Two important stories about seed and Monsanto

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Farmer inspecting wheat. Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory/Flickr

For decades, pockets of resistance around the world have been tracking and educating general publics about farmers' right to seed and the importance of not allowing corporations to patent seed or to manipulate genetic material for pure speculation and gain. Behind most of these stories of resistance has been the far-reaching control exercised by corporate giant Monsanto, particularly when it comes to demanding royalties on seed (harken back to Percy Schmeiser) and modifying seed to be resistant to glysophate, a chemical pesticide it produces and sells under the brand of Roundup.

Yes, we have all heard it said: Roundup Ready! Catchy and scary at the same time.

This week two stories once again are showing how carelessness in food production and a lax regulatory framework, as well as popular pressure and resistance on food issues, can have dramatic results. These stories run deep.

Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) has been monitoring the regulatory climate around genetically modified (GM) food for several years, keeping interested publics abreast of the introduction of genetically modified foods such as soya, corn and canola into our food systems as well as sounding the alarm on the potential marketing of GM salmon, tomatoes and wheat.

While there are two sides to the story, the one I prefer is that GMs should not be introduced. Recognizing that no solid science exists on the benefits or harms of GMs, my position will not be swayed. Not finding harm in their use is not good enough for me. I want definite benefits or no GMs. I also want labelling. I am big on knowing what I am eating.

And I am not alone. This week the Government of Japan suspended purchase of Canadian wheat for fear that our grain might contain GM wheat, even though GM wheat cannot legally be produced in this country or any country around the world. GM wheat was indeed found in a roadside last year but this story is only now being written as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recently released a report on the incident during a meeting in Halifax on June 17. And Japan's action is having exactly the impact that many have noted would occur if GM wheat and many other grains are ever legalized for production in Canada -- that is, Canada would lose access to major international markets as buyers would seek other sources of wheat to avoid bringing in GM wheat, which many countries see as a contaminant.

How the GM wheat plants came to be growing on the roadside in Alberta is another story -- and it is still under investigation. The hope by the CFIA is that once the investigation is complete our foreign markets will be assured that this incident is a one-off and not a sign of major contamination. Still -- the question is: how did this happen in Alberta? There have been other such incidents on this continent. The National Farmers Union notes that this escape of GM seed is an indication of the need for better regulation and putting a halt to open-field testing of such seed.

In a June 15 media release on this "close call," chair of the National Farmers Union Seed Committee Terry Boehm stated:

"The CFIA went ahead with open-air trials, assuring farmers that their protocols for isolating genetically modified plants from the rest of agriculture were adequate. Today we see that an escape has happened, and that the regulatory process in place in the late-1990s and early 2000s did not even require biotech companies to provide the CFIA with full information about the plants they were testing."

Boehm added:

"The CFIA did gamble, and continues to gamble by allowing open-air testing of genetically modified wheat. We may have dodged a bullet this time, thanks to observant and responsible workers who spotted the wheat that survived spraying with glyphosate and the civil servants who looked after testing and monitoring to ensure this is an isolated incident. But now would be a good time to stop open-air testing of genetically modified wheat to prevent potentially more serious incidents in the future."

Across the planet, another story puts Monsanto in the headlines

Earlier in May, India's top court denied Monsanto Corporation the right to patent its genetically modified cotton seed. Even though 90 per cent of India's cotton crop is genetically modified, the top court cited and backed India's Patents Act of 1970. The Delhi High Court ruled that plant varieties and seeds cannot be patented, thereby rejecting Monsanto's attempt to block its Indian licensee, Nuziveedu Seeds Ltd., from selling the seeds.

Known for her activism and relentless campaigning against corporate patents on seeds, Vandana Shiva called the Delhi court's ruling a major victory, noting that the door is now open "to make Monsanto pay for trapping farmers in debt by extracting illegal royalties on BT cotton [a variety of GM cotton]."

A Monsanto and Bayer merger is now underway, with Canada giving approval to the merger in late May. It's a merger that many fear will spell disaster for family farmers and the global food supply. These two cases of GM seed are just that -- two examples -- and there are many, many more.

"Farmers should be the ones making the crucial decisions about how to produce for the food system, including seed and farm input choices. This is an essential aspect of food sovereignty," says Jan Slomp, National Farmers Union Vice President (Policy), in a media release distributed by CBAN. "More and more, we are getting stuck with what a handful of multinational corporations want to supply, regardless of what we need or want. This Bayer-Monsanto merger increases their power at the expense of farmers' and consumers' interests."

In a June 15 comment noting the story of the GM grain found roadside in Alberta, Vandana Shiva tweeted that Monsanto's business strategy is the illegal introduction of GM seed to spread its use.

Roundup Ready forever! Now that is a scary thought. But it's not out of the realm of possibility, with or without the underhanded tactics Vandana Shiva has speculated about.

On an optimistic note, back in May on the steps of the Supreme Court in Delhi, Vandana emphasized: "Our sovereignty is protected, our laws are protected. Our ability to write laws in the public interest [and] for the rights of farmers through the constitution are protected."

"The Earth will win. Seed will win. Monsanto will lose," Shiva added.

This is the kind of victory and inspiration we require! The alarms are sounding.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory/Flickr

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