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Seed ownership or sound science?

(Monday, June 23, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Two views about agricultural biotechnology.

1. Who owns the seeds?

June 20, 2003
San Francisco Chronicle
Percy Schmeiser

Next week, the U.S. government is convening a ministerial-level conference on agricultural science and technology in Sacramento. I will also be coming to Sacramento, but not to participate in the conference. Rather, I will be there to speak with ministers, elected officials, activists and community members about my opposition to the biotechnology agenda of the U.S. government and the biotech industry being advanced in Sacramento.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the conference will "focus on the critical role science and technology can play in raising agricultural productivity in developing countries," and to "broaden participants' knowledge and understanding of relevant science and technology, including biotechnology."

As a third-generation farmer in Canada who has been growing canola for more than 40 years, I consider myself knowledgeable about agricultural productivity.

And as a farmer who is being sued by the Monsanto Corporation for nearly $200, 000 for "stealing" its bioengineered seeds, I know significantly more than I ever intended about biotechnology.

As my family has done for generations, I grow crops by using the seeds from one year's harvest in the next planting season. This practice is known as "seed saving." When we share the seeds with other farmers, it's "seed sharing, " and when we trade seeds, it's "seed trading." Where we see a traditional, communal, sustainable technique practiced by farmers for millennia, multinational biotech corporations see big bucks.

Farmers who use Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola seed, which is bioengineered to contain a gene that protects the crop from the herbicide Roundup (also manufactured by Monsanto), must sign a contract with Monsanto promising that they will buy new seed from Monsanto every year. They cannot save, share or trade their seeds. The seeds, in other words, belong to Monsanto, not to the farmer.

I have learned the hard way that one of the main problems with GE (genetically engineered) crops is that it is impossible to keep their seeds and pollen from spreading to fields with non-GE crops. The seeds get blown by wind or passing trucks, or they get mixed with non-GE crops by accident or any number of other means of cross-contamination. In other words, there is no guarantee of containment of GE crops; ultimately they will spread throughout a given area. This is what happened to me. And, sooner or later, it will happen everywhere else.

In 1998, private investigators from Monsanto trespassed on my land to collect samples from my fields. They found Roundup Ready canola. I never put those plants on my land, but they claim to have found them there anyway. Now they are suing me for stealing their seed. Mine is just one of more than 550 lawsuits in North America Monsanto has filed against farmers under similar charges.

In addition to growing canola, I have been a canola seed developer for 50 years and have developed my own special varieties. This work was all destroyed through contamination by Monsanto seeds. Now Monsanto has my developed seed.

Basically, the right to use our own seed has been taken away. The question is, where do Monsanto's rights end and mine begin?

Monsanto wanted to settle out of court, but I refused and instead launched a countersuit. Last month, the Supreme Court of Canada announced it would hear my appeal. I'm continuing this fight for myself, but also for the majority of farmers, particularly those in developing countries who cannot afford Monsanto's seeds and the chemical fertilizers and pesticides needed to grow them. If GE seeds get into their fields, what are they going to do? What rights do they have?

Dependence on the biotech industry is the opposite of food security and safety. It encourages monopolies and must be opposed in Sacramento and everywhere else it is proposed.

Percy Schmeiser is a canola farmer from Saskatchewan, Canada.

2. Listen to sound science on agricultural technology

June 20, 2003
San Francisco Chronicle
C. S. Prakash, Martina Newell-McGloughlin, San Francisco Chronicle

Beginning Monday, government ministers from more than 100 countries will join U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in Sacramento for the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology. These international leaders are meeting to discuss the critical role science and technology can play in improving agricultural productivity in developing countries. Ultimately, the goal is to alleviate world hunger and poverty in an environmentally sustainable way.

However, hundreds of misguided people also will likely travel to Sacramento to protest a variety of issues, including the use of biotechnology in agriculture. The theme of their gathering will be to promulgate fear based on unsubstantiated and misleading information. On behalf of the poor and starving in the developing world, we urge the conference attendees to focus on the science and on each other. All too often, the voices of protest drown out sound science and experience.

Anti-biotechnology groups have a history of lobbing emotionally charged allegations, but the reality is that none of these groups has actually provided any credible scientific evidence that would call into question the safety of foods derived from biotech crops on the market or the demonstrated benefits to the environment. Instead, anti-biotechnology groups use their rhetoric and allegations to advance their agenda, not to provide factual, informed perspectives. Unfortunately, sometimes they prevail to the detriment of the environment and the poorest and hungriest in the world, denying the benefits of less pesticides, higher yields and greater sustainability.

The reality is that crops developed through plant biotechnology are among the most well-tested, well-characterized and well-regulated food and fiber products ever developed. This is the overwhelming consensus of the international scientific community, including the British Royal Society, the U. S. National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the European Commission, the French Academy of Medicine and the American Medical Association. Scientific and regulatory authorities all over the world have endorsed the extensive and growing base of published scientific information that upholds the safety and benefits of biotech crops and foods. Spreading false and misleading information in an effort to polarize opinion is irresponsible and does not serve the public good.

The public has a right to know that biotech crops and foods: have been thoroughly assessed for food, feed and environmental safety and found to be wholesome, nutritious and as safe as conventional crops and foods by scientific and regulatory authorities throughout the world (examples include insect-tolerant corn and cotton and herbicide-tolerant soybean); and have economic and environmental benefits that are significant and have met the expectations of small and large farmers in both industrialized and developing countries.

A study conducted by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington found that biotechnology-derived soybeans, corn, cotton, papaya, squash and canola increased the U.S. food production by 4 billion pounds, saved $1.2 billion in production costs and decreased the usage of pesticide by a whopping 46 million pounds in the year 2001 alone. Biotech crops are now grown on 58 million hectares in 16 countries, and more than three-quarters of the 5.5 million growers who benefited from these crops were resource-poor farmers in the developing world. For instance, South African farmers are already growing transgenic pest-resistant maize, and this year began planting transgenic soy. South African, Mexican and Chinese farmers have been growing transgenic insect-resistant cotton for several years, and the Indian government approved it for commercial cultivation in spring 2002.

Governments should thus resist the temptation to be distracted, and instead focus on the real work that's needed in order to take advantage of these benefits.

On hand to advise the ministerial delegates in Sacramento will be many scientific experts with direct experience in applying science and technology to food agriculture. And 40 of the countries represented are already so convinced of the safety and benefits of biotechnology that they approved field testing, import or commercial production of crops. This is an important opportunity for the governments of the world to exchange data and experiences with each other, and to resolve jointly to let sound science prevail. Biotech crops complement conventional agricultural production systems and together can help to provide cost-effective and sustainable productivity gains necessary to help meet the growing food, feed and fiber demands of the 21st century.

C.S. Prakash is a professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University and director of its Center for Plant Biotechnology Research.

Martina Newell-McGloughlin is director of the University of California Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program at UC Davis.