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Seeds of Life, Seeds of Hunger

Corporate Agendas, Agricultural Development Policy and the Struggle for Seed Sovereignty (East Timor, Indonesia)
Graines de vie, graines de la faim: Agendas des entreprises, politique de développement agricole et lutte pour la souveraineté des semences (Timor oriental, Indonésie)
Thomas A. Reuter


The industrialisation of agriculture has drawn farmers around the world into the vortex of a commercialised global food system. This has caused a massive decline in traditional farming, which tends to be small scale, organic, biologically diverse and sustainable. It has instead favoured mechanised farming on large land holdings, using monocultures, aggressive cultivation methods and external inputs in unsustainable ways. There is much controversy about which of the two paradigms should be used in future. This paper focuses specifically on tension around corporate appropriation of the world’s seed supply and farmer’s counter movements for seed sovereignty, as a key aspect of this broader controversy. It argues that the unrolling of a reformed, second-generation Green Revolution based on GMO seed technologies will expose farmers to further risks and deepen their disempowerment, while careful use of open source hybrid seeds may increase traditional farmers’ food sovereignty.

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Prof. Thomas Reuter is employed at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne. This research was funded by the US Institute for Peace and the Australian Research Council.


1The modernisation and industrialisation of agriculture has been a revolutionary historical process. Spreading from the US and Europe to countries around the world from the 1960s onward, it has led to large-scale use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, along with mechanised and monoculture-based forms of cultivation and industrial scale food processing. The use of scientific plant breeding methods and associated commercialisation of the world’s seed supply, on which this paper focuses, has been and continues to be a vital element of this transformation. Hybrid seeds were first rolled out as part of the “green revolution” (GR) program, while today’s agricultural development programs increasingly promote the use of Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

2Agricultural industrialisation is the subject of a long-standing and escalating controversy. The use of commercial seed and other external inputs under this modernist-industrial paradigm is celebrated by some, on the grounds that it has, at least temporarily, increased yields and thus increased the global food supply. Others point out that it has had an adverse effect on small farmers’ livelihoods and the health of consumers, and caused multiple forms of environmental degradation and pollution. Proponents claim, and opponents tend to reject the idea, that a compromise is possible within contemporary permutations of this industrial model, sometimes known as the second Green Revolution, or “GR2”. The two positions are thus entrenched, and yet the controversy cannot be left unresolved. There is an urgent need to find the most effective, equitable and sustainable solutions to escalating food security issues in the context of a growing world population, and the looming prospect of more frequent crop failures due to climate change.

3Further, the United Nations’ new 2030 agenda for development is based on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a paradigm shift whereby equity and sustainability have become recognized as primary concerns. Without negatively impacting on other concerns, how will Goal 2, “to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture,” be achieved? Do we need further, smarter industrialization or the revitalization of more gentle, traditional approaches? Or, is there room for a compromise between the two?

4In this paper, I briefly look at the equity track record, inherent ecological risks and potential for self-reform of the industrial agriculture model in general, juxtaposed with emerging alternatives based on the principles of traditional and/or organic farming. A more detailed assessment of how this controversy manifests within the seed industry follows. Therein, the main focus is on the clash between a hybrid and GMO oriented seed industry and farmers calls for ‘seed sovereignty,’ which is a vital element within the wider paradigm of food sovereignty-based sustainable agriculture. I will use examples from my own research in Indonesia and, less so, in Timor Leste (East Timor) to highlight associated equity and environmental concerns.

5For anthropologists, who often witness first-hand the social and environmental impacts of agricultural development policies, this paper draws out the core issues that are shaping the future of agriculture. With our locally contextualised findings anthropologists may greatly contribute to this process of reconciling opposing paradigms in agriculture. This expertise has great potential for supporting the design of national policies now aiming to improve equity and environmental outcomes, as well as food security, in the course of implementing SDG-2. Our input may encourage agricultural development agencies to show more consideration towards local farmers and their traditional knowledge of already fair and sustainable methods of production, in the hope that a middle way emerges from such closer engagement.

A Brief History of Agricultural Development and Industrialisation

6The modernist reinvention of agriculture has long been a political and economic battlefield, wherein the main casualties have been small farmers and the environment, albeit with some victories in terms of raised productivity and the reduction of hunger in some cases. The so-called ‘GR’ is emblematic of the mixed motives and results of this historical process, and it is important to reflect on this initial industrialisation phase.

7The GR was never just an effort to alleviate hunger but also part of a U.S. geopolitical strategy during the Cold War to win ‘hearts and minds’ in Third World nations and prevent them from aligning themselves with Communism. As David Rieff notes,

  • 1 Rieff is drawing on the work of Nick Cullather (2010). Another, more recent work on this political (...)

8“Washington had launched the Green Revolution as a bulwark against the challenges it faced across Asia throughout the cold war… [T]he Green Revolution became the weapon of choice to ensure that the balance of power remained in America’s favour […] American aid experts had developed a one-sentence catchphrase to describe the phenomenon: “Where hunger goes, Communism follows”.” (Rieff 2011:1-3; Patel 2013).1

9President Johnson thus launched an ambitious aid project in 1966, called ‘Food for Freedom.’ The program was designed to expand U.S. commitments to international aid for GR technologies (Kinkela 2011:128), implemented with the help of American foundations. These policies created a few winners and many losers. In the case of Indonesia, for example,

10“the Ford [Foundation] scholars’ five-year plan […was ] implemented by the central government's agricultural extension service, whose top men were trained by an AID-funded University of Kentucky program at the Bogor Agricultural Institute [Indonesia’s most prestigious agricultural college]. In effect, the agricultural agents have been given a monopoly in the sale of seed and the buying of rice, which puts them in a natural alliance with the local military commanders – who often control the rice transport business – and with the local santri landlords, whose higher returns are being used to quickly expand their holdings. The peasants find themselves at the short end of the stick.” (Ransom 1975:14)

11Indonesia’s GR began in 1968 with a military coup and genocide, as General Suharto seized power from the non-aligned, popular and left-leaning Sukarno government (IRIN 2012). Sukarno had ejected USAID, the World Bank and IMF from Indonesia, which may have sealed his fate. The new Suharto regime, by contrast, became a key Southeast Asian ally of the US in the Cold War. For better or worse, this opened the door to western advisors and hence to GR-based agro-development programs and the use of hybrid seeds.

  • 2 For an overview, see:

12Agricultural development in Indonesia, as in many other developing countries, was thus shaped by Cold war development policies, and later by the Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) imposed by Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF and the World Bank) as a precondition for granting loans. These policies have been criticised for undermining the policy sovereignty of developing countries.2 Giovanni Arrighi, for example, points out that,

13“taking advantage of the financial straits of many low- and middle-income countries, the agencies of the [Washington] consensus foisted on them measures of "structural adjustment" that did nothing to improve their position in the global hierarchy of wealth but greatly facilitated the redirection of capital flows toward sustaining the revival of US wealth and power (2010:35).”

14These global financial institutions provided subsidies to agribusinesses and urged governments to cut subsidies to small farmers, all in the name of productivity, trade liberalisation and poverty reduction. More recently the notorious SAPs have been replaced by so-called Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, which claim to give loan-recipient governments more say in policy matters. However, with captive local elites and political corruption still a major issue in developing countries (Reuter 2015), it is unclear whether these new strategies reflect a genuine change of motive and will facilitate real change. Meanwhile, millions of small farmers under the sway of SAPs have been unable to compete on a ‘free’ (unregulated) globalised market, which favours large players and monopolistic tendencies (Bernard & Mengisteab 1993).

An Alternative Road to Food Security

15An alternative model of agriculture has emerged in the meantime, which fundamentally challenges the narrative of the industrial model. Small farmers in South America, Africa, Asia, Europe and elsewhere around the world are beginning to defend, return to, or reinvent their pre-GR traditional agricultural practices, inspired by the global push for sustainability and also by growing consumer awareness of the potential health risks of industrially produced food. In large part this counter-movement is based on local farmers’ cooperatives, some of which directly link up with local or urban consumer groups.

16In Indonesia for example, where I conduct most of my research, one such farmers’ movement has developed in the Bantul region on the densely populated island of Java. Traditionally the area has been an important rice-growing area, sustaining the city of Yogyakarta for centuries (together with the Klaten region), but agricultural practices were ‘modernised’ in the wake of numerous state-endorsed GR programs and SAPs from the 1970s onward. Now, a new cooperative named “Sustainable Farmers Welfare” (Tani Lestari) is leading a return to organic-traditional farming methods, as well as successfully maintaining control over the entire supply chain for their products, providing credit to members, and running a sophisticated education and support program. Overall, their approach draws from traditional and innovative organic farming methods, while also combining traditional values and community institutions with modern management techniques and extensive digital media use.

17A vital component of their strategy is the return to nutritious and fragrant local rice varieties and the storage of their own seed. Shops and restaurants, owned either by the cooperative itself or by allied retailer or consumer organizations, ensure the high quality products reach a local market that is aware of their origin, rendering costly processes of organic certification superfluous. Founded in 2008, the cooperative has grown steadily by the strength of its values, and now unites more than 1200 farmers.

18Increasing connectivity between farmer and consumer movements has created a powerful alternative discourse that inspires further grassroots initiatives, but which also presents in national and international policy discourses. In neighbouring Bali, for example, the government is now subsidizing farmers’ return to traditional agriculture (Sertori 2011). The real green revolution, this policy suggests, is organic farming; a traditional food system that has endured for millennia, does not harm the environment or require external chemical inputs, provides more rural employment and equity, produces wholesome, nutritious food and keeps communities intact. Government support has led to a proliferation of organic farming initiatives, but such support is often sporadic, and my research suggests that all of the successful ones rest on a strong, local community platform, where local moral economy principles provide the necessary social foundation for collective action.

19At an international level, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has released reports stressing the positive economic and ecological potential of organic farming, compared with established agro-technology approaches (FAO 2009). More and more researchers are also supporting this trend (e.g. Halberg & Müller 2012), including a growing cohort of academics, many of them social scientists who have observed negative impacts of agricultural industrialisation on local societies and environments. Holt-Gimenez et. al. (2006) have been promoting a food sovereignty model of agricultural development for this reason, recommending such policies as the restriction of food imports at dumping prices to protect local consumers and farmers from price instabilities, and the granting of priority access to aquatic resources and their management to local fishing communities. These authors’ definition of food sovereignty, and that of social scientists more broadly, builds on the definition first provided by the world’s leading farmers’ movement, La Via Campesina, whose members pioneered the idea, and which says that “food Sovereignty is the right of each nation to maintain and develop their own capacity to produce foods that are crucial to national and community food security, respecting cultural diversity and diversity of production methods” (Windfuhr & Jonsen 2005:45).

20Food sovereignty does not preclude food trade but promotes trade and agricultural policies that protect the right of local communities to be food secure. The fundamental difference is that a food sovereignty-based system is decentralised, places power in the hands of the many rather than the few, localises human responsibility for maintaining a sustainable relationship with nature, and promotes inter-local solidarity through norms-based rather than market-based trade regimes. Advocates of this model regard food sovereignty as a prerequisite for an equitable, inclusive food security that focuses on access to food rather than mere supply maximisation (Windfuhr & Jonsen 2005:45). Similarly, the UN’s discourse has now shifted away from Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the so-called 2030 agenda, and is focusing on the ‘right to food,’ which was first recognised as an integral and universal human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. While such legal norms can be empowering, those who are too poor to buy food are generally also too poor to pay for their legal rights to be enforced. Food sovereignty, on the other hand, is a practical socio-political and economic strategy for self-empowerment. What makes people food secure is not the formal right to be so, but the possession of local political-economic control over food and such key enabling resources as land, water and seed.

21This raises some vitally important questions: Is the hegemonic development model of food security through industrial agriculture finally responding to its increasingly vocal and mainstream critics, and if so, is this self-transformation sufficiently deep to facilate the SDGs? Is it perhaps possible to reconcile agro-technology and organic methods, or must the old agricultural development paradigm be dismantled completely?

The Self-Transformation Potential of the Modernist-Industrial Agricultural Development Paradigm

22In order to answer these questions, we must first consider what impacts have been associated with first generation GR models, and then assess if, and how much, contemporary adaptations of this model have changed. It is now well documented that the original GR policies, while raising productivity, had some severely negative impacts on socio-cultural systems, ecosystems and the biodiversity of food plants. I will thus only very briefly discuss these three main impacts.

23One of the main social consequences of the Green Revolution has been a mass displacement of small farmers. As William Engdahl observes, “one major effect … was to depopulate the countryside of peasants, who were forced to flee into shantytown slums around the cities in desperate search for work. That was no accident; it was part of the plan to create cheap labour pools for […] US multinational manufacturers.” (Engdahl 2007:128). Traditional farmers abandoning their family farms indeed have caused the greatest urbanisation drive in human history, and agribusiness has moved in to fill the void with its labour-saving strategies. The GR and the growth of giant agribusiness thus went hand in hand, in the west and in developing countries alike (Engdahl 2007:132, 146).

24Local and indigenous societies lost a large part of their populations, which undermined their cultural and religious practices and community values. Countless ethnographies have illustrated how closely these cultural practices were mapped upon traditional agricultural production cycles within a community context (for an example, see Reuter 2002). This provides some idea of the severe socio-cultural impact of the modernist development model around the world.

25In western countries, this process has long run its course, and we tend to forget the magnitude of the societal impact. The situation is still unfolding in some developing countries however, and is only just beginning in others, such as East Timor (Timor Leste), which only recently became accessible to the development industry. Horta (2013:1) claims that in 2010, East Timor had the highest urbanisation rate in the world, with unemployed young people filling slums now encircling the once tiny capital of Dili. In short, the prevailing development model is still in operation, and it is at its frontiers that we need to look for any evidence of self-transformation and new approaches.

  • 3 According to Indian government reports, “between 1993 and 2003, over 100,000 bankrupt Indian farmer (...)

26At first it may seem that little has changed in the awareness of client governments of the development industry. According to the Timor-Leste National Strategic Development Plan (TL NSDP) 2011-2030, East Timor officially aspires to imitate India’s GR ‘success’, upon the advice of its foreign agro-technology advisers, but fails to acknowledge that desperation characterises the situation of many Indian farmers, 100,000 of whom take their own life each year (Sharma 2004; Holt-Gimenez et. al. 2006:9; Mishra 2006).3 Although some former small farmers will have made their fortune in the city rather than filling their slums or staying behind as landless labourers, and a select number of farmers have grown wealthy by expanded their holdings, this form of development has been highly socially disruptive and inequitable.

27The first Green Revolution was also an ‘ecological […] disaster’ (Petrini 2007:25). Indian policy makers acknowledge this in a 2007 report from Punjab’s State Council for Science and Technology, according to which ‘Punjab, the most stunning example of the Green Revolution in India […] has become unsustainable’ (Weiss 2012:1). High-intensity agriculture has exhausted or contaminated soils, depleted streams and aquifers, and led to resistant pests. The biodiversity of food plants themselves have also been negatively impacted, resulting in reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, and reduced access to nutritious food crops for the local population (Shiva 1991:1).

28These criticisms are still relevant today insofar as the paradigm of industrialised agriculture ‘continues to shape the politics of the global food system today’ (Kinkela 2011:129; also Save 2006; Shiva 1993; Bello 2009), and continues to be rolled out in frontier countries like East Timor. Attitudes and methods for boosting the food supply in more socially and ecologically responsible ways are, nevertheless, slowly changing, and East Timor may provide an interesting case that illustrates what really stands in the way of an integrated approach.

29The main reason why a consensus continues to elude us may not lie in any scientific debate over whether short-term productivity or sustainable socio-ecological principles ought to be the priority in agriculture, but may have more to do with the fact that development policy continues to be driven by vested interests and hence remains politicised. The Timorese government, for example, is aware of the controversy between centralised industrial and decentralised traditional-organic approaches to agriculture, not least due to the protests of NGOs such as HABURAS and ETAN, but political considerations often take precedence. In part the policies of this and other democratic governments do reflect genuine and well-founded food security concerns, but when political actors address problems they tend to favour solutions that fit with the imperatives of short-term political cycles and satisfy powerful industry lobby groups. There is also much hopeful thinking that a new generation Green Revolution (GR2) may avoid past mistakes and will deliver the desired production increases without socio-ecological collateral damage – a hope the industry is keen to encourage. Thus, in practice, most governments tend to support the big corporate players’ plan for the world food system, wherein the ultimate priority is expanding the reach of an industrialised global food production system and thus maximising investment returns. The new Green Revolution is still promoted by parties (and their allies) who stand to gain from it; the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations, the World Bank, the seed and chemical input multinationals and their lobbyists, and industry clients in government and academic circles. This is what makes a rational and disinterested policy debate of the merits of centralistic and decentralised approaches to agriculture very difficult.

30A good contemporary example of a GR2 undertaking is the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations’ Alliance for Another Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). This US$150 million joint initiative was to address poverty and hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa, and reportedly benefit those who had been bypassed by the first Green Revolution. The day following the announcement, Jacques Diouf of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) “called for support for a ‘second Green Revolution’ to feed the world’s growing population. UN boss Kofi Annan also weighed in to support the initiative” (Holt-Gimenez, Altieri and Rosset (2006:1). In their assessment of AGRA, these authors present ten arguments why GR2 is also likely to fail, by replicating the uneven socio-economic effects of GR1, which ‘favoured a minority of economically privileged farmers, put the majority smallholders at a disadvantage, and led to concentration of land and resources’ (2006:1). This trend toward resource concentration continues to advantage large agribusinesses and transnational corporations. Even if sustainable net increases in production were attainable thereby, the people who are the most food insecure – among them former small farmers who have since swelled the ranks of the urban poor – will be the ones least able to afford the products of these agribusinesses, as hundreds of millions of food insecure people have been throughout the 20th century. Holt-Gimenez et. al. conclude their paper with this suggestion: ‘If the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations truly want to end hunger and poverty in rural Africa, then they should put their millions in the service of the struggle by peasant and farmer organizations and their allies to truly achieve food sovereignty’ (2006:8).

31A narrowly profit-maximising food security paradigm is prone to the externalisation of social and environmental production costs, unless accountability for its impacts is made mandatory by civil society-based political pressure. Whether or not we trust in the agri-development industry’s ability to reinvent itself, a fundamentally different approach is already available and should be explored as a serious alternative.

Seeds of Life and Seeds of Hunger

32Contemporary agricultural development practice is complex and heterogeneous, with many positive as well as doubtful new trends, and a full and fair assessment of the extent of these changes exceeds the scope of this paper. I therefore will focus now on current trends in just one sector of agricultural development, namely the biotechnology-based revolution of seeds. Seeds are recognised as a pivotal issue by proponents of industrial and alternative paradigms alike.

33The corporatisation of seed production has a long history that parallels modernist transformations of agriculture in general. The most striking aspect thereof is the trend toward consolidation in commercial seed production (Howard 2009). Two corporations, DuPont and Monsanto, now control most of the U.S. corn seed market (Hendrickson & Heffernan 2007). Globally, four seed firms, DuPont (Pioneer), Monsanto, Syngenta and Limagrain control 29% of the world market for all commercial seeds (UNCTD 2006). Meanwhile in frontier countries like Timor Leste, ‘82 % (n=200) of surveyed households [still] save their own seed’ (Oxfam Australia 2008:3), representing the opposite scenario of seed sovereignty that still prevails in some parts of the world. Elsewhere farmers’ cooperatives (like that in Bantul, Indonesia, mentioned above) are seeking to return to this state after an earlier ‘modernisation’ phase had led to an almost complete loss of seed sovereignty.

34Old-style GR seed-and-input package programs certainly have undermined the seed independence of farmers in many parts of the world, and simultaneously reduced seed diversity while increasing dependence on chemical agricultural inputs. Engdal, for example, has described how GR-based modernisation policies have:

“destroyed the rich [local] rice diversity over a period of thirty years, with the [introduction of] so-called High Yielding Varieties. This drew Asia’s peasantry into the vortex of the world trade system and the global market for fertilizer, high-yielding seeds, pesticides, mechanisation, irrigation, credit and marketing schemes packaged for them by Western agribusiness.” (2006:162)

35The term ‘High Yielding Varieties’ is somewhat of a misnomer because it implies that the new seeds are high yielding in and of themselves, which is not always the case. A distinguishing feature of many hybrid seed varieties is, in fact, that they are more responsive than traditional seeds to certain key inputs such as nitrate fertilizers and irrigation, or more resistant to chemical insecticides or herbicides. Palmer and others therefore suggest the term ‘high-responsive varieties’ be used instead (cited in Shiva 1991:72).4 Even introduced seeds that produce high yields at consistent input levels may not outperform local varieties in the long run, as soil nutrients are depleted, or they may have other vulnerabilities that are not immediately apparent. When the new seeds are promoted as ‘improved,’ ‘advanced,’ ‘enhanced’ or ‘modern,’ and marketed with prosaic names such as ‘seeds of hope’ or ‘seeds of life’, such important caveats are rarely mentioned.5

36Research laboratories have certainly transformed the way food plants were bred traditionally for millennia, of which a key feature is the massive centralisation of seed production. Most major International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs) come under the umbrella of, and receive funding through, the powerful ‘Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’ (CGIAR).6 CGIAR affiliated research centres are purportedly not-for-profit and draw on public research funding, but they also partner increasingly with the private sector for the commercialisation of the seed and other bio-patents they develop. The consortium began in 1970 with a Rockefeller Foundation proposal for a global network of research centres under a permanent secretariat, and CGIAR was founded with World Bank, FAO and UNDP support in 1971. This global consortium’s declared vision is to “advance international agricultural research for a food secure future by integrating and coordinating the efforts of those who fund research and those who do the research to reduce poverty and hunger.”7 More recently the FAO has been questioning the wisdom of this agenda, noting that “more than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields; half of the breeds of many domestic animals have been lost” (FAO 1999).

37There is now a struggle under way to halt and reverse the biodiversity loss in food plants due to central production and global dissemination of a restricted number of commercial food crop varieties. For many peasants, their “primitive” local seeds are becoming symbols of a struggle for freedom in the emerging context of a neoliberal re-colonisation of the Third World and its living resources (Shiva 1991:263). Indigenous and local seeds are hailed as one of the pillars of food sovereignty from this perspective, and also of the quest to protect food biodiversity. In the developed countries, meanwhile, consumers and farmers concerned about the loss of diversity of, for example, fruit and vegetable varieties, and the tastelessness of commercial produce available in supermarkets, have founded numerous heritage seed organisations.

38Despite these various forms of resistance, the global trend toward commercialised and monopolistic seed production continues unabated. The international seed research establishment is closely networked and shares a common and, of course, not unfounded belief in the efficacy of scientific, biotechnological innovation. Attitudes toward indigenous seed varieties and local seed sovereignty, however, are by no means homogenous across the research sector, depending in part on variations in the degree of dependence on corporate partners. Controversy around the legal actions of Monsanto and other seed corporations against farmers, which have been widely exposed by farmer groups and other NGOs, has led some scientists to adopt a cautious approach when introducing new seed varieties into local environments. This is reflected in the practical work of some development agencies, and Timor Leste is again a good illustration of these efforts to find a middle way.

39The new rice seed varieties that were first introduced to East Timor during the Indonesian occupation came from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), set up by the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations in the Philippines in 1960.8 The official name of the new variety is ‘IRRI 116’ or ‘PSBRC54’, but it has been labelled Nakroma for marketing, which means ‘enlightened’ in the local language, Tetun.9 The term implies that the local or indigenous seeds they seek to replace are the seeds of death, despair and darkness. These inexhaustibly self-reproducing and genetically diverse indigenous seeds are said to be inferior, or ‘primitive’, compared to the centrally produced, genetically standardised seeds promoted by the seed industry. In practice, however, efforts have been made to adopt a less rigid approach.

  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13 Green Revolution in Timor-Leste. See note 4.

40Seeds of Life (SoL) is a program within the Timor Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), funded collaboratively with Australian Aid and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).10 Founded in 1982, ACIAR is a statutory authority that operates as part of the Australian Aid Program to conduct agricultural projects for developing countries. ACIAR is an IARC, coordinated and funded by the CGIAR Fund Council, and also works with the private sector.11 Its policy advisory council has a predominantly academic international membership, while industry representatives dominate the ACIR Commission, which under Section 9 of the ACIAR Act 1982 is empowered to advise the Minister on the formulation of agricultural research and development programs, and their funding.12 SoL’s mission in East Timor according to former team leader, Rob Williams, is ‘to get rid of the hungry season [… and] to bring the revolution – the Green Revolution – to East Timor.’13

41Food shortages can occur in the wet season, when the new crop is still immature and stores of food staples succumb to humidity or insect infestation due to poor storage facilities. Nonetheless, Timor Leste’s traditional food system overall has supported its human population fairly steadily and sustainably for centuries without the benefit of modern technology.

42National policy-making on seeds and agriculture, ostensibly controlled by Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fishery (MAF), is strongly influenced by foreign advisors. Chris Shepherd, for example, has observed that SoL dominates national policy with its rather negative perspectives on traditional agriculture (2014:206). One reason is that the annual budget for seeds from the SoL program is much bigger than that of MAF. As the local NGO La’o Hamutuk observes,

“Timor-Leste’s Government allocates $3 million to buy seeds. But at the same time AusAID project “Seeds of Life” provides funds to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) equivalent to $5.175 million for the year 2013 […]. As a result, from La’o Hamutuk’s observation, ‘Seeds of Life’ has exercised a strong influence in the decision to introduce new seed varieties in the country, and more recently “Seeds of Life” staff have even been directly involved in the processes of drafting Timor-Leste Seed Policy and Seed Law. […] MAF doesn’t have the capacity to monitor and evaluate correctly this project.” (La’o Hamutuk 2013)

43La’o Hamutuk (2013) instead recommends ‘the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries should promote a “low-cost” and “low-input” agricultural development model, not the “green revolution” model from India promoted by the Strategic Development Plan.’

  • 14 Green Revolution in Timor-Leste. See note 4.
  • 15 Rob Williams, personal communication, 2014.

44In practice, however, this is more or less exactly what SoL has already been doing. Green Revolution programs in the past have often come as a package, comprising high yielding and patented hybrid seed varieties, chemical fertilisers, matching pesticides, herbicides, new irrigation techniques and mechanization (Kinkela 2011; Kamdar 2001). SoL however is trialling hybrid varieties that are open source and allow farmers to keep and self-propagate seeds indefinitely;14 using cultivation methods they are accustomed to, while producing higher yields without additional chemical fertilizers and other imported inputs. In short, the program is tailored to the needs of small farmers.15

  • 16 Lacoste, M., Williams, R., Erskine, W., Nesbitt, H., Pereira, L. & Marçal, A. 2012. Varietal Diffus (...)

45The SoL farmer-led field trial program is still at an experimental stage, however, and more long-term productivity and environmental data would be desirable. A recent report from an early adoption survey of Ministry of Agriculture/SoL introduced varieties has somewhat surprisingly indicated that the adoption of new varieties did not lead to an abandonment of local varieties and hence to biodiversity loss (Lacoste et al. 2012).16 Why farmers would still hold on to their local varieties, if the new varieties do indeed provide superior yields, is difficult to fathom. Overall, however, it is reasonably clear that SoL has adopted what could be described as a middle path, despite underlying prejudices against traditional agriculture. With the UN’s post-2015 development agenda now unfolding, there is hope such compromise approaches will become the new standard around the world.

Seed Diversity and Traditional Agriculture

46Biodiversity really matters. Even if it could be established that standardised commercial food crop varieties produce higher yields than local, open pollinated varieties – long-term and in a socially and ecologically sustainable manner, with equal or better nutritious value, without requiring additional inputs and without depleting the soil or water – it still does not follow that these new rice varieties are as resilient in response to unfamiliar challenges, such as climate change. The one insurance policy against new environmental challenges that all species of life have subscribed to from the very beginning of evolution is genetic diversity.

  • 17 James C. Scott, 1976. The moral economy of the peasant: rebellion and subsistence in Southeast Asia (...)

47It is important to pause and consider, if briefly, what stands to be lost if traditional varieties were to disappear. Evolved over centuries to suit local soil and climatic conditions and various ecological niches, local seed diversity represents not just a natural wealth, but also a cultural wealth and the intellectual property of local people, who for centuries have selectively propagated varieties to improve yield and reliability and have shared seed freely within their communities. The loss of indigenous varieties of food plants is thus not just an economic matter, but goes hand in hand with the loss of indigenous cultures and their moral economies.17

  • 18

48The historical evidence on the Green Revolution elsewhere also shows that the introduction of new seed varieties often begins with free varieties and then ‘progresses’ toward Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT) seeds that cannot be kept and reused by farmers (so-called ‘Terminator’ seeds) and require costly inputs, while local varieties are gradually marginalised or lost. This has undermined local seed and food sovereignty and biodiversity in many parts of the world. The great irony is that giant seed corporations DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta, meanwhile, are collecting local seeds worldwide, to be stored away for future use in patented varieties. In partnership with the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations and CGIAR, these seed giants have built the massive US $30 million ‘Svalbard Global Seed Vault’ on the remote island of Spitzbergen (Engdahl 2014).18 It is doubtful that local people, whose traditional seeds help fill this vault, will ever be issued with a deposit account by this ‘seed bank.’ Indeed, the well-documented case of Indian basmati rice shows how difficult it has been to protect the intellectual property of local farmers from corporate bio-piracy (Shiva 1997, RAFI 1998). The whole notion of claiming private ownership of food crop varieties domesticated over millennia by generations of farmers on the grounds of having made small improvements is morally problematic, but such concerns were simply brushed aside during the heyday of neoliberal development ideology.

Where to from here? The Gene Revolution

49In progressive development circles GR2 might conjure a sustainable and socially responsible approach for the future of agriculture, but for global agriculture corporations this “new” or “second generation” Green Revolution is in fact a Gene Revolution, based on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In Africa, for example, AGRA is promoting GMO food plants. This technology is highly controversial and there have been mass protests against GMOs in many western countries. Eight countries in the European Union have subsequently prohibited the cultivation of GMO seeds in their territories. This is not stopping USAID and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) from pushing some of the world’s poorest countries into accepting GM food, where the technology is now also meeting with local resistance (ISIS 2002). GM food allegedly will feed the poor, while the rich will eat organic food just to be on the safe side (Collier 2007; Lewontin 2001).

50This GMO system is ‘heralded as an ecological miracle for agriculture’ because it can provide alternatives to heavy insecticide use (Shiva 1997:108-9). Some scientists, however, are cautioning that the gene revolution is not delivering the promised results:

“the early successes that have seen the development of crops expressing insect toxins (Bt) and others with herbicide tolerance may not represent the vanguard of a new wave of crops that will be adapted to salt, drought, waterlogging, heat and cold. The former successes only involved relatively small alterations to the genetic code […]. Adaptations to biotic stressors involve multiple mechanisms and structures interacting at various organisational scales with mindboggling complexity.” (Stirzaker 2013:86)

51Paradoxically, while modern science sees any notion of magic or miracles as relics of pre-Enlightenment, or animistic and primitive Third World concepts, these latest scientific inventions are marketed as ‘magical.’ Local farmers are thus led astray. Some researchers now argue that the ‘magic seeds’ ‘of the Gene Revolution have turned out to be the seeds of food insecurity and despair for Indian farmers accumulating debt to purchase such inputs, and ending up landless and destitute (e.g. Smith 2003; Sikand 2011). Prince Charles (2007:24-31), branded a scaremonger by GM corporations, has joined the critics and has set up the Bhumi Vardaan Foundation, ‘to help those who are affected by the use of the GM food and to promote organic Indian crops instead of GM.’

52GM seeds are also causing renewed concern over the potential loss of local biodiversity (Menon 2012). According to Walden Bello,

  • 19 See also: Otero & Pechlaner 2008:50; and (...)

“The effects of transgenic crops on biodiversity far extend the concerns already raised by monocropping under the Green Revolution. Not only is diversity decreased through the physical loss of species but, because of its ‘live’ aspect, it has the potential to contaminate, and potentially to dominate, other strains of the same species. […] it could contaminate and eradicate generations of evolution of diverse and subtly differentiated strains of a single crop, such as the recently discovered transgenic contamination of landraces of indigenous corn in Mexico.” (Bello 2008:2)19

53Legal actions have been associated with such contamination incidents. Monsanto, for example, has accused US and Canadian farmers of intellectual property violation for keeping their own (GMO contaminated) seed.

Concluding remarks

  • 20 An interview with Ziegler by Agnès Rousseaux and Alexandro Rosinha was published in the magazine BA (...)

54In many parts of the world local farmers and governments alike are still poorly informed about the risks of GR-based industrial agriculture, let alone the new GMO Revolution, and hence remain susceptible to the promise of ‘miracles.’ Industrial agriculture has boosted global food production of certain key crops, and we all have come to depend on it in the wake of population growth, but the persistent failure of the industry to eliminate world hunger sounds a clear warning. According to Jean Ziegler, Special Rapporteur to the United Nations for the Right to Food (2000-2008), “923 million people, almost one in six people on the planet, are permanently and seriously undernourished”.20 This sad reality highlights the justice issues often left implicit within ‘free’ market oriented agricultural policies.

  • 21 The technical rationale of the Convention on Biodiversity’s (CBD) Aichi Target N°13 puts it as foll (...)

55Small farmers have successfully used a great diversity of their own seeds for millennia. Seeds were freely shared as commons, and not monopolized, commercialized, controlled through Intellectual Property legislation, and locked up in vaults21. No doubt, many scientists working in agricultural innovation today also would like this principle of sharing to prevail, so that their often publicly funded work is made freely available where it is most needed, in ways that are safe for consumers, viable for farmers and sustainable for ecosystems. A lot more modesty and caution are no doubt required in this field, which is not an unusual thing to ask for, given that modesty and caution have ever been the prerequisite for doing good science. All else is essentially a political issue, and must be resolved at that level. This also applies to controversies around the industrial-corporate approach to agriculture in general. Human health, food justice and sustainability must be our first priority if the UN’s aspirational SDGs are ever to be realised.

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1 Rieff is drawing on the work of Nick Cullather (2010). Another, more recent work on this political history was produced by John Perkins (1997).

2 For an overview, see:

3 According to Indian government reports, “between 1993 and 2003, over 100,000 bankrupt Indian farmers committed suicide. Since then India has averaged 16,000 farmers’ suicides a year – usually by drinking Green Revolution pesticides” (Holt-Gimenez 2006:9).

4 See also Lappe & Collins 1982:114.

5 See



8 Professor M.S. Swaminathan, father of the Green Revolution in India, was director general of IRRI from 1982-88.





13 Green Revolution in Timor-Leste. See note 4.

14 Green Revolution in Timor-Leste. See note 4.

15 Rob Williams, personal communication, 2014.

16 Lacoste, M., Williams, R., Erskine, W., Nesbitt, H., Pereira, L. & Marçal, A. 2012. Varietal Diffusion in Marginal Seed Systems: Participatory Trials initiate Change in East Timor. Journal of Crop Improvement 26: 468-488.

17 James C. Scott, 1976. The moral economy of the peasant: rebellion and subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.


19 See also: Otero & Pechlaner 2008:50; and

20 An interview with Ziegler by Agnès Rousseaux and Alexandro Rosinha was published in the magazine BASTA! on 27 January 2009. See also Ziegler (2008, 2011).

21 The technical rationale of the Convention on Biodiversity’s (CBD) Aichi Target N°13 puts it as follows: « While substantial progress has been made in safeguarding many varieties and breeds through ex situ storage in genebanks, less progress has been made in situ. In situ conservation, including through continued cultivation on farms, allow for ongoing adaptation to changing conditions (such as climate change) and agricultural practices. » . See: .

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Electronic reference

Thomas A. Reuter, « Seeds of Life, Seeds of Hunger », Anthropology of food [Online], Feed the debate, Online since 16 May 2017, connection on 26 November 2020. URL :

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About the author

Thomas A. Reuter

Anthropologist, University of Melbourne, Asia Institute,

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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