"Industrial agriculture and the assumptions on which it rests are wrong, root and branch."
- Wendell Berry
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|| Percy Schmeiser at Common Ground: Liability Follows the Flow of the Gene
|Perrcy Schmeiser, shown here with Sharon Tisher of MOFGA's public policy committee, brought his David vs. Goliath (Schmeiser vs. Monsanto) story to the Common Ground Fair. He received standing ovations (and a T-shirt) for his moving speech about contamination from genetically engineered crops. English photo.
By Jean English
In introducing Common Ground Country Fair Keynote Speaker Percy Schmeiser, Sharon Tisher, chair of MOFGA’s public policy committee, noted that the Canadian canola farmer had been on three expeditions to Mount Everest, where he’d climbed to 26,000 feet. The Canadian press, she continued, often asks Schmeiser which is harder to deal with: Mount Everest of Monsanto. Schmeiser says that’s a “really hard question.”
Schmieser told the crowd at Common Ground, during the keynote and during a teach-in, that he took over the family farm in Saskatchewan from his father and farms some land where his grandfather homesteaded in the early 1900s. “My wife and I are known in the central part of Saskatchewan as seed developers and seed savers.” He started developing canola seed in 1947, and his wife took over that aspect of the farm after they married in 1952, developing disease-resistant canola suitable on the prairies. She farmed organically; Percy conventionally.
In addition to farming, Schmeiser was a member of the provincial legislature, mayor of his community for 25 years, and is still deputy mayor. “Being a member of the legislature, I was on many [federal and provincial] ag committees … I always tried to do my best for rules, laws and regulations that would benefit farmers.”
Schmeiser has three major concerns about GMOs [genetically modified organisms]: the property rights of farmers vs. the intellectual property rights of multinationals; the health of consumers eating GMO foods; and environmental damage from increased use of chemicals used with GMO crops. Additional issues include the control of farmers through contracts; control of the food supply; the culture of fear; and pharma-plants that produce prescription drugs.
“Then there’s the moral and ethical issue – the trespass and stealing of seeds and plants … by a multinational corporation like Monsanto … that’s exactly what they do: take seeds and plants from farmers’ fields.” These corporations, Schmeiser added, have “reached the stage where they actually wield more power than our governments do.” Economics and superweeds resulting from GMOs also concern Schmeiser.
Before 1998, Schmeiser “had nothing to do with Monsanto. I never bought their seed, had never gone to a Monsanto meeting. I didn’t even know a Monsanto rep.
“A lawsuit came in the mail unexpectedly in August of 1998 … from Monsanto; it said that I had infringed on their patent by growing Monsanto’s GMO canola. Believe me, back in 1998, a lot of us didn’t even know there was a patent on canola or on seeds. We didn’t even really know what GMOs really were.” Monsanto allegedly claimed to have found GMO canola in the ditch alongside Schmeiser’s fields.
“It didn’t take me long,” Schmeiser continued,” to find out that the seeds and plants that we had developed over 50 years … were now possibly contaminated with Monsanto’s GMOs … So we stood up to Monsanto. We said, ‘If you have any of your GMOs in our pure canola seed after 50 years of research, you should be liable, and a lawsuit should be launched against you.’”
Because patent laws come under federal jurisdiction in the U.S. and Canada, “my trial had to be held in the Federal Court of Canada; I didn’t have a choice.” He had one judge and no jury. “How often, later, my wife and I wished that we could have had a judge and jury with farmers on it that knew and understood about farming, cross pollination, direct seed movement.”
Monsanto “did everything to try to discredit me, which is a typical way [of] corporations when you fight them in court. In the two years of pretrial, they stated that there was absolutely no record I had ever bought their seed, but they said it didn’t matter how it got there, I infringed on their patent.” The Court, after 21/2 weeks of trial, ruled that it does not matter how Monsanto’s GMOs get into a farmer’s field – through cross pollination, direct seed movement by wind, by birds, by farmers hauling grains, by floods or storms: “If it happens to get into your crop, your seeds and plants; you no longer own your seeds and plants,” said Schmeiser. “It all becomes Monsanto’s property, whether 1% or 50% contaminated. That was a startling, startling decision … it basically takes farmers’ rights away.”
The judge also ruled that Schmeiser and his wife were not allowed to use their seeds or plants again; and that all profit from their 1998, 1,030-acre canola crop would go to Monsanto – even from land that was tested and had no contamination. “He said we were seed savers … [so] there was a probability there could be some of Monsanto’s GMOs also in those fields.”
The Schmeisers applied to the Federal Court of Appeal. “Monsanto did everything possible legally to stop us from getting permission from the Federal Court of Appeal. After another year of legal wrangling, they decided … to hear our case. Now we got three judges but still no jury.” These judges upheld the first trial judge’s decision, even though they did not agree with all of those decisions. “At that point … [the case] should have been thrown out, because if they didn’t agree with all of his decisions, it could have had an impact on the results of those decisions. So again we lost. It looked pretty bleak for us. By that time we had probably spent about $250,000” for some five years of legal battles. Still, they took their case further – to the Supreme Court.
The Schmeisers hoped their case would address infringement; whether living organisms (seeds, plants, genes, human organisms) can be owned and protected by corporate patents on intellectual property; whether GMO traits can invade noxious weeds that then become resistant to weed killers (“superweeds” – this has happened on the prairies of Canada); whether a farmer’s right to grow conventional or organic crops can be protected; whether farmers can keep the ancient right to save their own seed; and whether corporations can own life.
Interestingly, Agriculture Canada appeared in court on behalf of Monsanto, as did the Canadian Seed Growers Association; however, Ontario’s Department of Health “came on my behalf in regard to breast cancer,” said Schmeiser. “In breast cancer treatment … two genes [are] already patented by a company based in Salt Lake City. Before that breast cancer treatment can be used, they have to pay a royalty to that company … Further, if any government … researcher … or university wants to further that development, they can’t do it unless they get permission or pay a royalty to this company … Or if they want to analyze results of that treatment, they can’t do it unless [they get permission].” The Ontario government said that patenting genes would increase health care costs at least four-fold.
In May 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that Schmeiser and his wife did not have “to pay Monsanto one red cent,” said Schmeiser. The Court concluded that Schmeiser had not made any more profits from the GMO-contaminated plants than from his conventional crop. In fact, in the Schmeisers’ case, “we lost research and development.” Schmeiser added that organic farmers would lose because if their crop is contaminated, they can no longer sell it as organic. Schmeiser wished “that the Court would have ruled that Monsanto also had to pay our court costs up to that time. But the Supreme Court ruled that Monsanto had to pay their costs; they don’t get anything from me; and I have to pay my own court costs, which by that time may have reached about $400,000 (Canadian).”
Regarding patenting of life forms, a couple of years ago, Harvard University “came to Canada and wanted to patent a mouse. They had put a gene in the mouse that made it suitable for cancer research, and they stated that by putting this gene into the mouse, they had invented the mouse. It went all the way to the Supreme Court,” which ruled that in Canada, a higher life form cannot be patented. Since Schmeiser believes that a seed or plant is a higher life form, “we thought we had a good case …
“But the Supreme Court of Canada did a complete flip flop … They said if you have a patent on a gene, the patent is valid.” Schmeiser interprets the Court’s decision as meaning that “if the gene gets into any higher life form, including a seed or plant, they [Monsanato] own and control that life form. Think about that: A higher life form goes all the way to a human being. So by getting the gene by whatever means into any higher life form, Monsanto owns and controls it.
“Now you may think that’s a major victory for Monsanto, but it was not … because if they own and control it, then they are also responsible for the liability of the damage it does. The liability follows the flow of the gene. As a result, the organic farmers of Saskatchewan have now launched a class action lawsuit against Monsanto on the liability issue, because organic farmers no longer can raise canola in Canada. All our seed supply of canola and soybeans is now contaminated with GMOs, so their choice is taken away.”
Schmeiser decided, after consulting with his lawyers, not to pursue his lawsuit for commercial damages to his seed business, to avoid the expense of years of further battles against Monsanto. He intends, however, to support Saskatchewan organic farmers in their class action lawsuit against Monsanto for contamination and consequent loss of certification.
“But having said that,” Schmeiser continued, “my wife has laid a lawsuit against Monsanto for contamination, and we were able to get it under Small Debts Court,” scheduled for March 2005. Two years ago, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola infested the Schmeisers’ shelterbelt after a neighbor planted it. Plants came up on the edge of Schmeiser’s wife’s organic acreage as well. “Monsanto had said at the trial … If a farmer notices he’s got any [Roundup Ready] plants, it is their gene, and they will come and pluck it out, no trouble. So my wife … contacts Monsanto two or three times to give them so many days to come and remove [the plants]. They didn’t come. So she got a university student to pull them out … the price [for removal] came to $140 … She sent the bill to Monsanto; Monsanto ignored it. So in July of this year, she sent the bill again to Monsanto” and got a “nasty” letter in return from a Monsanto lawyer saying that if she sends any more bills, the company will take action against her.
“She got angry then. So she writes to Small Claims Court, and about a month ago she got a notice from the judge … [who] said she will hear the case … So [the judge] issued the lawsuit to Monsanto, and I guess they didn’t realize when they got this registered letter who it was from. They signed for it and [thus] accepted the lawsuit … I’m going to be her legal counsel,” seeking $140 from a multibillion-dollar corporation.
Audience member Mitch Lansky stated that if the concept of genetic trespass existed, Monsanto would be put out of business. Sharon Tisher, a lawyer, stated, “I think it’s perfectly right to use the concept of genetic trespass. Trespass originally meant something big and obvious walked onto your land. But there are court decisions that say trespass [can refer to] chemicals … things that you can’t see … as long as you can show substantial damages.” Schmeiser noted that farmers in Canada cannot get insurance to cover genetic drift.
Contracts and Farmers’ Rights
Schmeiser produced a contract that Monsanto gets farmers to sign, calling it “one of the most repulsive contracts on the face of the earth.” It states that a farmer cannot use his own seed; must always buy seed from Monsanto; can use only chemicals from Monsanto; must pay Monsanto a $15/acre technology or license fee each year on every acre; if a farmer violates the contract and is fined hundreds or even $1000/acre and must destroy the crop, the farmer cannot tell the press or neighbors about Monsanto’s actions. Also, farmers must allow Monsanto’s police force on their land for three years after signing the contract for one year’s crop growth. “They can ask for your account records, tax records, your farming records, your crop insurance records to see if you’re cheating or not … ”
A clause in the 2004 contract states that a farmer cannot sue Monsanto. “So they have total suppression of farmers’ rights and freedom of speech,” said Schmeiser. “How does Monsanto police that contract? In Canada they hire former RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police); in the U.S. they hire Pinkerton Investigative Service.”
Schmeiser showed an ad that Monsanto had run in local papers, asking people to inform on neighbors who might be growing Monsanto’s GMO crops without a license. In return, the informer would get a free leather jacket. “Believe me, there’s not many farmers wearing Monsanto’s leather jackets on the prairies of the Northern Plains,” Schmeiser asserted.
When Monsanto does not know a farmer’s location but has a mailing address, Schmeiser said the company sends “extortion letters” stating that the company believes that the farmer may be growing Monsanto’s GMO crops, estimating the farmer’s acreage of the crop, and telling the farmer to send $200,000 or $100,000 or $50,000 by a certain date and Monsanto may or may not take the farmer to court. “We don’t know how many thousands of these have been sent to farmers in North America,” said Schmeiser. “Can you imagine the fear in a farm family when they get a letter from a multibillion dollar corporation saying, ‘Send us $100,000 by a certain date because we think you might be growing’” its crop. Thus Monsanto establishes a culture of fear among farmers.
One farmer who testified on behalf of Schmeiser at his trial said that Monsanto came after him with a letter stating that he supposedly had seeded Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola on 140 acres. But that 140 acres was uncultivated, tree or brush land. The letters are “just a means of harassment and intimidation.”
When Monsanto hears that a farmer might be growing its GMO crop, it sends out the ‘gene police,’ said Schmeiser. “They’ll say, ‘We’re ex-RCMP police.’ A lot of times the farmer doesn’t hear the ‘ex.’ They only hear the word ‘police’ and say, ‘Oh my God, what have I done wrong?’ They’ll continue, ‘We have this tip or rumor you’re growing Monsanto’s GMO canola.’ And a farmer will say, ‘No … I don’t grow GMOs, I don’t want them.’ And they’ll say to a farmer, ‘You’re lying, and if you don’t confess, we’ll get you and we’ll drag you through the court system.’” When the gene police leave, the farmer and his wife wonder who informed on them, creating a culture of fear and a breakdown of the rural social fabric.
If Monsanto can’t find a farmer at home and doesn’t know his mailing address but does know his land location, “they will then use a plane or small helicopter, and they’ll ‘spray bomb’ the farmer’s canola field, normally in the center, with Roundup. It will cover about 30' across. Then they’ll come back after about 12 days, after Roundup has had time to activate, and look to see what has happened. If the farmer’s canola field, where they hit it with the Roundup spray bomb, has died, then they know that the farmer wasn’t using Monsanto’s GMO canola. If it hasn’t died, they know the farmer’s using Monsanto’s GMO canola.”
The Schmeisers suffered significant stress due to Monsanto’s actions. “They would watch us when we worked in our fields. They would park on the edge of the field or along the road and watch us for days at a time. They would come into our driveway, and somehow they would seem to know when my wife was home alone, and they would park in the driveway for hours. When she’d come out of the house, they would take off.
“And the phone calls she took: ‘You better watch it. They’re going to get you.’”
When Schmeiser and a Monsanto rep spoke in Johannesburg, the rep claimed that GMO crops would not cross pollinate or spread by direct seed movement, and “the African Congress laughed at him,” said Schmeiser. Leaving the legislature, the rep “shook his fist in my face and said, ‘Nobody stands up to Monsanto! We’re going to get you and we’re going to destroy you, and when you get back to Canada, you’re going to be in bigger trouble!’ I thought, oh my God, what bigger trouble could I be in? When I got back to Canada, sure enough they laid another lawsuit against me for a million dollars for their court costs, because they said I was arrogant, I was stubborn, I wouldn’t do what Monsanto wanted. So back to court again for another year. What did the judge award Monsanto? $153,000 against me for their court costs – which I didn’t have to pay after the Supreme Court ruling.”
About a year ago, Monsanto tried to seize the Schmeisers’ house and farmland so that they couldn’t borrow more money to fight the corporation. (The Schmeisers had borrowed against their property and used their retirement funds previously.) The Supreme Court ruled against this seizure.
When farmers catch Monsanto’s police in their fields and say they’re trespassing or stealing, the police “stand and laugh … and say, ‘Bring a charge against us. Take us to court. We’ll guarantee you that we’ll drag you through the court system and you won’t have a farm left.’”
“When farmers hear what it’s cost me, close to $400,000 … [they] just give up and give in,” said Schmeiser. He added that Monsanto pays informants $150, or takes them to Miami for a vacation.
Pollen Flow Cannot Be Contained
How far will pollen flow? asked Schmeiser. “Scientists from Monsanto said at my trial: 3 meters, roughly 10 feet. A study by the University of Manitoba released about a year ago [showed that] wheat pollen will stay airborne at least an hour.” Canola, a light pollen, will stay airborne at least three hours, said Schmeiser. “Using 20 mph wind, how far will it blow? There is no such thing as a safe distance.”
Direct Seed Movement
Farmers may transport seed many miles to granaries, and some always spills from the truck. “If I look back to ’98, when my fields were contaminated … it was basically from direct seed movement, because my neighbors had grown it and were hauling it past my land, and one neighbor had grown it right next to me with not even a fence line in between.
“There is no such thing as coexistence,” Schmeiser maintains. “You could wake up tomorrow morning, like my wife and I did, and find that 50 years of research is now contaminated. You could not use your own seeds or plants. Basically this is what the corporations want: to contaminate and eventually take farmers’ choice away. This was really brought home to me in two different ways: One of the farm newspapers about a year ago had a quote in it by Dale Adolph, head of the Canadian Seed Growers Association: ‘There is so much opposition now in the world to any further introduction of GMOs that the only way that we can further the introduction is to contaminate. It’s a hell of a thing to say, but the way we do this is take people’s choice away.’”
Schmeiser is especially worried about “pharma plants.” He says, “They want to introduce GMO rice, especially in California, for the production of drugs.” Being produced experimentally in plants now, primarily in sunflowers, in open field trials (more than 300 plots in the U.S. and Canada last year) are vaccines, industrial enzymes, blood thinners, blood clotting proteins, growth hormones and contraceptives. University researchers have cited potential problems with these crops, if commercialized: What if a person has a major operation and eats a food laced with a blood thinner? If a pregnant woman eats a food laced with a contraceptive?
“Plastics are being made by corn,” claimed Schmeiser. “One of the scientists told me, ‘You’re better off now if you buy a box of corn flakes and throw away the corn flakes and eat the box.’”
Scientists worldwide have told Schmeiser that they don’t know if a new life form can be recalled from the environment, especially if GMO crops pollinate wild relatives.
Why Did Farmers Buy GMO Seeds?
In 1996, farmers were told that GMO crops would produce greater yields of more nutritious crops using fewer chemicals, said Schmeiser. Monsanto would take farmers on fishing trips or to the best restaurants, buying liquor and food. “A lot of farmers never read the back side of the contract … or a farmer goes to a meeting, says ‘no,’ a couple of weeks later says ‘ok,’ Monsanto faxes the application: the contract on the back side doesn’t come through.
“I think the issue of less chemicals is what really caught the farmers’ ear. Besides the damage [chemicals] are doing to the environment and human health, it’s also costly.” However, within two years of their cultivation, three GMO canola varieties had cross pollinated, making a superweed “which now takes at least three … chemicals to control it. And it has spread all over Western Canada … requiring new, massive uses of chemicals.” The province of Saskatchewan has the highest rates of breast and prostate cancers in Canada – and uses one-third of the pesticides applied in the country. “With the introduction of GMOs, it’s meant a massive increase in the use of chemicals.” Schmeiser says that Monsanto claims to have a super chemical to kill the superweed.
The yield promise was hollow. “Yields now are down about 6% with GMOs. Soybean yields are down about 15%, and that’s even confirmed by the USDA.” Quality has also suffered, and Schmeiser claims that chemical use has tripled.
“They also said we’d now have sustainable agriculture, be able to feed a hungry world. If anything is going to lead to more starvation and hunger in the world, it’s the introduction of GMOs.”
Regarding economics, “We can’t sell 1 bushel of canola to the EU, so we’ve lost that whole market – one-third of our sales … We can’t sell honey to Europe any more, because our honey is now contaminated with GMOs … It just goes on and on.”
Schmeiser is concerned about genes that accompany the target gene in GMOs, such as bacterial and viral genes that were never in our food before. The marker gene in canola is an antibiotic resistance gene, for instance. “In the pollination stage, you breathe that pollen in,” possibly contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans.
Schmeiser does not want to “leave a legacy of land and food and water and soil and air full of poisons” to his five children and 15 grandchildren, or to anyone else. “That’s one of the reasons I’m here today to give you this message. I’ve come from 50 years of chemical use, and I’ve seen the damage it has done.
“My wife is 73. I’m 74. We don’t know how many good years of health we’ve got left. But by God, the good years we’ve got left, we gave a commitment that we’d always go down fighting for the rights of farmers all over the world to always use their own seed.” He believes that the battle will end up in the Parliament of Canada, “where the rights of farmers will always be maintained to use your own seed.” Meanwhile, the National Farmers Union in Canada is urging that farmers boycott Monsanto’s products.
When asked if he has been able to debate Monsanto, Schmeiser said that an open invitation exists from him and from CBC Television to Monsanto to debate, but the company won’t accept. Rob Fish of GE Free Maine asked audience member Douglas Johnson, a PR rep for the biotech industry, if he would arrange such a debate when Schmeiser returns to Maine in the coming months.
To learn more about Schmeiser’s case and to contribute to his legal defense fund, visit percyschmeiser.com.
A Decade of Work in Maine
Sharon Tisher of MOFGA’s public policy committee outlined the work that MOFGA and others have done in Maine over the last decade to try to get GMOs regulated, including four attempts at labeling, and convening of a biotech commission. While labeling bills did not pass, the commission, composed of representatives from MOFGA, industry, environmental groups and the legislature, decried the inadequacy of federal regulations. It urged that the federal government institute labeling and premarket notification from companies to the government. A rule for mandatory premarket notification was drafted during the Clinton administration but died with the Bush administration.
Tisher also pointed out that no system has been designed to deal with GE fish and shellfish, and that an application from a Canadian firm for approval of a GE superfish is pending, despite a report from the National Academy of Sciences last year stating that the idea of GE animals needs much more research.
The major crops of concern in Maine are corn and canola. Maine is the only state in the U.S., due to the efforts of MOFGA, the Green Party and others, where GE corn that incorporates the pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis cannot be grown. After Monsanto was asked 13 questions about Bt corn when it tried to gain approval for the crop from Maine’s Board of Pesticides Control, it withdrew its application. Questions addressed the environmental impact of Bt corn, whether it would yield more than non-Bt corn, and more.
Roundup Ready corn is grown in Maine: 1500 acres in 2001; 4500 acres in 2002; and 5100 acres in 2003. This is a serious concern to Maine’s organic dairy farmers (now 25% of the state’s dairy industry and growing rapidly). “Maine’s dairies are going organic and are surviving because they are organic. Maine dairy operators grow their own field corn, which must be certified. We are very concerned about the risk of contamination of organic field corn by the growing amount of Roundup Ready corn,” said Tisher.
Legislation that MOFGA submitted in 2000 to put the liability for cross pollination on the manufacturer was watered down but did result in legislation in 2001 requiring that Monsanto include instructions to farmers about avoiding contamination, including specifying an adequate buffer zone, when it sold GE seed, but Monsanto has never specified this buffer zone in its documents — violating Maine law, in MOFGA’s opinion. “They should spell out a buffer zone of at least 650' so that a farmer planting GMO corn knows to set aside land to protect his neighbor,” said Tisher. “The burden should not be on the organic farmers to fallow their land to protect their crops from farmers growing GMOs.”
GE-Free Bush Territory?
Christine Baker of Arundel was shocked to find that GE corn was growing in her Maine town. Inspired by the vote in Mendocino County, Calif., to ban growing GE crops there, she decided to try a similar approach in Maine. She has started with Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, where land values of about $200,000/acre preclude planting field corn. “The movement wasn’t about hurting farmers. I went where there was no threat.” She is collecting signatures to try to pass an ordinance at a town meeting and has found that residents are enthusiastic and interested.
Commissioner Thinks GE and Organic Can Coexist in Maine
Commissioner Robert Spear believes that Best Management Practices (BMPs) for GMO and non-GMO crops will enable Maine growers who do and do not use GE crops to coexist. At the Maine Farm Days at Wright Place in Clinton on August 24, Spear introduced a fact sheet on BMPs for producers of GE crops and for organic, transitional organic, identity preserved (IP) and other non-GMO producers. Coexistence, said Spear, “will require planning, effort, communication and tolerance on behalf of both growers but can lead to a stronger future for all farmers.” The fact sheet addresses isolation, timing of planting, and other factors that can influence genetic drift.
A copy of the fact sheet is available from the Maine Department of Agriculture’s Division of Plant Industry at (207) 287-3891, at www.maine.gov/agriculture and at www.maine.gov/agriculture/newsletter/feature_3.htm.
Vermont Passes GE Seed Labeling Law
Vermont’s first-in-the-nation law requiring the labeling of genetically engineered seeds is going to have some teeth to it, despite initial doubts. The Secretary of Agriculture did not write rules to enforce the law before it went into effect October 1, but when biotech companies, led by Monsanto, said they had no plans to change their GE seed labels for next year, advocates for the law cried foul. Under pressure, the secretary issued a decision that labels would have to include a “plain English disclosure” using the phrase, “these seeds have been genetically engineered.” Advocates are pleased, but it remains to be seen how biotech companies will respond. For more on the law’s implementation, go to www.vermontguardian.com/local/0904/gmoseeds.shtml and www.timesargus.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20041101/NEWS/411010351.
– Andy Barker
More California Counties Vote on GE Agriculture
On August 3, 2004, Trinity County, California, became the second county in the nation to ban production of genetically engineered (GE) crops and animals. By a vote of three to one, Trinity County Supervisors banned GE crops and animals in order to protect Trinity’s local economy, including its growing organic sector, and the environment. On March 2, voters in Mendocino County, Calif., banned GE crops, and in November, four more of California’s 59 counties (Marin, Butte, Humboldt and San Luis Obispo) were to vote on ballot measures to ban genetically engineered organisms (GMOs). Monsanto, the Farm Bureau, and the Bayer corporation have vowed to crush this growing “Biodemocracy” movement, but public opposition to GE crops has put the industry on the defensive. On May 10, Monsanto was forced to cancel plans to commercialize GE wheat, while other GMOs in the pipeline – including trees, fish and biopharmaceutical crops – face increasing worldwide opposition.
Source: Biodemocracy News & Action Alert, Organic Consumers Assoc., August 4, 2004, www.organicconsumers.org.
Court Orders Biopharm Crops Disclosed
A federal district court judge has ordered the USDA to disclose locations of open-air field tests of biopharmaceutical crops in Hawai`i. The USDA and the biotech industry had resisted public disclosure of test plot locations, citing fears of “espionage,” “vandalism,” and “civil unrest.” However, on August 5, 2004, District Court Judge David A. Ezra ordered USDA to provide crop locations to the parties in a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice for PANNA (Pesticide Action Network North America), the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, and KAHEA — The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance. The court order also required locations of the test sites to be publicly announced within 90 days unless USDA provides better evidence of specific harm.
Pharmaceutical and biotech corporations are interested in biopharming – growing genetically engineered (GE) food crops to produce industrial or pharmaceutical chemicals and drugs – as a relatively inexpensive way to produce large quantifies of chemicals, including contraceptives, hormones, vaccines and other potent, biologically active substances. Biopharm test crops are frequently grown outdoors in open fields and are virtually indistinguishable from edible varieties. As a result of the ruling, neighboring farmers and residents can learn whether biopharm test crops are located near conventional varieties that may be at risk for cross pollination or are being grown in ecologically sensitive areas or near schools and homes.
Despite its designation as a biological “hot spot” with a high number of endangered species, Hawai`i has been the site of more than 4,000 open-air field tests of GE crops, including biopharmaceuticals. Conducted by corporate agribusiness and industrial chemical giants such as Monsanto, Prodigene, DuPont and Dow, the tests produce crops that have not been approved for human or animal consumption or for general release into the environment. In 12 years of open-air testing, not one biopharmed drug has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Potentially disastrous slip-ups in biopharm field tests have already occurred. In 2000, USDA quarantined and destroyed 500,000 bushels of Nebraska soybeans meant for human consumption because the crop had been contaminated with corn engineered to produce a pig vaccine. That same year, potential contamination led to destruction of 155 acres of conventional corn in Iowa. Prodigene, the grower in both instances, is currently conducting open-air tests in Hawai`i.
“Almost everything about the regulation of gene-altered crops suggests that the federal agencies are far more responsive to industry than to the public,” says PANNA’s Skip Spitzer. “That the court has to step in to force disclosure of such basic information highlights that problems like biopharming come from big agribusiness having too much control over our food.” He adds that the court victory “poses a real problem for the agribusiness industry if this precedent, as expected, stimulates challenges, and hopefully positive rulings, elsewhere.”
Source: Pesticide Action Network Updates Service, Aug. 26, 2004, press release. Contacts: Center for Food Safety, firstname.lastname@example.org; PANNA, www.panna.org.
Will GE Seeds be the WMDs in Iraq?
When former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer III left Baghdad after the so-called “transfer of sovereignty” in June 2004, he left behind 100 orders he enacted as chief of the occupation authority in Iraq. Among them is Order 81 on “Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety.” This order amends Iraq’s original patent law of 1970 and unless and until it is revised or repealed by a new Iraqi government, it now has the status and force of a binding law. A report by GRAIN and Focus on the Global South claims that this new legislation prevents farmers from saving their seeds and effectively hands over the seed market to transnational corporations. (GRAIN is an international non-governmental organization that promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people’s control over genetic resources and local knowledge.) You can view the report at www.grain.org/articles/?id=6 (posted Oct. 15, 2004).
Canadian Government Agreed to Conduct Secret GM Wheat Field Trials
Documents obtained by Greenpeace through the Access to Information Act reveal that Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) agreed to conduct field trials of genetically modified wheat at three secret locations in Western Canada in 2004 on behalf of biotechnology company Syngenta – despite overwhelming market rejection of GE wheat and concerns that such wheat will escape into the broader environment. Fellow biotechnology giant Monsanto abandoned commercialization of GE wheat earlier this year. Syngenta is attempting to genetically modify the wheat to be fusarium resistant, while Monsanto’s was herbicide resistant.
Eric Darier, Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Campaigner, says, “Given the weak testing protocols established by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), it is inevitable that continued secret testing of GM wheat will eventually lead to a contamination event.”
“For farmers and our markets, GM wheat – any GM wheat – is market poison. Over 82% of our customers say that they will stop buying all Canadian wheat if we introduce GM varieties,” says Stewart Wells of the National Farmers Union. “It makes no difference to our customers whether the genetic modification is to resist Roundup or fusarium.”
The documents also suggest that the government may have entered into a collaboration agreement with Syngenta to develop GM wheat. A draft copy of the document states: “Partnership with Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc., is very welcome.”
Earlier this year, research by AAFC revealed a link between glyphosate formulations and the development of fusarium. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in many pesticides, including Roundup, used extensively on GE crops in the Prairies.
“Farmers in parts of Canada have been devastated by fusarium, but GM varieties are not the answer,” continued Mr. Wells. “If successful, GM fusarium-resistant wheat would increase supply but would decrease demand. We believe the effect on all farmers would be negative, and rather than working for Syngenta, the government should be aggressively pursuing fusarium-resistant varieties through traditional plant breeding.”
Source: Greenpeace press release. For more information, contact Eric Darier, Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Campaigner, (514)933-0021, ext. 15, Cell: (514) 605-6497; Stewart Wells, President, National Farmers Union, (306) 652-9465; Darrin Qualman, Director of Research, National Farmers Union, (306) 652-9465.