Sowing the Seeds of Insecurity: Last Year Provides Clues to the Future of Food
Copyright 2002, by Geri Guidetti
An ill-wind blew across Percy Schmeiser’s land in 1996. Today in his 70s, the third-generation Saskatchewan, Canada, farmer has been growing and improving his own Canola (oil seed) crops for 40 years.
Each year, he would save some of his harvested seed for planting the following year. Though some farmers in the surrounding area were growing Monsanto’s patented, genetically modified (GM) Roundup Ready Canola, Schmeiser was not. He was growing his own, but the wind blew and bees flew, both apparently carrying grains of GM pollen from neighboring fields into Schmeiser’s crop. Or maybe it was GM seed transported from surrounding farms that often blew off trucks traveling the roads adjacent to Schmeiser’s land. No matter. Without his knowledge or consent, errant, patented Monsanto genes had apparently been incorporated into some of the Schmeiser family’s 1997-harvested canola seed.
In 1998, the farmer planted over a thousand acres of his land with the seed he had saved from the previous year’s crop. A hired Monsanto investigator analyzed samples of canola plants taken from Percy Schmeiser’s land, and the company found evidence of its patented genes in the plant tissue. When Schmeiser refused to pay Monsanto fees for use of its patented herbicide resistance technology, technology he neither bought nor wanted, Monsanto sued him. According to a report on the trial (www.percyschmeiser.com), Monsanto sought damages for patent infringement totaling $400,000. This included about $250,000 in legal fees, $13,500 for technology fees, $25,000 in punitive damages and $105,000 in the profits Schmeiser realized from sale of his contaminated 1998 crop.
Monsanto vs. Percy Schmeiser was heard in a Canadian court June 5 – 20, 2000. According to reports, Monsanto never directly tried to explain how their genes got into Schmeiser’s field. In fact, the Western Producer, a Canadian agriculture magazine, quoted Monsanto attorney, Roger Hughes, as saying, “Whether Mr. Schmeiser knew of the matter or not matters not at all.” In other words, Schmeiser’s fields were contaminated by Monsanto’s GM technology, and it didn’t matter if Schmeiser was aware of the contamination or not. They were going to make him pay for it! Percy Schmeiser said, “It was a very frightening thing because they said it does not matter how it gets into a farmer’s field; it’s their property…….if I would go to St. Louis (Monsanto headquarters) and contaminate their plots– destroy what they have worked on for 40 years–I think I would be put in jail and the key thrown away.”
On March 29, 2001, nearly three years since the contaminated canola was discovered in Schmeiser’s field, Canadian Judge W. Andrew MacKay agreed with Monsanto that it did not matter how its genes got onto Percy Schmeiser’s fields; the farmer was still guilty of having them without having paid for the privilege. (You can read the entire decision at http://www.fct- cf.gc.ca). Sadly, as part of the damages, the farmer also lost 40 years of work improving his own canola seed line, as his crop was confiscated.
As you might imagine, the decision has had a chilling effect on farmers here and around the world. The Washington Post reported that a National Farmers Union spokesman said the organization has been following the Monsanto vs. Schmeiser case “…with apprehension. We’re extremely concerned by what liabilities may unfold for the farmer, particularly with cross-pollination of genetically modified plants.” The National Farmers Union represents 300,000 U.S. farmers and ranchers. Monsanto has filed hundreds of similar patent infringement lawsuits against farmers in the U.S. and Canada. Some of those farmers in North Dakota and Illinois are counter-suing the company for deliberately causing genetic pollution and then suing its victims. Win or lose, many face financial ruin from the court battles alone.
The Percy Schmeiser case, and others ongoing and to come, do not bode well for farmers, or even backyard gardeners, here or abroad. The idea that individuals can be held legally and financially responsible for the fate of patented pollen and seed blown by the wind or carried by insects in open field conditions is simply absurd. In fact, Monsanto knows it and maintained that all a farmer has to do if he or she discovers Monsanto’s patented plants growing on their land is to call the company and they will come out and take care of the problem.
For starters, how would a farmer even know his field had been contaminated with Roundup Ready GM canola The plants are often visually indistinguishable. The only way he’d know is by spraying his crop with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide to see if it had resistance. Obviously, he wouldn’t do that because the herbicide would kill his own non- resistant, non-GM crop! Percy Schmeiser and other farmers regularly spray Roundup around telephone poles surrounding their fields to keep them clear of crops and weeds. When Schmeiser had sprayed around his telephone poles in 1997, he was surprised to see that some of the canola plants did not die. He suspected contamination.
If a farmer does identify GM plants in his field, according to Ann Clark of Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Monsanto would likely come out and spray the offending plants with the herbicide of choice, 2,4-D. But, as a farmer, would you call the company if their offending plants were interspersed with your own crop, the latter likely to be killed or damaged by the toxic herbicide Such treatment would be especially catastrophic for an organic farmer whose field could no longer be certifiable as organic for years to come.
In fact, a group of Saskatchewan organic farmers is now suing Monsanto and Aventis because their fields are literally being invaded by GM canola plants making it impossible for them to sell their crops as non-genetically modified. The European Union strictly prohibits GM canola. Arnold Taylor, president of the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, told CBC News Online, “Since (the companies) started five, six years ago, it has been virtually impossible to find any seed stock that’s uncontaminated.” For some perspective on the potential scope of the GM gene pollution problem, in the year 2000, Monsanto’s GM seed was planted on 103 million acres worldwide, accounting for 94% of the global area sown to genetically modified seed (RAFI). The potential for the GM contamination of millions of more acres of land and for thousands more victim farmers is simply mind-boggling. In fact, in June, 2001, Canadian CBC radio reported that genetically engineered canola plants had spread across the Canadian prairies. University of Manitoba plant scientist, Martin Entz said that GM canola had spread much more rapidly than originally thought and that it was “absolutely impossible to control.”
Impossible to control also describes another 2001 GM debacle- -the contamination of U.S. food supplies with StarLink corn, a GM corn intended by French parent company, Aventis, for animal consumption only. StarLink contains an insecticidal toxin, Cry9C protein, 50-100 times more than that in GM corn intended for humans. The protein had the potential to trigger severe allergic reactions. Aventis had assured EPA officials that StarLink would only be sold to farmers growing it for livestock. Dealers selling the corn would see to it that each farmer signed an agreement to provide a 660-foot buffer strip around his or her StarLink fields to prevent contamination of nearby cornfields with StarLink pollen. Grain elevators were also to be told at the time of sale that the corn was not for human consumption. Sadly, virtually every level of the program to protect humans failed miserably.
During the year 1998, 10,000 acres in the U.S. were planted to StarLink. In 1999, it had grown to 250,000 acres. By 2000, StarLink corn was planted on 350,000 acres in the U.S. and co-mingled with other corns by 2200 farmers in 12 states, according to Seed Savers Exhange. During 2000, 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties grew StarLink! About 10% of all corn stored in the U.S. is now contaminated with StarLink corn.
In 2001, the USDA earmarked up to $20 million of taxpayers’ money, money originally intended for natural disaster relief for farmers, to help buy back 300,000 to 400,000 bags of contaminated seed. Containment, not control, was the only possible solution, as the damage to the U.S. seed stocks is permanent. The genes are “out there”, replicating themselves in the chromosomes of other corn varieties meant for human consumption, and likely finding their way into any food containing corn products such as corn syrup and corn starch- -nearly every sweetened, thickened product in the “modern” diet. If there is any reassuring news in this new reality, it is that the concentration of Cry9C is likely to be so low in current and future foods contaminated with the original StarLink genes that allergic reactions to this particular protein are highly improbable. That is, however, very small comfort given the scope and biological significance of this single genetic event.
August, 2001, was a particular low point in the battle for a ban on the Terminator gene technology. Terminator technologies use genetic engineering techniques to program a plant’s DNA to kill its own embryos (suicide seed) thus forming sterile seed. The plant-to-seed-to-plant-to-seed, etc, cycle of life is broken, preventing a farmer from saving harvested seed to grow next season. It will ensure that farmers must return to the seed company year after year to purchase expensive seed, often with heavy GM seed technology licensing fees added. The first Terminator was created and announced by our own U.S. Department of Agriculture in partnership with a U.S.-based cotton seed company, Delta & Pine Land Company. They were granted a U.S. patent on the technology in 1998. (See June, 1998 Food Supply Update at Arkinstitute.com). In August, the USDA announced that it had agreed to license the technology to its corporate partner, the first step toward commercialization. Delta & Pine Land Co. has said it has every intention of commercializing it.
“USDA’s decision to license Terminator flies in the face of international public opinion and betrays the public trust,” said RAFI research-director, Hope Shand. “Terminator technology has been universally condemned by civil society; banned by international agricultural research institutes; censured by United Nations bodies….and yet the U.S. Government has officially sanctioned commercialization of the technology by licensing it to one of the world’s largest seed companies.” Silvia Ribeiro, also of RAFI, added, “USDA’s role in developing Terminator seeds is a disgraceful example of corporate welfare, involving a technology that is bad for farmers, dangerous for the environment, and disastrous for world food security.” The USDA and Delta & Pine Land Company, at last count, own three Terminator patents. This is an egregious use of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars to support corporate profits instead of public good, to advance the portfolios of restrictive corporate patents on life instead of improving the lives and livelihoods of U.S. farmers and the consumers they serve. Terminator technologies will not be a boon to U.S. farmers or struggling Third World farmers who are considered prime targets for Terminator seeds. It will make them ever more dependent on the corporate seed and chemical companies.
Remember, once the genetic genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put it back. If Terminator genes pollute surrounding fields and wild plants, the consequences will be far greater than the corn debacle. Neighboring farmer’s crops may produce sterile seed. What if that farmer is a seed grower, growing seed stocks for the country’s next crops Multiply that scenario by tens of thousands of farmers. Can Terminator eventually terminate all seeding plants No one, not a single corporation or government official, can assure you it will not. Remember Percy Schmeiser! Remember StarLink!
Here is a rundown of Terminator patent holdings current to 2001:
Syngenta (Novartis) has two Terminator patents. Syngenta (Zeneca) has four. Delta & Pine Land/USDA have three. BASF (ExSeed Genetics, LLC/Iowa State University) have one. DuPont (Pioneer Hi-Bred) has one. Pharmacia (Monsanto) have one. Cornell Research Foundation has one. Purdue Research Foundation (with support from USDA) has one.
It is important to take stock of where we have been in the big food picture in recent years because it speaks volumes about where we might be going this year and beyond. In light of the September attacks on the U.S., it is critical that we pay attention to every aspect of our food supply system with unprecedented vigilance. The truth about security with respect to food and terrorism is simple, really: there is none. The Schmeiser decision, StarLink tragedy and Terminators all point to a future in which individuals will have little or no control over the content of the food they eat, and little control over production. If individuals are discouraged by court decisions from feeding themselves–if they abdicate all rights to control the ways and means of livelihood and food production, turning control over, like serfs, to their corporate lords, then we are lost.
For years these Food Supply Updates have discussed the insanities of a food production system growing ever more concentrated, technology, oil and chemical dependent, biologically and chemically contaminated, remote from its nearly 300 million completely dependent consumers, and controlled, from seed to mouth, by a relative handful of very powerful people. The long list of cumulative observations and warnings voiced in this newsletter over the years (read earlier Food Supply Udates archived at Artkinstitute.com) could just as easily be viewed as an ongoing tutorial for those determined to ferret out our vulnerabilities. Our vulnerabilities can easily become someone else’s opportunities.
We must keep one watchful eye on our current food supply security system, a “blanket” riddled with holes, and the other on the ongoing, ominous shift in the control of food from the farmer and consumer, to governments and a few very powerful, multinational corporations. How might our new agricultural technologies be used against us Is Terminator gene technology a potential terrorist weapon What is the relationship between “X” government with “Y” corporation What is their global agenda See what I mean It is a daunting task, but more than ever, our lives may depend on it.
Geri Guidetti, The Ark Institute
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