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Crop Control

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Issue: 19 Section: Environment Geography: Prairies Topics: gmos, food security, corporate

June 24, 2004

Crop Control

Genetically modified crops threaten organic growers

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

Organic farmers in Saskatchewan worry that widespread use of GM mean would mean the end of organic wheat in Canada. Rob Maguire
The battle over genetically engineered (GE) foods raged on in the month of May, with uncertain victories declared on two fronts. On May 10th, biotech giant Monsanto announced that it was "deferring all further plans to introduce Roundup Ready wheat" into the marketplace. While opponents to GE foods were still celebrating, however, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of Monsanto on May 21st, in the controversial Schmeiser case. As the dust settles on fields across Canada, farmers, consumers, and activists are struggling to understand the implications of these decisions.

Monsanto is a multinational agro-chemical and foods conglomerate. The corporation is perhaps best known for their herbicide, Roundup, which is the No. 1 selling agro-chemical in the world. The herbicide, works best when used with Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds. Roundup Ready crops, such as canola and soybeans, have been genetically engineered to survive when sprayed with Roundup, which will kill all other weeds. Monsanto's licensing agreement forbids farmers to save their seeds--an age-old farming tradition--meaning that farmers have to purchase new seeds from Monsanto each year.

On May 21st, the Supreme Court found Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser guilty of infringing on Monsanto's patent rights by saving and planting Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola seeds on his farm. However, what is more interesting, according to Dr E. Ann Clark, is what Schmeiser was not found guilty of: "He was not found guilty of obtaining the seed fraudulently. Indeed, all such allegations were dropped at the actual hearing due to lack of evidence." Furthermore, says Clark, who is a is a professor of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph, "No one--including Monsanto--argued that Schmeiser actually benefited--or even intended to benefit--from growing a crop contaminated with RR plants."

"I didn't want their technology on my fields", says Schmeiser, who insists that the RR canola seeds somehow blew off a passing transport truck or from neighboring fields. According to a statement issued by Judge W. Andrew Mackay during a 1998 Federal Court judgement on the case, however, it does not matter why or how the seeds became mixed with Schmeiser's crop: "[T]he source of the Roundup resistant canola... is really not significant for the resolution of the issue of infringement." What mattered to the courts was that RR canola had contaminated Schmeiser's crop and that he had failed to report this contamination to Monsanto.

The fact that the spreading of GE seeds by wind or other means cannot be controlled by the farmers of non-GE crops did not change the Supreme Court's decision to hold them responsible for the contamination of their fields. "It is the organic farmer that will be held liable for contamination," explains Nadege Adam, a Biotechnology Campaigner for the Council of Canadians. According to Clark, the problem of contamination is affecting many more farmers than Schmeiser: "Cross-contamination of seed crops with GM seed is now so pervasive that seed companies will no longer guarantee '100% GM-free' for any field crop that has been subject to genetic modification."

The introduction of a field crop that has been genetically modified essentially eliminates the possibility of growing that crop organically. Adam describes what has happened to the organic canola industry: "Two years ago, 200 farms in Canada grew organic canola; now there's only one. You cannot have an organic crop and a GE crop in the same area. The two simply cannot coexist."

The Organic Agriculture Protection Fund (OAPF), a coalition of Saskatchewan's certified organic farmers, has decided to do something about widespread crop contamination and the threat to their livelihoods. The group is taking Monsanto and Bayer Crop Science to court in a precedent-setting class action lawsuit to get compensation for losing canola as a crop due to genetic contamination, and to stop the approval of GE wheat as a commercial crop in Canada. The group fears that organic wheat will suffer the same fate as organic canola in Saskatchewan.

Meanwhile, on May 10th, Monsanto had announced that it was shelving its plans for GE wheat in order to, "[R]ealign research and development investments to accelerate the development of new and improved traits in corn, cotton and oilseeds." Though this announcement is heartening for OAPF and other opponents of GE wheat, who believe the real reason for Monsanto's change of heart is due to consumer backlash, Adam warns that the fight to stop GE wheat has not yet been won: "Monsanto was very careful in the wording of their press release. They said that they wouldn't commercialize GE wheat right away. However, their applications for the approval of GE wheat are still being processed by Ottawa." According to Adam, Monsanto's strategic announcement eased much of the opposition to GE wheat, despite the fact that its introduction remains an imminent threat in Canada. "Now, if GE wheat is approved [by Ottawa] it will be up to Monsanto to decide if they release it into the marketplace. Not if, actually, but when."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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