Out plan. Out plant. Outlast.

Facing criticism over USAID’s involvement in brokering increased Monsanto hybrid seed presence in Nepal, US Ambassador to Nepal Scott H. DeLisi has launched an impressive media offensive over the last two weeks. On December 2 he opened direct dialogue with the public on his personal Facebook page, issuing a lengthy post about his position on the issue. He also granted an interview with the Kathmandu Post where he openly plays on Nepali fears of threats to our soverignty from India and China.

Ambassador DeLisi’s strategy, put simply, is to present Nepal’s only logical solution to our food deficit as an American answer which includes heavy reliance on multinational private agribusiness companies like Monsanto. Ambassador DeLisi’s 28 years as a career diplomat have served him well; although he has been in Nepal for less than two years, he has evidently figured out where our national buttons are and is now pushing all of them. As a tiny, poor country squeezed between two giant ones, he offers us what, in essence, seems the easiest way out – protectionism from a third giant, the US, in exchange for continued loyalty to the American model of development geared towards economic growth. It is a tempting offer, but one that I sincerely believe those making the final decisions are in a position to resist. I very much hope that they have the courage and foresight to do so.

Bluntly, at the moment the United States of America if a perfect example of what developing nations should not aspire to become. It is a big and powerful nation, certainly; however, reports on everything American from socio-economic indicators of public health and standard of living, to environmental practices, to the country’s staggering public debt to its official reaction to civilian protests in the Occupy movement all indicate that this size and power comes at the expense of the environment, the expense of almost every country it has had dealings with, and – most worryingly of all – at the expense of its own citizens. At the turn of the millennium, it seemed that the United States had emerged the winner of the 21st century; in the decade that has passed, it has become clear that they are winning at the wrong kind of game.

Nepal, on the other hand, looks like a clear loser when measured against current benchmarks for successful nationhood. However, in the past two decades it has become clear we have one important advantage over the US and our immediate neighbours: agility. As a nation, we have corrected our course often, experimenting with almost every form of governance and ideology that the world could provide an example for. We had a monarchy, then a constitutional monarchy, an unofficial dictatorship, and now we are a republic. We have tried being ruled by kings, capitalists, communists and, often, just chaos. Through it all, we have made huge improvements in some areas such as literacy and public health. Still, things are not perfect, but the reason that all or any of these models have not made Nepal a utopia is the same reason that they have not really worked anywhere else in the world either: the method is irrelevant if the goals are wrong.

The storm brewing over Monsanto and for-profit agribusiness is not an abstract local or even national issue, as Ambassador DeLisi is trying to suggest. The matter is a global one. All over the world, those with vested interests in this model of farming that places food sourcing at the mercy of privatised interests are pushing to make their dominance official and permanent. Often, the Monsanto company freely uses the US government as its spokesperson and henchman. In the European Union, France in particular, there is pressure to bulldoze resistance and overturn bans on hybrid and genetically modified produce. The Wikileaks releases from early this year show the US ambassador to France ominously recommending that Washington deal with opposition to Monsanto by “calibrat[ing] a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU.” Three years after the memo, the French State Council was ordered to review the ban by the European Court of Justice. It has since been overturned, despite protest from France’s Sarkozy government. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, the recent Food Bill 160-2 was rushed and clearly benefits big agribusiness, penalizing small-farming practices such as sharing independently grown produce without a formal market intermediary.

Nepalis must remember that the US and multinational corproate culture have had far more profitable alliances with France and Aotearoa than with Nepal; if this is the type of pressure that a greed-driven food industry can lead the US as a government to exert on countries such as France, we would be beyond foolish to believe increased Monsanto presence in Nepal will be benign. As parliamentary hearings on the Monsanto issue are underway, (and it very much is a Monsanto issue, despite DeLisi’s repeated calls to remove the company as the focus of debate) there has been no clear answer on what will happen if this Monsanto hybrid seed venture should fail to raise productivity as expected; there have been no guarantees that the strains under discussion will not be sterile, no explanation of the bottom line financial and human labour commitment being made, or guidelines of what courses of action Monsanto will be entitled to pursue if they believe their seed patents are not being respected in Nepal. Ambassador DeLisi’s assertion that “Nepalis must make that decision for [our]selves” effectively absolves the US government of any responsibility if this agricultural strategy should fail or otherwise prove harmful to Nepal.

As DeLisi makes very clear, we are in a bad situation; we have many people and not enough food. However, we also have very little to lose. It seems that, more than at any point in our recent history, we are in a position to take a stand. We only entered the modern global economy six decades ago, and unlike most nations further down the “development” track, we are not so far down the road of big cars and big macs that we are in a symbiotic relationship with big business. We have the chance to look at America, and to a large extent India and China, as cautionary tales about economic growth-directed models and do what we do best and correct course now. Even best-case predictions for the global environment and current international financial system are dire; it is obvious that in the next century true value – monetary and otherwise – will come from being a nation that is environmentally and socially sustainable. We must invest what scarce resources we do have, mainly human intellect, labour and our natural environment, into making sure we are ahead of that game rather than struggling to catch up in the one that is nearly over.

Conventional wisdom suggests that in matters of foreign policy Nepal is like a yam caught between two boulders, immensely vulnerable to any pressure. (It must be noted that, unlike boulders, one can at least eat a yam.) I believe that at this point, Nepal is more like a pebble slipping though the cracks between not two but three boulders that are rapidly colliding against each other. Through the alchemy of debate and intelligent decision making, we need to transform our pebble into a diamond; when the giants are done crashing against each other, we can shine, intact, from admist the rubble.

(UPDATED 23/04/13 – only to add header image)

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