The seed struggle
Small farmers fight multinational business for control of the planet's food supply
Marian Scott, Canwest News Service
The Vancouver Sun, May 24 2008
SAINT ANDRE D'ARGENTEUIL, Que. - Heather Meek leafs through the seed catalogue she wrote on the family computer on winter nights after the kids went to bed.
There are Kahnawake Mohawk beans and Painted Mountain corn, Tante Alice cucumber and 40 varieties of heritage tomatoes.
Selling seeds is more than just an extra source of income on this organic farm an hour northwest of Montreal.
For Meek and partner Frederic Sauriol, propagating local varieties is part of a David and Goliath struggle by small farmers against big seed companies.
At stake, they believe, is no less than control of the world's food supply.
Since the dawn of civilization, farmers have saved seeds from the harvest and replanted them the following year.
But makers of genetically modified (GM) seeds -- introduced in 1996 and now grown by some 70,000 Canadian farmers, according to Monsanto -- have been putting a stop to that practice.
The 12 million farmers worldwide who will plant GM seeds this year sign contracts agreeing not to save or replant seeds. That means they must buy new seeds every year.
Critics charge such contracts confer almost unlimited power over farmers' lives to multinational companies whose priority is profit. From India, where thousands of debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide, to Latin America, where monoculture crops have destroyed forest and evicted small growers, they say GM seeds are sowing a humanitarian and ecological disaster.
But Trish Jordan, a Canadian spokesman for Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, explains that requiring farmers to sign "technology-use agreements" allows companies to recoup the cost of developing new products.
"Farmers choose these products because of benefits they provide," Jordan says. "That's why we're successful as a company."
The debate over GM seeds has come into sharp focus as the world faces a food-price crisis that threatens to push millions into starvation.
In recent months, riots have erupted from Haiti to Bangladesh in the wake of soaring costs for staples like bread, rice and corn.
The crisis has prompted calls to step up investment in biotechnology to improve crop yields in developing countries.
"At a global level, it's a problem that's not going to be solved by organics or focusing on local food," says Douglas Southgate, a professor of agricultural economics at Ohio State University.
"Dealing with the problem on a global scale involves using biotechnology."
But Ottawa author Brewster Kneen, a fierce opponent of GM seeds, counters that biotechnology, as practised by companies like Monsanto, is not the answer. "The point was never feeding the world or saving the environment," says Kneen, author of several books about agriculture and biotechnology, including Farmageddon: Food and the Future of Biotechnology (www.ramshorn.ca/Books.html).
"It's about wealth, not about health."
Seeds changed history
Seeds look so harmless -- like a handful of dried beans you'd toss in the soup pot.
But the small kernels that produce the food we eat have changed the course of history.
By domesticating maize thousands of years ago, the Mayans became the people of corn.
In the mid-19th century, Red Fife wheat, developed by Peterborough farmer David Fife, sowed Canada's future as breadbasket of the world.
Author Devlin Kuyek traces the history of seeds in Canada in Good Crop/Bad Crop: Seed Politics and the Future of Food in Canada (Between the Lines, 2007).
Developing new seed varieties was long a congenial affair where federal government scientists shared information and distributed samples to farmers for testing, says Kuyek, a researcher for GRAIN, an international non-profit organization that promotes agricultural biodiversity.
But in the 1980s, he says, the federal government began privatizing agricultural research.
Corporate secrecy soon shrouded development of new seeds.
Genetically modified seeds -- also known as genetically engineered -- are altered to make them resistant to pests, diseases or herbicides.
Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola soybean seeds produce plants that survive when a field is sprayed with the company's Roundup herbicide, also known as glyphosate.
Other seeds, such as corn and cotton, are inserted with a bacterial gene that produces an insecticide.
Worldwide, GM crops have grown 67-fold in 12 years, now covering 690.9 million hectares in 23 countries, according to the industry's Council for Biotechnology Information.
That's about 70 per cent of the total land area of the United States or almost 30 times the total land area of the United Kingdom.
Canada is the fourth-largest grower of GM crops, which cover 7 million hectares.
About half of the corn and soybeans grown in Quebec and Ontario are GM crops.
In 2005, Greenpeace revealed that Monsanto had applied for an international patent on genetically engineered pigs. The company has since sold its swine breeding division.
The same year, leaked documents revealed Canada tried to thwart an international moratorium on so-called "Terminator" seeds. Jointly patented by Monsanto and the U.S. government, sterile seed technology modifies plants so the seeds the produce cannot germinate, making it impossible for farmers to replant them.
A global ban on the technology still stands.
Seed companies have not ventured into GM vegetables yet but that is likely to change in the next few years, predicts Monsanto's Jordan. The St. Louis company acquired Seminis, the world's largest vegetable seed company, in 2005.
If so, farmers Meek and Sauriol will not be lining up to buy them.
"We're tampering with life when we play with genes," says Sauriol, as he transplanted leek seedlings from his greenhouse.
Sauriol and Meek started their first seedlings 13 years ago in their four-room apartment on de Bullion St. Now, the Ferme de Bullion delivers fresh produce to 200 Montreal families every week.
The tiny leeks, sown in February, poked up through the soil like small blades of grass.
They won't be ready for harvest until November.
Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser burst into the headlines in 1998, when Monsanto sued him for patent infringement after company investigators detected Roundup Ready canola in his fields.
Schmeiser said the seeds he planted were from the previous year's crop, which must have been contaminated accidentally. In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a lower court ruling that Schmeiser knew or should have known he was planting Roundup Ready seeds but overturned his $150,000 fine.
In March, Schmeiser won a small measure of vindication when Monsanto agreed to pay him $600 for the cost of removing Roundup Ready canola from his field in 2005.
Schmeiser's case made him an international folk hero for standing up to the agro giant.
But another farmer sued by Monsanto says the ordeal has been the most stressful in his life.
"I've never been in a court before. Now I'm sitting here in a situation where I almost feel like a criminal," says the Ontario farmer, who asked that The Gazette not print his name for fear it could jeopardize his case.
The farmer says he has never bought GM seeds, which cost $80 per acre compared to $20 per acre for conventional seed.
He added he unwittingly planted his field with GM seed from another farmer's field.
The company has created an atmosphere of fear by setting up a snitch line for farmers to report patent infringements and hiring investigators to prowl farmers' fields, he said.
"We can't fight a company that's that big," he adds.
"Unless farmers get together, they're never going to stop it.
"Basically, this company will get so big that you will just be a laborer for this company."
Loic Dewavrin, an organic grain grower in Les Cedres, plants non-GM seeds on the 600-hectare farm he shares with his two brothers.
His fear is that seed companies will stop producing conventional seeds, which have gradually been disappearing from seed catalogues.
"These companies are all-powerful," he says.
GM seeds have accentuated farmers' dependence on large corporations, says Laval University professor Guy Debailleul.
Growers are locked into paying costs set by companies for seeds, fertilizer and herbicides regardless of what price their crop will fetch.
"It's a feudal relationship," says Debailleul. "It's a takeover of the agricultural profession by these companies."
Southgate, the Ohio State University professor, doesn't have a problem with requiring farmers to sign contracts.
"My reaction is, 'So what?'"
Farmers have a choice as to whether to plant GM seeds, he says.
"No one is holding a gun to his head to buy it."
But GM crops have spread to much of Latin America despite opposition from many small farmers, according to GRAIN.
In Mexico, GM corn has contaminated traditional varieties.
In Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay, vast fields of GM soybeans raised for export have destroyed forests and pushed small producers off the land, according to the non-profit organization.
In India, more than 1,400 cotton farmers have committed suicide in the Vidharbha region since July 2006, according to Navdanya, an organization that operates a seed bank and promotes organic farming.
It attributed a large number of the deaths to debts farmers incurred to buy GM seeds.
This week, Alexander Muller, assistant director of Food and Agriculture Organization, warned that loss of agricultural biodiversity threatens the world's ability to survive climate change.
About three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops have been lost over the last century and hundreds of the 7,000 known animal breeds are in danger of extinction, according to the UN organization.
Just 12 crops and 14 animal species now provide most of the world's food.
In February, Norway opened a "doomsday" seed vault in the Arctic to preserve millions of food crops for future generations.
"The erosion of biodiversity for food and agriculture severely compromises global food security," said Muller, who heads FAO's natural resources management and environment department.
Muller's words resonate with farmers Meek and Sauriol, whose four daughters help with the painstaking work of cleaning seeds over the winter.
"Growing seed is a big job," says Meek.
"But if you don't grow your seed, you lose your power."