Farmers say 'no' to genetic engineering

Increasingly, farmers around the world are viewing genetic engineering as a threat to their livelihood. As delegates met to negotiate a Biosafety Protocol in Montreal, Greenpeace and the Third World Network held a joint press conference to allow the voices of small and independent farmers from Brazil, Mexico, the US, Canada and France to be heard in the negotiations. The following account of the press conference provides profiles of these farmers and summarises some of the main concerns raised by them.

FARMERS around the world view genetic engineering as a threat to their livelihood. Five farmers from Brazil, Mexico, the US, Canada and France shared their views and experiences in a press conference in Montreal where delegations from more than 130 countries met to negotiate an international agreement on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Greenpeace and Third World Network held a joint press conference on 26 January to allow the voice of the small and independent farmers to be heard in the negotiations.

Extra costs

Farmers in Mexico, Brazil and France are facing extra costs to satisfy the demand for non-genetically engineered (GE) food. Demand for 'clean' certification has created new testing, labelling and transport costs for farmers to guarantee no genetic contamination of their crop. 'These costs should be borne by the biotech industry, not by us,' said Antonio Wunsch from Brazil and Jean-Yves Griot from France.

In Mexico, the home of the world's corn crop, small and indigenous farmers are worried about genetic contamination of their traditional varieties. 'There are about 5,000 traditional varieties of maize in Mexico and we could lose them,' said Porfirio Encino from Mexico.

In industrialised countries where organic produce is the fastest growing food trend, organic farmers are facing a new threat: the loss of their livelihood due to genetic contamination. 'When GE pollen from a neighbouring field contaminates an organic crop, the farmer could lose his organic status which he has worked years to achieve,' said organic farmer Steven Gilman from the US.


In Canada about 60% of canola is GE. The unintended contamination of conventional canola in the fields and during transport makes all attempts at segregation futile. 'We are told by consumers to start segregating but it does not work and we are losing our market. A moratorium on new crops is now insufficient, we have to first clean up the mess created by GE canola,' said Hart Haiden from Canada.

Steve Gilman, USA
Steve Gilman has been farming organically since 1976. On his Ruckytucks Farm near Saratoga, NY, he grows a wide variety of vegetables and herbs for local restaurants, a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) project and other markets.

He is Chair of the Organic Advisory Group at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. He has served on the Administrative Council of the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) programme, Northeast region, for the past three years.

He is currently authoring an Organic Manuals Series for advanced farmers and conventional farmers seeking to make the transition to organic agriculture.

The wide-scale field release of agricultural biotechnology has a negative economic impact on organic farmers through potential pollution by genetically altered organisms which may threaten Organic Certification status. Environmentally, the spread of transgenic materials impacts beneficial insects and microorganisms which are relied upon by organic farmers for pest and disease control.

Due to millions of acres now being planted with genetically altered strains of transgenic Bt corn, cotton, potatoes, tomatoes, melons and beets, organic farmers stand to lose forever the effectiveness of this important biocontrol agent through pest resistance.

The genetic engineering agenda has commandeered the lion's share of publicly financed agricultural research dollars to the detriment of organic and other sustainable agriculture initiatives. In comparison to industrialised agribusiness and its highly reductionist genetic technologies, organic farming produces comparable yields while utilising a holistic, ecological approach to food production with beneficent environmental and health effects.

Jean-Yves Griot, France
He has been a milk farmer and cooperative member since 1977. He is the President of the Reseau Agriculture Durable which represents 25 farming groups and over 1,500 members. He also holds the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur.

French farmers and consumers do not want GE foods, particularly in the context of other food crises such as mad cow disease and dioxin contamination of Belgian food.

There are no economic gains for farmers particularly now that consumers are also concerned about genetic contamination of animal feed. Increased costs are incurred due to labelling, testing and cleaning of silos and transport containers. The farmers' cooperatives are trying to establish contacts with Brazilian non-GE farmers.

Clear labelling and any additional charge should be on seed producers and not on the farmers or consumers.

Hart Haiden, Canada
Born and educated in Germany, he worked in different European countries, Saudi Arabia and South Africa on agricultural projects before emigrating to Canada.

He was a grain farmer for 20 years in British Columbia and operated a seed business. Since 1997 he has operated an organic health food processing plant.

He is currently Chair of the developing Canadian Centre for Sustainable Agriculture Inc., and a Director of the Canadian Organic Growers Association.

Sixty percent of canola is currently genetically engineered in Canada. Current regulations are insufficient to deal with crop contamination and weed resistance. Canadian farmers are now faced with a drop in large international markets - the market has gone for organic and is rapidly disappearing for traditional canola, as more countries adopt labelling and more consumers reject GE, such as in Japan. Segregation is insufficient to protect non-GMO crops since insects will cross-pollinate and accidents during cleaning and handling of seed will cause mixing. Canada should be adopting the precautionary principle - not promoting new GE crops. We need to clean up the mess created by GE canola.

Antonio Wunsch, Brazil
Antonio Wunsch is a 45-year-old professional farmer from Tres de Maio in the Rio Grande de Sul region of Brazil. The region declared itself a genetic-engineering-free zone in 1999.

Wunsch has been actively working to improve the social and economic conditions of the small farmers in his community. In 1983-1989 he was President of the Rural Union of Workers of Tres de Maio (Sindicato dos Trabalhadore Rurais de Tres de Maio).

Since 1995 he has worked with a soy farmers' cooperative, Cotrimaio, first as Secretary Director and from 1998 on as President.

Soy farmers in Rio Grande do Sul are trying to create new contacts with buyers in Europe, where consumers want confirmation that it's GE-free. But due to smuggling of GE soy there are lots of extra costs for farmers e.g. cleaning transport containers after they have been used to transport GE soy.

In Brazil the public is very aware of the GE problem. The state of Rio Grande do Sul prefers to stay GE-free. However, rumours of smuggling GE soy from Argentina have done great damage to the reputation of Brazilian non-GE soy. But the smuggling appears to be much less common than thought: from 600 tested cases, only three were found to contain GE.

Brazilian soy farmers growing non-GE soy think that the Biosafety Protocol must contain clauses for labelling and any costs incurred by farmers must be borne by GE promoters, not consumers or farmers.

Porfirio Encino, Mexico
Porfirio Encino is from the indigenous group Tzeltal from Chiapas state. He works for a local farming organisation, Asociacion Rural de Interes Colectivo Independiente (ARIC). He is an indigenous leader and he has been in charge of the development commission, agricultural commission and relationships coordination from the ARIC.

Encino also works for UNORCA (Union Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autonomas), where he is in charge of the indigenous commission and biodiversity.

This is a farming organisation in Mexico which works to improve social participation and conditions for farmers through development of their capacities in harmony with their environment and through the sustainable use of natural resources. At the moment, 280 organisations from over 30 states belong to UNORCA, which represents around 200,000 families.

There is no information and no scientific studies on health and cultural effects in Mexico.

Small farmers, particularly indigenous farmers, are afraid their seed diversity is under threat. Confusion surrounding regulation and the lack of enforcement makes the situation worse. He wants strong regulation on imports and use. Only medium-scale farmers think GE could potentially bring any benefits.