E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Armed with new report, North American farmers will urge Aussie counterparts to avoid biotech path

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(June 28, 2002 -- CropChoice commentary) -- The Wileys and Percy Schmeiser tomorrow will begin their journey south some 9,000 miles to talk with farmers about what they regard as the pitfalls of growing genetically engineered crops -- economic hardship, deleterious agronomic and environmental effects, and the evisceration of farmers' rights.

"Our message will be, 'don't go down this path,'" says Gail Wiley.

The North American farmers might consider their 14-day trip through Australia's granary timely given recent developments in both the Canadian and Australian agricultural scene, of which more in a moment.

Gail and Tom Wiley hope that relaying the story of their costly cross with transgenic crops will sour the South Australian farmers on this technology in which a gene(s) from one species is inserted into the genetic structure of another.

The North Dakota couple's saga began two years ago. A buyer in Japan contracted with them to grow soybeans for processing into tofu. Everything started out fine. They purchased Identity Preserved seed (often means no genetically engineered traits) from a South Dakota dealer.

Unfortunately for them, the required DNA test on samples of the bean harvest doomed the deal. The results: 1.37 percent contamination. The Wileys had little choice but to sell the crop into regular commercial markets that don't distinguish between soybean grades or types. This cost them about $10,000.

The source of the problem could have been contaminated seed, cross-pollination or both, says Gail Wiley, noting that they should have performed genetic testing before planting.

With that serving as an introduction, they'll segue into other issues: farmers' loss of the right to grow seed for subsequent use and the development of herbicide-resistant weeds.

But they also are keen to use the burgeoning grassroots effort against Monsanto's plans for genetically engineered wheat in North America to make common cause with a similar campaign opposing the company's engineered canola in Australia.

Same company, same technology, different crops.

In North America, Monsanto wants to commercialize Roundup Ready wheat, designed to resist the herbicide Roundup (active ingredient: glyphosate), sometime between 2003 and 2005. It has promised to hold off until it has government approval in all major export destinations, except for the European Union because of its moratorium on biotech crops.

Farmers in the U.S. northern plains states and in western Canada -- major wheat growing regions -- are balking at the prospect of this latest batch of biotech. Growers, processors and marketers cite threats by major export markets that they'll reject any genetically modified wheat, as well as reports of genetic contamination of corn and canola.

Canadian farmers have been growing Roundup Ready canola since 1996, so much so that it's now going crazy, literally. The genetically modified varieties have contaminated, via cross-pollination and mixing of seed during storage and transportation, conventional and organic varieties. Farmers wanting to rid their fields of the now-invasive Roundup-resistant canola plants have had to resort to spraying other, more potent chemicals. *

Canada's agriculture ministry, Agriculture Canada, confirmed this in a study it released yesterday.

"More than half of the seed samples tested showed some level of genetically modified presence. The study's authors conclude that means almost every canola field planted with conventional seed will contain some genetically modified plants," according to a Canadian Broadcasting Company story on the report. *

It is in this context that authorities in Australia are considering whether to allow the commercialization of Roundup Ready canola. The response from farmers and farm organizations there has been varied and strong, such that a rift may have developed between some groups.

Keith Perriett, president of the Grains Council of Australia, was quoted in the June 24 edition of ABC Rural News Online as saying: "Basically, Grains Council is supportive of the advances of the technology. We see significant benefits for our producers with GM technology. We need to make sure that our growers are competitive with our competitors overseas, who have access to this technology. And if there are significant cost savings in the production of these crops, then our producers need to have access to that technology."

Were any farmers to grow Roundup Ready canola -- assuming the government approves it -- they might want to consider the following words from the leader of an organization representing farmers who produce canola and other crops organically, a method that disallows any genetically modified organisms.

Scott Kinnear from the Biological Farmers of Australia told The Advertiser (June 26): "We won't stand in the way of proper controlled [growing of genetically modified varieties] if they don't contaminate our crops. But we have legal advice that contamination is actionable under negligence, trespass and nuisance. We are prepared for legal action at the first sign of contamination. And we have a team of lawyers prepared to run cases on a pro-bono basis."

Enter Percy Schmeiser.

He hopes that sharing his experiences with biotechnology will persuade Australian farmers to avoid transgenic canola.

Last year, Canadian federal court judge Andrew McKay ruled that Schmeiser, a Saskatchewan farmer, had infringed the patent on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola because it was on his farm, which he "knew or ought to have known." The implication – and one of the original allegations that Monsanto withdrew before trial – was that Schmeiser had obtained the seed illegally.

Schmeiser appealed the ruling and a decision is forthcoming.

"Once [genetically engineered] seed is out, there's no calling it back," says Schmeiser. "When you lose pure seed, indigenous seed to genetic contamination, that's the whole issue."

This is the first growing season since 1947 that Schmeiser's fields won't host canola. He can't grow them because the judge ruled that the probability of his seed containing at least some of the traits from Monsanto's patented variety is high, he says. Were plants grown from his saved seed or purchased conventional seed to cross with Roundup Ready canola, that would constitute a violation of the biotech company's intellectual property rights.

"If I wanted to grow canola, I would either have to go to Monsanto and grow their genetically modified variety and pay the license fee or buy conventional seed, plant it, deal with the contamination and be subject to another lawsuit," he says. "Remember, the judge ruled that I 'ought to or should know' about the presence of GMOs."

The whole issue of Roundup Ready canola, soybeans, and wheat is not about feeding a hungry world or reducing herbicide use, he says. It's about selling more chemicals, especially Roundup.

"At the end of the day, it comes down to Monsanto wanting total control over the seed supply," says Schmeiser, emphasizing that the Australian farmers with whom he'll talk need to know and understand that.