The Fight To Save Seed

Monsanto is pushing to get marketing approval for herbicide-resistant, genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready wheat — despite widespread farmer protests that GE wheat from open-air test plots could cross-breed with normal wheat. This would be the first GE wheat on the market, and any cross-breeding from tests could pollute conventional seed stock in states like North Dakota and Kansas, which export large amounts of wheat to countries in Europe and Asia that are unlikely to accept genetically engineered (GE) grain.
Who would pay for the economic fallout of a major contamination? Not farmers, if Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) succeeds with a legislative package he introduced in May. The Genetically Engineered Organism Liability Act, HR 4816, makes biotech companies liable for cross-pollination, crop failures, insect resistance, and superweeds. Another Kucinich bill, HR 4812, accuses biotech corporations of “systematically act[ing] to remove basic farmer rights enjoyed since the beginning of agriculture.” The bill would forbid biotech companies or seed sellers to transfer any liability to farmers, outlaw contract provisions that prohibit seed-saving, outlaw any seeds genetically engineered to produce sterile plants (Terminator seeds; see Terrain, Spring 2000), force companies to charge the same technology fees worldwide for GE seeds, and make publicly available all income reports from those fees and from sales of related herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup.
“This legislation is basic to maintaining some competitiveness and farmer rights in the food system,” said Dan McGuire of the American Corn Growers Association, an advocacy group with members in 28 states. “These biotech corporations are going to control this food system from top to bottom, unless we get seed-saving rights back to farmers.” By selecting from their best plants each year, farmers can develop their own seed strains. And with free seed on hand, they can opt out of expensive seed markets.
The bills may succeed at least as amendments to other legislation, said Gene Paul, an agricultural policy analyst with the National Farmers Organization, which supports the legislation. “These biotech seeds and plants have been put out into public use long before they’ve had what we feel is adequate testing of their long-term effects. This legislation clears up some issues about who is liable and who isn’t.”
Despite the pending legislation, a Monsanto spokesperson told the industry publication Food Chemical News in May that it will formally begin seeking approval to market GE wheat in Canada and the United States. Approval processes in both countries could take from one to three years, but farmers are already concerned that ongoing GE wheat field trials pose serious cross-pollination threats to conventional seed supplies.
Two university extension research centers in North Dakota have refused to do open field trials of GE wheat, according to the Associated Press. Jay Fisher, director of the North Dakota State University’s North Central Research Extension Center at Minot, told the Associated Press that ensuring seed stock purity was a main reason for the decision. The board of farmers that directs research at the Minot center voted 14–2 against trials, said Todd Leake, a farmer and member of the Dakota Resource Council, a grassroots conservation organization. Centers like the one in Minot grow foundation seed, the source for the seed that farmers buy each year. If GE field tests contaminate foundation seed plots, farmers will have a harder time getting GE-free seed. “You couldn’t find a worse-case scenario than a [genetically altered] open-pollinated plant like wheat adjacent to the parent lines of all future seed development,” Leake said.
Nevertheless, the US Department of Agriculture had issued permits for over 380 acres of open-field GE wheat tests by May 2002, the third year of such testing.
In North Dakota, researchers use 330-foot buffers around test plots of GE wheat — small comfort to Leake. “Insects can pollinate wheat,” he said, “and they are not limited to 330 feet; neither is the wind. That’s not using the precautionary principle.”
Genetic Pollution in the Spotlight
According to a study commissioned by the European Union (EU), it doesn’t take much GE acreage to make trouble for conventional and organic farmers. Greenpeace reported in May that it had obtained a copy of what it called “a secret EU study” that suggested that even a 10% share of GE cropland in Europe could lead to what the report calls “significant levels of GE content in non-GE crops.”
According to the study, if 10% of EU cropland were GE, proposed “zero tolerance” contamination thresholds would be impossible to maintain. Maintaining current, less-stringent EU thresholds of 1% to 3% would require significant changes to farm practices, even a halt to seed-saving, to avoid transmitting contamination from one season to the next. If EU farmers, like US soy and cotton farmers, planted 50% of their acreage with GE crops, such changes could push up costs for EU farmers by 10% to 41% for canola, and 1% to 9% for corn and potatoes.
“The European Commission has tried to keep this study secret,” Lorenzo Consoli, Greenpeace EU policy advisor, said in a press release, “because it was afraid of its political implications. If the introduction of GE crops on a commercial scale in Europe increases costs of production for all farmers, makes them more dependent on the big seed companies, and requires complicated and costly measures to avoid contamination, why should we accept GE cultivation in the first place?”
On the ground in Canada, farmers are fighting genetic contamination — and taking their blows. Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, who has been locked in a court battle with Monsanto since 1998, is now appealing a decision that required him to pay nearly $175,000 in court costs and damages for continuing to save and plant canola seed from his land after it had become contaminated with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola. This despite the fact that Schmeiser used Roundup itself only on the margins of his fields, and that he bought no canola seed of any kind after 1993. Roundup Ready canola was introduced in Canada in 1996. Schmeiser used only farm-saved seed from 1993 until 1999, when his lawyers advised him to destroy all the seed he had saved — after decades of seed-saving had produced what he called his own “relatively [disease-]resistant” strain of canola.
As reported in Terrain Summer 2002, the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate (SOD), a coalition of organic farmers and consumers, has filed a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto and Aventis CropScience, the two main sellers of GE canola. The suit alleges that Monsanto and Aventis have destroyed the organic canola industry in Canada and that they could do the same for organic wheat.
In late June, a damning report showed that Canada’s pedigreed seed growers — who specialize in growing certified purebred strains of various crop seeds — have been unable to keep their canola stocks free of GE contamination. The study examined 70 canola samples from seed growers who must grow strains over 99% free of other strains. Since these seeds are the source for much of the non-GE canola seed in Canada, any impurities can spread throughout the nation’s seed supply. Of the 70 samples, only two were sufficiently free of GE content to be acceptable for organic production. And 30 of the 70 were too contaminated with GE content to serve as source seed for conventional growers.
The study, commissioned by the Canadian Seed Growers Association, was withheld by the federal agency Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, which had conducted it. The SOD obtained a copy through public information laws, but got the complete copy only by threatening lawsuit. “[On the original] all the pertinent information was blacked out,” SOD President Arnold Taylor told Terrain. “This study may prove our case. If pedigreed seed growers can’t grow canola without GE contamination, who can?”

Comments are closed.