4-Patents: Schmeiser/Monsanto case shows extent of GM foods threat
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TITLE: ARE WE BEING GENETICALLY MODIFIED?
Schmeiser/Monsanto case shows extent of GM foods threat
SOURCE: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, by Judy Kennedy
DATE: April 2002
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
ARE WE BEING GENETICALLY MODIFIED?
Schmeiser/Monsanto case shows extent of GM foods threat
So why do the French hate McDonald's?
The answer involves France's lifestyles and culinary practices, agri-biz,
and the feistiness of its family farmers. And its resistance to the forced
homogenization that McDo stands for around the world.
For we are being homogenized, standardized, and squared like genetically
modified tomatoes that taste like wood but have a shelf life of 10 years
and come with their own built-in toxins to ward off bugs.
Genetically modified (GM) or engineered (GE) products are those whose genes
have been altered, usually by the addition of genetic material from another
species. The product may be developed to resist, for example, a specific
herbicide or pesticide.
Widespread use of such seed and herbicide combinations increases the
practice of monoculture and of the monopoly of food production through the
control of the seed supply. Such practices are given a giant boost by
patent rights which compliant governments have legislated.
Genetics Professor Joe Cummins of the University of Western Ontario
believes that the GM seed industry is aiming at nothing short of total
control--i.e., that certified seeds will be required for all plantings, and
that these seeds will have to contain a herbicide-resistant gene.
Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser would agree with this prediction. The
case of Monsanto vs Schmeiser is known worldwide. In March of last year,
the Federal Court of Canada found that Schmeiser had infringed Monsanto's
patent rights because some of its GM canola was growing on his land. That
Schmeiser had neither planted it nor authorized its planting was deemed by
the court to be "not significant."
The implications for farmers everywhere are awesome. Dr. Ralph Martin,
Director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, says, "This throws
the onus the wrong way--onto the farmer, not Monsanto."
Canola pollen can be carried over great distances by wind or insects,
leading to outcrossing. Agriculturalists estimate that a buffer zone of at
least 800 metres is needed to protect a field of non-GM hybrid canola from
infestation by the GM variety. The GM variety was developed to resist the
most widely used herbicide, Monsanto's Roundup.
These factors mean that most of Saskatchewan's canola fields may now be
contaminated and that savers and developers of heritage and other canola
strains, like Schmeiser, cannot plant their seed. The contaminating
"volunteer" plants bear proprietary genes, as the court has indicated, and
are tolerant to Roundup or other common herbicides.
Round One clearly goes to Monsanto.
In addition to the monopoly of a major food crop by one transnational
corporation, a second public policy issue arises with GM products: that of
food safety. Health Canada holds that genetically modified foods need not
be tested nor labelled because they are identical in essential detail to
the crop from which they originated, or "substantially equivalent."
Dr. Ann Clark, professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph,
has long criticized Health Canada's assessment process in relation to food
safety; some see it as a mere bookkeeping device. She charges the
Department's Food Inspection Agency with having followed a seriously flawed
protocol prior to its approval of some 50 GM foods--one that failed to
consider their potential for genetic flow to wild relatives or to become
weeds--and also failed to evaluate their impact on non-target organisms or
Recently the Royal Society of Canada's Expert Panel on Genetic Modification
recommended that more research be done on such novel food products, and
over a longer time period; that a government body conduct this research;
and that it be funded independently. Open records are essential to this
process, they added.
These recommendations contrast with current government practice, which
protects the confidentiality of research results as "business information."
Retired Agriculture Canada crop scientist Dr. Bert Christie sees government
in a conflict of interest position in its dual role of promoter and
regulator of biotechnology. He confirms that the CFIA conducts no tests on
its own and does not submit the industry's findings to peer review.
What can be so dangerous about GM food crops? Some scientists see more
danger in multiple sprayings of crops with herbicides and pesticides than
with genetic modification. Dr. Gefu Wang-Pruski, Research Professor, Plant
Molecular Biology, Nova Scotia Agricultural College, points to some non-GM
apples which, "even if peeled, have 25% more (chemicals) than what is
allowed--inside the apple." GM crops, she claims, have been tested now for
over 10 years, and have shown no allergenic reaction.
The Internet, however, provides lots of counter-arguments. Dr. Joe
Cummins's concerns run like this: "Probably the greatest threat from
genetically altered crops is the insertion of modified virus and insect
virus genes into crops. It has been shown in the laboratory that genetic
recombination will create highly virulent new viruses from such
constructions. Certainly the widely used cauliflower mosaic virus is a
potentially dangerous gene. It is a pararetrovirus, meaning that it
multiplies by making DNA from RNA messages. It is very similar to the
Hepatitis B virus and related to HIV. Modified viruses could cause famine
by destroying crops or cause human and animal diseases of tremendous power."
Dr. Michael Antoniou, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Genetics at Guy's
Hospital, London, warns: "This procedure results in disruption of the
genetic blueprint of the organism, with totally unpredictable consequences.
The unexpected production of toxic substances has now been observed in
genetically engineered bacteria, yeast, plants, and animals, with the
problem remaining undetected until a major health hazard has arisen.
Moreover, genetically engineered food or enzymatic food processing agents
may produce an immediate effect or it could take years for full toxicity to
come to light."
Other concerns have been raised by Agnes Sinai of Paris's Ecole des hautes
etudes en sciences sociales: "Consumers would ingest much (sic) more
pesticides if genetically modified plants were to spread because they
contain so much of them. Like dioxins, pesticides, including glyphosphate,
are not broken down in the human body; they are a form of invisible
pollution. Their molecules have allergenic, neurotoxic, carcinogenic,
mutagenic, and hormonal effects, and are harmful to male fertility. They
have similar properties to female hormones, oestrogens; overall, these
hormonal effects could be responsible for a 50% decline in sperm counts
over the last 50 years. If that decline were to continue, the human race
would have to resort to cloning by about 2060."
Scary stuff. But the list of GM food crops includes more than canola. Most
of the corn and soy products we eat may now be of the genetically modified
varieties and therefore most of the processed foods that appear on
supermarket shelves. No wonder consumers clamor for the labelling of GM
foods as a minimum response to the apparent risk this presents.
The precautionary principle--which Canada accepted in signing the Biosafety
Protocol in Montreal in 2000--requires nothing less. Yet last October, then
Health Minister Alan Rock and his cabinet colleagues scuttled a bill
presented by Liberal MP Charles Caccia, a bill that would have made the
labelling of GM foods mandatory and which had the support of 93% of
Round Two to Monsanto.
Consumers in Europe are rallying, demanding the labelling of GM foods, and
even their withdrawal from the market. Governments are moving to ban the
cultivation of GM crops. Boycotts of corn, soy and canola from the United
States and Canada are being organized by retailers, as well as by consumers
Organic foods are much sought after. One California food chain, Trader
Joe's, recently announced that it would work with its private label vendors
to have GM-free products reformulated if necessary and certified within a
year. Now there's competitve advantage!
Canadian farmers have taken notice and have instructed the board of
directors of the country's largest grain company, Agricore United, to work
towards segregating GM and non-GM varieties of grain and oil seeds and
urging government not to licence varieties of GM wheat. Their market-share
is at stake.
For Canadian consumers, it is not too late to get off the shelf, join with
our European and American counterparts, and win Round Three.
We should push hard for effective regulation of GM crops and products; for
extensive and long-term research on their effects by independent
researchers; and for a ban on their presence in the food market until they
have been proven safe.
In the meantime, Percy Schmeiser has appealed the Federal Court's ruling,
and the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate has launched a class action suit
against Monsanto on behalf of those farmers who have had their fields
contaminated by GM seeds without their authorization.
(Judy Kennedyfirstname.lastname@example.org a retired lawyer and environmental
activist living in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. She is a member of CCPA-
Nova Scotia and Sierra Atlantic. For more information, see
www.percyschmeiser.com -www.plant.uoguelph.ca/faculty/eclark -www.natural-
Taken from The CCPA Monitor, April 2002 Canadian Centre for Policy
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