30 April 2001

Seedy Justice

In March this year, a judge in Canada ordered a farmer to pay Monsanto, the biotech giant, thousands of dollars.

Reason: Monsanto’s genetically engineered rapeseed (canola) plants were found growing on his farm after pollen from these plants had blown onto his fields from neighbouring farms. Obviously, the judge has not heard of StarLink.

Percy Schmeiser, aged 70, a third-generation Saskatchewan farmer, was sued by Monsanto for violating its monopoly patent on genetically modified (GM) canola seed.

According to the Washington Post report, ‘this closely-watched case was a major victory for companies that produce genetically modified crops and have been aggressively enforcing agreements that require farmers to pay yearly fees for using their technology’.

This decision however, has dealt a cruel blow to farmers who now fear that they will be held liable, if pollen from nearby farms blow onto their fields, contaminating their crops with patented genes without their knowledge or consent.

The ruling against Schmeiser establishes a dangerous precedent because farmers can be forced to pay royalties on GM seeds found on their land, even if they did not buy the seeds or benefit from them.

In fact, Monsanto has filed numerous lawsuits against farmers in the US and Canada - most have been settled out of court, but the Canadian case is the first to go to trial.

‘I’ve been using my own seed for years, and now, farmers like me are being told we can’t do that anymore if our neighbours are growing genetically modified crops that blow in’ said Schmeiser. ‘Basically, the right to use our own seed has been taken away,’ he added.

According to Schmeiser, the trouble started in 1997 after spraying Monsanto’s Roundup on the weeds and stray rapeseed plants growing around his fields. He was surprised to see the stray canola plants did not die. It took him some time before he realized that this was the first sign that his fields had been contaminated by GM rapeseed.

In 1998, Monsanto inspectors entered his land illegally and took rapeseed. ‘They accused me of planting GM rapeseed without a licence and prosecuted me’ he said.

‘GM plants had seeded themselves on my land and they pollinated my conventional rapeseed,’ he added.

‘I have no interest or desire in growing [Monsanto’s] genetically modified canola. Over the years I had developed my own superior yielding canola seed, which is now ruined because of infiltration by Monsanto’s genetically modified canola,’ he said, in his sworn affidavit.

Contamination is now a major issue. Bioengineered seed has been detected in cotton, soy and others, yet farmers have no protection from this genetic seed pollution. For organic farmers, it is the worst nightmare.

Recently, Holland rejected a consignment of Canadian honey because of GM contamination. And StarLink maize (corn) refuses to go away, but more of this later.

The Canadian federal court ruling has stunned everyone, apart from the biotech industry.

Philip Regal, Professor of Ecology at the University of Minnesota, comments that ‘if the case sets a precedent, any farmer whose crop is contaminated via tainted seed, pollen drift, or other unavoidable environmental pollution will be forced to pay biotech companies for unwanted pollution’.

‘It’s outrageous that farmers are forced to pay for genetic pollution from unwanted crops,’ said Charles Margulis of US Greenpeace. ‘The same chemical companies that polluted our food with pesticides are now polluting our food with their new genetic technology,’ he added.

But how does one contain pollen and seed flows once they are released in the environment? Only by an Act of God.

The recent StarLink fiasco reveals the worst fears of seed contamination and threat to human health.

In 2000, Aventis Corporation planted its genetically engineered StarLink maize (corn) in the US. Cross-pollination with other maize varieties resulted in seed being contaminated with StarLink genes involving hundreds of thousands of acres. This release of StarLink maize has now entered the human food chain.

Aventis’ StarLink corn is only approved for animal feed, as it has not been determined safe for human consumption. However, StarLink has found its way into hundreds of human food products, most notably, the Taco Bell taco shells and recently, Kellogg’s Morningstar vegetarian corn dogs.

This was a public relations disaster, not only for Aventis but the biotech industry itself. Aventis promised the public that it would recall StarLink and help weed out food products that may illegally contain the GM maize.

However, the US Department of Agriculture will spend $20 million in taxpayers’ money to bail out Aventis by purchasing maize seed that was contaminated with Aventis StarLink genes. To add insult to injury, the government bailout is using money reserved for disaster relief to farmers.

This was not all. In November last, a Reuters report revealed that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had ‘launched a month-long review of StarLink scientific data to decide whether to grant temporary approval to it until all the contaminated corn is used up.’ The EPA is in charge of regulating GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Aventis had been hard at work behind the scenes to get the EPA to speed up its approval process for the human consumption of StarLink corn.

Since then, the US FDA and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have investigated dozens of allergic reactions that occurred after people ate corn products.

The EPA’s obliging gesture has turned out to be a double bonus for Aventis. Not only have they been left off the hook for adulterating the food supply with unapproved ingredients - a violation of the law - they have been given a helping hand by the EPA.

Should StarLink be approved for human consumption, the EPA would have rescued Aventis from its legal dilemma. Aventis could be released from much of the financial and legal responsibility for the corn disaster, which has cost some farmers dearly.

This is sweet music to the biotech industry, especially those whose GMOs are awaiting approvals. There are more than 50 companies developing genetically engineered seeds - and they cannot wait to launch their products.

To date, two class action lawsuits on behalf of the farmers have also been filed against Aventis for negligence and depressing the corn market.

Meanwhile, StarLink has found its way to distant shores - no thanks to the US government, which approved StarLink for export. To their dismay, Japan and South Korea, two of the largest importers of US maize, have discovered StarLink in their human food imports. StarLink has been mixed with maize used for brewing beer and making processed foods in Japan. Korea has banned US corn altogether.

StarLink could just pop up anywhere given the fact that the US sends more than two million tonnes of transgenic crops as foreign aid to the Third World while the World Food Programme distributes another 1.5 million tonnes of transgenic crops, courtesy of the US government.

So what else is new? Farmer Schmeiser was turned into a criminal when Monsanto’s GM rapeseed contaminated his fields. Aventis is laughing its way to the bank since StarLink maize contaminated the human food chain. They say justice is blind.