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Colorado farmer responds to 'Don't pity poor Percy'

Editor's note: Colorado farmer David Dechant sent over a point-by-point rebuttal to Kevin Hursh's 'Don't pity poor Percy,' which CropChoice ran last week. Hursh's original paragraphs are preceded with an "H" and Dechant's with a "D." -- RS

(Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2004 -- CropChoice) --

H: Poor, downtrodden Percy. Some of those evil Roundup Ready canola seeds blew onto his property from passing trucks and now the huge multi-national monster known as Monsanto is trying to crush him like a bug.

What a hero for farmers everywhere. What an international icon. What a David taking on Goliath.

What a crock.

Monsanto has no interest in going after farmers who by accident have Roundup Ready canola on their land. In fact, the accidental spread of the crop is a worry and embarrassment for the company.

D: But not so much so that Monsanto will take responsibility for contaminating organic and non-GMO crops.

H:Most of the news stories donít mention the fact that Schmeiser had over a thousand acres of canola, which by independent analysis, was shown to be well over 90 per cent Roundup Ready. He isnít quite the innocent bystander portrayed in many media reports.

D: A farmer could easily get over 90% RR canola. If there is a nearby RR canola field, it could easily cross pollinate some of a farmerís non-GMO canola. Then if the farmer sprays his volunteer canola, sprouting in the succeeding year, with Roundup, the few percent that got cross pollinated would survive. And if the farmer lets that go to seed, there would be enough seed in a succeeding year to produce a solid stand.

If a neighboring rancher owned a patented bull, and it jumped the fence and bred his neighborís cow, should he be willing to turn the resulting calf over to the owner of the bull, along with a hefty fine, though the calf was conceived through no fault of his own? Why shouldnít a farmer be able to keep seed that resulted from pollen blowing over the fence?

H:Percy has become an international star by dragging the issue through the court system. That was his choice. How sorry should we feel about his mounting court costs? No one seems to be saying how many dollars misguided environmental bleeding hearts have contributed to his campaign. His stardom may actually be a net benefit, with all the limelight an added bonus.

D:Monsanto has an entire legal department dedicated to enforcing its patents, not to mention the outside help it hires. Whatever Percy and his supporters have spent is just a drop in the bucket in comparison.

H:Patenting plant genes is an interesting issue and one that is worthy of debate, but unfortunately the Schmeiser case has generated all sorts of misconceptions about agriculture.

D: Debate: thatís the problem, there has been no recent debate over the issue and when both the US and Canadian Congresses did debate Intellectual Property Rights on seeds years ago, they created the PVPA and Plant Breeders Rights, respectively, because they did not feel the utility patent system was appropriate for seeds. If Monsanto wants stronger IPR protection on seeds, assuming the Canadian Supreme Court rules against patents, it will have to go to the Canadian Congress, where some much needed debate will occur.

And the misconception is that patented seed benefits farmers. What if a patented seed results in a significant yield increase? A farmer has to sign the biotech / seed companyís lopsided contract of adhesion and plant it in order to try to stay competitive, but when everyone is growing it, the overall increased production causes prices to fall by a greater amount and puts increased financial pressure on him. (See CropChoice, "Monsanto v. Homan McFarling." http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1175 )

Or hereís another way of looking at it: when something becomes easier to grow, fewer farmers are needed to grow it. And market forces will make sure that is exactly what happens.

H:Herbicide tolerant crops and genetically modified crops are not synonymous. Herbicide tolerance has often been achieved through conventional plant breeding methods. CLEARFIELD canola is a prime example. CLEARFIELD lentils are now being developed and again this is through conventional plant breeding. They will not be considered GM (genetically modified).

D: All canola is tolerant to at least some herbicides! It just depends on what herbicide one uses. However, only GMO canola tolerates non-selective herbicides, those being herbicides that kill all plants. As for the Clearfield family of herbicides, they are selective, which many plants tolerate naturally, such as soybeans or alfalfa, but not ordinary canola. But as with canola, plant breeders have bred Clearfield tolerance into other crops, such as corn, sunflowers, and wheat. In any case, so far only transgenic crops are able to resist non-selective herbicides.

H:Some people seem to believe that if Schmeiser wins the Supreme Court challenge, GM crop development will stop. Thatís not the case.

Certainly, Canada will no longer look like a hospitable nation in which to invest research dollars, but there are other ways for companies to get paid for GM crops. The top one on the list is hybrids and the canola industry is already moving in that direction. With hybrids, the crop a farmer producers is not suitable as seed. Thus, to use a hybrid system, a farmer has to buy new seed each year.

D:Hybrid canola can cross with non-hybrid canola easily and farmers can still be prosecuted when the patented genes contained within end up on their land.

Back to the bull jumping the fence, a hybrid bull is still every bit as fertile.

As for hybrids, canola farmers would do well to increase public research into improving open pollinated canola varieties. Otherwise, they may someday find themselves in the same position as corn farmers, who have no open pollinated varieties available that would compete with hybrids in yield. Presently, farmers have to shell out over $40 per acre for hybrid corn seed, a real shame considering that a bushel of corn, which could plant three acres, only brings $2.50. And thatís the price of 50 years of neglect into improving open pollinated corn varieties, which public researchers stopped doing when hybrids took over.

H:If patenting of genes is struck down by the Supreme Court, companies may still be able to patent the processes by which they developed GM crops. And the country still has protection for new crop varieties under Plant Breedersí Rights legislation.

D:Monsanto has had to shell out big bucks because courts found it guilty of infringing on other companiesí process patents for making GMOs, $65 million to Rhone Poulenc in one such case. The biotech companies donít need patents to protect themselves against farmers; they need patents to protect themselves from each other!

Moreover, the protection that the PVPA alone grants will ensure seed companiesí that the majority of the ground planted in any one year will be planted with new, purchased seed, as long as the price of seed is reasonable. For example, in 1992, before utility patents came along, USDA figures show that nearly three-quarters of all soybean and cotton acres in the US were already sown with new seed. And, with a little friendly encouragement instead of an iron hand, that portion would surely increase, as long as the seed is priced reasonably. However, having the right to save seed is the only thing that guarantees reasonable seed prices.

H:Itís also interesting to note that some companies make their new herbicide resistance traits widely available, because they make their money off the sale of that specific herbicide. Herbicides can still be patented, even if plant genes canít be.

D:Even herbicide mixtures for controlling volunteer RR plants in other RR crops have been patented. For example, if a farmer wants to control the volunteer RR wheat in his RR canola crop, Monsanto has the patented solution for him! Yes, it has a patent on mixing grass herbicides with Roundup to profit from the problem it created in the first place! (See CropChoice, "Monsanto Sees Opportunity in RR Volunteers." http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1299 )

By the way, Monsanto is not making its RR traits widely available because it is making money off Roundup sales. Nearly thirty years after Monsanto got its first US glyphosate patent; the price of glyphosate (Roundup) in the US is finally approaching the competitive world price. So, Monsanto has taken to raising the tech fee on RR seeds every time US glyphosate prices fall, so as to deprive farmers of any savings that may result.

H:Letís explode another fallacy. Not matter the outcome of the Schmeiser case, there will continue to be many cropping options where the farmer has a contractual obligation to use purchased pedigreed seed. In many of these contracts, all of the crop has to be returned, and the farmer is not allowed to save seed.

D:But unlike seed covered by a utility patent, a seed company may have a much harder time prosecuting a farmer just because the seeds or genes might be on his land. And, at least in the US, it is questionable whether contracts can be used to override the clause in the PVPA which preserves the right of farmers to save seed.

H:These contracts are good for farmers or they wouldnít sign them. Personally, Iíve already signed two such contracts for the upcoming growing season. One is for a GM crop and one is conventional. Both have to be Identity Preserved from other production.

This type of contract exists beyond canola. Even for the market development programs of the Canadian Wheat Board or special contracts such as spring wheat grown for Warburtonís, the farmer is required to purchase pedigreed seed.

D:Iíve grown a few contract crops myself. However, there has to be a competitive, underlying market for the basic commodity itself, because whatever incentives that are offered on the contract crop are based on the price of the basic commodity. Patents are so powerful that they can be used to control a crop all the way from the seed to the supermarket, giving the biotech / seed companies the leverage to ensure that farmers get paid as little as possible while consumers get charged as much as possible.

And if one thinks that contract farming is the way to go, he or she ought to talk to contract chicken producers in the US, they can tell how rosy it is. And patents will chickenize grain production and take out what little competitiveness that remains in the grain markets quicker than anyone thinks. In fact, Monsanto and Cargill have formed a company, Renessen.com, to make sure they can control crops from seed to retailer, and they are depending on using the broad powers that patents grant in order to do so.

H:Cheer for the underdog if you want, but Percy Schmeiser isnít doing anything to improve the bottom line on my farm.

D:Neither is Monsanto. Nor is it doing anything to increase farmersí intelligence, because once weed control becomes a no brainer, a farmer will need no brains in order to control weeds. Nor will he be as likely to question whatís going on in the big picture.

Finally, while Kevin Hursh may be an agricultural communicator and farmer from Saskatchewan, he also has a media and consulting business, and I get the impression from looking at his website, http://www.hursh.ca/services.asp , that Monsanto might be one of his clients.

David Dechant grows corn, wheat and alfalfa in Colorado.

Also on CropChoice:

Kinder, gentler CGC not what the doctor ordered... http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=2393