Sunday, May 22, 2011
This appears to be the strategy of the genetically modified organism (GMO) crop industry. The mode of attack is the contamination of non-GMO crops through the spread of pollen and the inadvertent mixing of GMO and non-GMO seeds. Large agribusiness giants such as Monsanto claim to recognize "coexistence" with conventional and organic growers as a desirable state. But, the industry acknowledges that contamination is inevitable. In fact, the complete segregation of GMO and non-GMO crops was never on the table. Several high-profile cases of mixing have already demonstrated this. Starlink corn comes to mind as well as the virtual elimination of organic canola growing in Canada because of GMO contamination (with no effective redress in the courts available). And, what we now know about the spread of genes via pollen from GMO to non-GMO plants makes it all but certain no regulatory regime, no matter how comprehensive and severe, could prevent contamination.
This fact has not stopped aggressive enforcement of the GMO industry's intellectual property rights which involves threats and lawsuits designed to intimidate not just those supposedly in violation of crop patents, but the entire farming community even when the cases involve contamination by adjacent farms and passing vehicles containing GMO seeds. Here's the message: To avoid lawsuits that threaten to take away your farming livelihood, you might as well sign up to buy our seeds because contamination by us or our farmer customers will be no defense in court.
In fact, Canadian courts found that contamination is not a permissible legal defense! Lest you think that I am making this up, here is the relevant portion of a trial court finding which was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in Monsanto Canada Inc. and Monsanto Company vs Percy Schmeiser and Schmeiser Enterprises Ltd.:
Thus a farmer whose field contains seed or plants originating from seed spilled into them, or blown as seed, in swaths from a neighbour's land or even growing from germination by pollen carried into his field from elsewhere by insects, birds, or by the wind, may own the seed or plants on his land even if he did not set about to plant them. He does not, however, own the right to the use of the patented gene, or of the seed or plant containing the patented gene or cell.
This precedent and the aggressive enforcement behavior by the industry has led organic growers and seed distributors to file a pre-emptive lawsuit to protect themselves from the industry's legal tactics which are designed to force farmers to pay the company penalties even when the farmer is organic and must avoid all genetic contamination to market his or her crops. (Organic standards prohibit genetically engineered crops.)
I am reminded of King Henry's conversation with his counterpart King Philip of France in the play Lion in Winter. Philip is insisting that his sister, Alais, be wedded to Henry's son, as previously agreed by Henry and Philip's father, the now deceased King Louis. It's that or the return of the Vexin, a key county north of Paris given to England in exchange for the betrothal.
Philip: It's their wedding or the Vexin back. Those are the terms you made with Louis.
Henry: True, but academic, lad. The Vexin's mine.
Philip: By what authority?
Henry: It's got my troops all over it. That makes it mine.
Just substitute "crops" for "troops," and you'll see an age-old strategy at work. I am also reminded of Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland and the Anschluss, his occupation of Austria. Once his troops were on the ground, nobody wanted to challenge him.
The contamination strategy solves two perceived problems for the industry. First, the industry attempted to include GMO plants as acceptable in the original National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the outcry was so great from activists that GMOs were taken out of the standards. One way, however, to overcome this resistance is through contamination. By forcing food regulators to accept GMO contamination in organic food as inevitable, the GMO industry is paving the way for eventual capitulation by the organic community and conventional growers as well. The industry wants to propagate the attitude that nothing can be done to stop it.
Second, although Europe has long had labeling requirements for GMO foods, in the United States the industry has so far been able to prevent enactment of any such requirement. The response from food activists has been to launch a campaign for voluntary labeling of non-GMO foods and that now has the GMO industry on the defensive. But, what better way to undermine such an effort than to contaminate conventional and organic crops?
What would change the calculus of the GMO industry? Perhaps it would change if some of the contamination suits (mostly outside the United States) were to result in huge verdicts, ones large enough to be financially ruinous to the industry. Nothing like that, however, is on the horizon. In the meantime, we can all look forward to the involuntary consumption of genetically modified food ingredients against our will. The GMO industry tells us that they want consumers to have a choice, that GMO foods should "coexist" with conventional and organic foods. Yet, they oppose labeling.
Meanwhile, the equivalent of the GMO industry's panzer corps is moving into our farm fields and from there into our kitchens. We may soon regret this creeping annexation of our dinner tables. Once the invasion of GMO genes around the world is complete, we may find it harder to roll back than Hitler's armies.