by Lucy Sharratt
Starting with the humble alfalfa seed and ending with a genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, the controversies in 2010 over genetic engineering multiplied and tumbled over each other, with the year ending in unprecedented uncertainty.
This year, the GE Atlantic salmon and GE “Envriopig” began lurching towards commercialization in both the US and Canada. The fate of these GE animals, and that of the unassuming alfalfa seed, will shape the future of our food system and of democracy.
Alfalfa seeds are tiny and generally keep a low profile, but this year the little perennial seeds were in the limelight during a showdown between Monsanto and organic farmers. It is no exaggeration to say that GE alfalfa threatens the future of the entire North American organic food and farming system because of the diverse and unique role that alfalfa plays in many different types of farming, as well as the inevitability of contamination. In 2010, Monsanto was forced to go to the US Supreme Court to try to get its GE Roundup Ready alfalfa in the ground; the company essentially lost the case and it is still illegal to plant GE alfalfa in the US. The USDA is being forced by the courts to publish an Environmental Impact Statement, but once it is complete plantings could begin. Canadian organic farmers shared their experience of GE contamination of organic canola with the USDA in the hopes of swaying the outcome against Monsanto. Meanwhile, here in Canada, conventional and organic growers continue to lobby the federal government to try to find a way to stop GE alfalfa.
In a parallel case, organic farmers in the US successfully challenged the GE sugarbeet (white sugarbeet for sugar processing). In August, a US court ruled the department had failed to conduct an adequate analysis of the impacts of GE sugarbeets on farmers and the environment. The beets were therefore ruled illegal to plant or sell until the USDA completed a full environmental assessment. However, because this study may not be finished until 2012, Monsanto and the sugar industry have pressured the USDA by proposing plantings next spring. All of Canada’s sugarbeet seeds, grown in Alberta and Southern Ontario, come from the Willamette Valley in Oregon so if GE sugarbeets cannot be planted in the US, there may be no GE sugarbeet seed for Canada.
The year of “We told you so”
In a predictable, though unfortunate, “We told you so” moment (one of too many in 2010), university researchers found transgenes present in 80 percent of the wild canola plants they tested in North Dakota. The canola provides new evidence that GE crop plants can survive and thrive in the wild, possibly for decades. But this is not the first documented escape into the wild. It was recently revealed that the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the USDA refused to alert the public that GE Roundup Ready bentgrass spread from a test plot in Western Idaho to irrigation ditches in Eastern Oregon. The feral GE bentgrass is a warning about the future of GE alfalfa. But, of course, this contamination brings up the particular problem of herbicide tolerance where the feral plants are engineered to survive specific herbicide sprayings. Most GE crops on the market are herbicide tolerant and the majority of these are Roundup Ready, resistant to Monsanto’s brand-name herbicide “Roundup” and its active ingredient glyphosate.
Overuse of Monsanto’s GE Roundup Ready soy, corn, canola and cotton is now showing a predictable result. 2010 was the year of the superweed. Palmer amaranth, or pigweed, is among 10 weed species in 20 US states, and one in Ontario, that have become resistant to glyphosate. The rapid spread of glyphosate resistant pigweed is a major agronomic failure of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready technology and an economic shock to farmers. In the US cotton belt, the pigweed is forcing farmers to revert to more toxic herbicides such as paraquat and they are abandoning their cotton-picking machines in favour of hired labour. This problem has actually triggered a race among chemical companies to develop new GM crops or to use old herbicides to attack the resistant weeds. “The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture than they’ve always promised and we need to be going in the opposite direction,” said Bill Freese at the Center for Food Safety in Washington.
Monsanto also overreached in 2010 and is now feeling the pinch. In 2009, the US and Canada granted approval for Monsanto’s new eight-trait “SmartStax” corn, a combination of different insect resistant and herbicide tolerant traits with a whopping price hike of up to 42 percent. Monsanto’s stocks fell significantly at the end of this year when results showed farmers were not buying “SmartStax” in levels projected by the company. It was a difficult year for the world’s biggest seed and biotech company as the US Justice Department intensified its antitrust investigation, farmers in Haiti burned Monsanto’s hybrid corn seed donation and Monsanto began giving rebates to farmers so they could buy competitor’s herbicides in order to kill Roundup resistant weeds.
Monsanto is also being investigated in West Virginia for possibly misleading growers who were promised improved yields from Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybean. After converting its chemical business to “seeds and traits,” Monsanto is beginning to show the strain of a technology that has yet to fulfill its early promise and struggling with all of its anticipated troubles.
This year, for the first time in our 15-year history with genetically engineered crops, farmers had a voice in Parliament and our MPs debated some of the real issues. This debate was thanks to Bill C-474, which would require that “an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.” This one-line Private Members bill challenged the biotechnology industry to defend its practice of introducing GE crops, even when contamination will ruin the export markets of Canadian farmers. Canadian regulation does not include, or even allow, consideration of the question of economic impact of GE crops and there is no space for farmers to share their knowledge or voice their concerns. In 2001, flax farmers predicted GE flax would ruin their European market and they were proven right in 2009 when GM contamination shut down our flax exports. Despite this clear case, the Liberal and Conservative parties refuse to acknowledge there is a problem, even with the partial solution of Bill C-474 on the table.
Before the Liberals and Conservatives shut down hearings on Bill C-474, the House of Commons Agriculture Committee heard testimony from groups representing conventional and organic alfalfa growers who described how GM would inevitably ruin farmers. Conservative and Liberal MPs could barely believe this revelation and rather than pursue this line of inquiry, they shut down the hearings. On October 28, the president of the National Farmers Union was turned away from Parliament Hill when the scheduled hearings in which he was called to participate were cancelled. The debate on Bill C-474 was so effective up to that point that the Liberals and Conservatives built an escape hatch in the form of a new motion to the Agriculture Committee: that the Committee “conduct a study on the status of the Canadian biotechnology sector, in which it travels to the universities across Canada where this technology is primarily being undertaken, and that it recommend, where necessary, legislative, policy and regulatory changes in order to foster an innovative and fertile biotechnology industry in Canada.”
This study would neither address nor explore the problem Bill C-474 identifies. Instead, it would provide the biotech industry with a public relations platform while allowing the Liberals and Conservatives to tell constituents they are doing something, however useless, about this controversial GE issue.
Bill C-474 identifies the core problem with genetic engineering: there is no democratic decision making process with regard to genetic engineering and GE crops can and do harm the very people they are supposed to benefit – farmers. The tremendous industry backlash over Bill C-474 shows that, when farmers and food come first, Monsanto is last. The final vote on Bill C-474 should take place in mid-December. Take action at www.cban.ca/474
Lucy Sharratt is the coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. www.cban.ca.