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Food Fight: Family Farms

Genetic tinkering sparks battles

The use of new biotechnology in agriculture and the processing of genetically modified crops into food have become a major health and environmental issue in Europe and the United States. Opinion is divided between those who believe the new technology will enhance our living and help feed the world’s growing population and those who fear it will prove to be, like some other scientific/technological endeavors, an advance that goes too far.

The history of farming is a story of technologies. Virgin soil was first broken by horse-drawn plows. Later the invention of tractors encouraged specialization in crops. The crop rotation that was a common practice on small family farms worldwide yielded to monoculture -- the cultivation of a single crop farm-wide. Heavy tractors compress the soil, making it difficult for plants to reach underground moisture, so more and more fertilizer is needed, which brings on more weeds. Farming became a never-ending battle against weeds, with accompanying high soil erosion.

As a result, about 25 years ago the practice of “no-till” farming was introduced. Seed is drilled in narrow rows without disturbing the soil, which lies protected under last year’s stubble. With this practice, erosion is halted but weeds become more of a problem with greater need to apply chemical herbicides. Weeds become resistant, and increasing amounts and stronger varieties of chemicals must be used. A new solution was needed again.

It came in the form of genetically modified crops, which can withstand the heaviest application of herbicides. Through techniques of molecular biology, crops are engineered to be resistant to herbicides, also to be drought and cold tolerant and pest resistant. Soybeans, corn and cotton are the most frequently grown GM crops. It is estimated now that 60 to 70 percent of processed foods in the United States, such as cereal, soup, flour and infant formula, contain genetically modified ingredients.

Critics of these techniques include the Vatican and Britain’s Prince Charles. Concern centers on the unknown effects on human health and on environmental consequences and unintended consequences to other life.

A key worry is that crops engineered for herbicide tolerance will crossbreed with weeds, resulting in the transfer of the herbicide-resistant genes from the crops into the weeds. These “superweeds” would then be herbicide tolerant as well. Also other introduced genes may cross over into non-modified crops planted next to genetically modified crops.

Not a magic bullet

Proponents say biotechnology in agriculture is the way to restore our farmlands, which have become “sick” places because of modern, intensive farming methods and heavy use of chemicals. At the same time, the results will be higher yields, reducing pressure on remaining uncultivated habitats, promoting wilderness preservation. Others say that genetically modified crops will only exacerbate the problem. The jury is still out.

“Bio-tech is not a magic bullet,” Gary Barton, spokes-person for the St. Louis, Mo.-based Monsanto Corporation, a pioneer in agriculture biotechnology, told NCR, “but it is a key tool, especially in Third World countries now, for feeding hungry people. Farms that were once very marginal can now increase their crop output. We only get a place in the market if we can help farmers, and those farmers are telling us they want our products. You have to remember, too, that farmers have been tinkering with genetics for thousands of years.”

Critics of biotechnology say the risks are too great, that a return to sustainable agriculture practices, crop rotation and use of organic fertilizers are the safe way to insure an adequate food supply for the world.

The real possibility of interbreeding is dramatized by the defense of farmers against lawsuits filed by Monsanto, the agribusiness company most involved in research and development of genetically modified crops. The company has filed patent infringement lawsuits against some farmers. Monsanto claims that the farmers obtained Monsanto-licensed genetically modified seeds from an unknown source and did not pay royalties to Monsanto. The farmers claim that their unmodified crops were cross-pollinated from someone else’s genetically modified crops planted a field or two away.

Percy Schmeiser has been farming in Saskatchewan, Canada, for 53 years. He has served in the Canadian Parliament and been a mayor. Instead of retiring, he has spent the last several years fighting Monsanto after having been sued for patent infringement. Schmeiser grew canola plants on his farm, over the years developing his own seed that was resistant to diseases common in western Canada.

Property rights

In 1998, he was sued by Monsanto, charging that Schmeiser had infringed on their patent by growing genetically altered canola -- Monsanto’s Roundup Ready -- without paying their technology fee. Schmeiser claimed he had never purchased seed from Monsanto. The suit went to trial in June 2000 in the Federal Court of Canada. The judge ruled that it didn’t matter how Monsanto’s genetically altered canola got onto Schmeiser’s land, that any conventional plant that cross-pollinates with the genetically modified plants becomes Monsanto’s property, that patent infringement had taken place and that Schmeiser must pay his 1998 profits from his canola crop to Monsanto.

Schmeiser has appealed the judgment, countersued Monsanto and spent the last several years speaking around the world in defense of farmers’ property rights.

“Monsanto admitted at my trial,” Schmeiser said, in an interview with Acres U.S.A., “that they knew [their seed] would cross-pollinate or contaminate. They apparently had no intentions of controlling it, and now it is out of control. That is the danger when you put a life-giving form into the environment; there is no calling it back.”

Monsanto spokesperson Gary Barton told NCR that the evidence in the Schmeiser ruling speaks for itself. “95 percent of his crop was Monsanto’s Roundup Ready,” Barton said. “The judge ruled that could only have arrived on his field by design.”

“In my case, I never had anything to do with Monsanto,” said Schmeiser, “outside of buying chemicals. I never signed a contract. If I would go to St. Louis 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.”

-- Rich Heffern

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002