A GM Question or Two
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn
November 10, 2003
Living overseas for two-thirds of my time, I'm furiously proud of being a Kiwi. Anyone who travels will tell you: being a New Zealander confers a certain status, a goodwill that comes attached to the name of our country.
But last week, with the lifting of the moratorium on GM, despite extensive protest and overflowing evidence that the jury is still out on the safety and sustainability of GM, I became embarrassed. It's as if all the clean, green marketing, the image New Zealand has worked so hard to cultivate around the world, is no more than a thin veil of lies.
And now, less than a week later, the first application for a genetically modified crop has already been heard. The spokesman on GM for Federated Farmers, which backed the application by the state-owned Crop and Food Research, said the Roundup-ready onion crop had the potential to benefit producers, consumers and the environment.
But here's a salient tale for New Zealand farmers and GM supporters to consider.
In Mississippi, soybean farmer Homan McFarling is being sued by Monsanto. As reported in the New York Times, the farmer bought genetically modified soybean seeds not because he was a big fan of GM but because effective herbicides needed to manage conventional seeds are, oddly, no longer commonly available.
But here's his big crime: like farmers from the dawn of time, McFarling saved his seeds from one season to replant the next. Caught red-handed by Monsanto, admittedly with the help of everything from helicopters to sophisticated surveillance techniques, the company offered to cut him a deal for infringing their patent. Pay US$135,000 ($220,000) and it would forget how he damaged its intellectual property.
Instead, McFarling decided to fight for the right to sustainably farm his property. He lost and Monsanto was awarded US$750,000 ($1.2 million). Although he is appealing, legal experts say he's likely to lose again, given that Monsanto has a Supreme Court-protected right to patent life forms, not to mention 75 employees in its legal department and an annual legal budget of US$10 million ($16 million).
Of course, some might say McFarling is his own worse enemy. After all, he did sign a contract when he bought the seed. But then, according to a US judicial opinion, the terms printed on the reverse are not subject to negotiation and are so specialized that even an attorney may not understand the terms of its patent liability.
So don't sign the contract, you say. But guess what? Even if farmers don't, they are still liable.
Think that's bad? Then get this: if you are a GM-free farm in North America and your neighbour's GM crop contaminates yours (even from germination by pollen carried by insects, birds or the wind), you can still be sued for patent infringement.
In one case (just one of many), Monsanto sued and bankrupted Percy Schmeiser, an organic farmer in Canada, for infringing the monopoly right of their patent.
But wait, there's more. In North America, if your crop is contaminated by patented GM seed, even without your knowledge, you must forfeit the right to your own harvest. And, of course, because your land is now GM-contaminated, it is unsuitable for non-GM crops and your organic livelihood is ruined.
So what about the New Zealand situation? At the hearing last week the head scientist behind our GM future, Dr Colin Eady, said the details of who would own the intellectual property rights to seed production or the question of ownership of contaminated crops had not been worked out.
Really? Here's the foundation of GM farming and details haven't been worked out yet?
So since I couldn't make it to the hearing (only a handful of the 1900 submitters were invited to speak), here's my question. Are you really that naive Dr Eady or are you simply being disingenuous?
Here's another question. Are you, the public, feeling nervous about our Government proceeding not only with lifting the moratorium, against overwhelming public opinion, but also protecting the identity of a secret corporate partner?
And now that we know that partner is Seminis, the world's largest seed company, are you surprised that its biggest marketing success was to quietly lock up huge chunks of the vegetable seed supply before they went GM (in 2000 it provided the seeds for 40 per cent of all vegetables sold in the US)?
And does the knowledge that Seminis has so far eliminated more than 2000 seed varieties (seed diversity that will be lost forever) in favour of its own GM hybrids leave you slack-jawed?
And do you get the feeling that the moratorium itself was no more than lip service, that the agreement to make New Zealand a GM playground was a backroom deal, cooked up some time ago?
Are you feeling a creep up your spine about the ownership of essential elements in the food chain, so that soon every step of your life will have a corporate price tag?
And even putting aside your concerns about GM frankenfood and the motivations of the corporations that are creating it, aren't you amazed that Dr Eady says he does not know who will own the crops that grow from GM seeds? If not, you should be.
Perhaps the penultimate word should go to Percy Schmeiser: "If I would go to St Louis [the home of Monsanto] and contaminate their plots - destroy what they have worked on for 40 years - I think I would be put in jail and the key thrown away."
Well, exactly. And that's just the point. When public opinion is ignored and all avenues for lawful protest have been exhausted, what other options are there?
Some would say direct action is all that is left. Henry David Thoreau would say "dissent without resistance is consent". President George W. Bush would say, "Bring it on".
Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website to read more of her work: http://www.sumnerburstyn.com/.