental commission, and finally sent to the Judicial Commission, which has not yet issued a statement.
While journalists predict the bill will go to a full congressional vote, they are silent on what the outcome will likely be. A protest letter signed by 34,000 people was presented to Congress, but in light of the opposition protesters face, its impact remains unclear.
Regardless of what happens, the conditions of this situation allow us to ask important intellectual and practical questions about how NGOs and other civil society organizations enforce or undermine international norms at the domestic level. The second theme unifying these questions is what the precedent set by that enforcement or undermining predict for other countries at least nominally committed to the same international agreement.
Unfortunately, there too little literature answers these questions, so it is not that the jury is still out, but that there is no trial to begin with. Understanding the mechanisms by which the people who benefit most from international norms can ensure their propagation will be a crucial question as the world progresses into an age where institutions are formed not just for security, but for the creation of holistic well-being for a global citizenry.
Maren, CC `15, is majoring in Political Science and Sustainable Development. She’s interested in economic development, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as international relations. Maren is a member of the Growth and Development Project at Columbia (DeltaGDP) and the Columbia Economics Review. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org