Wednesday, November 17, 2010

GMO what's the BFD?-- Part 2

Effect on Farmers

1970- The US Congress passed the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) giving breeders up to 25 years of exclusive control over a new, distinct varieties of plants with a few important exceptions. Most notably, under the PVPA, farmers using protected varieties of seeds were allowed to collect seeds from their crop each season for planting the following year.

1980- The Supreme Court ruled that patents could be issued for living things if they have been altered by humans. This landmark ruling essentially cleared the way for companies like Monsanto to patent their GMO seeds and gain exclusive rights without being subject to the exemptions of the PVPA.

2001- The Supreme Court ruled that utility patents, like those issued for GMO seeds, supersede the PVPA, meaning that companies holding a patent on a seed could take legal action against farmers caught saving seeds.

Anyone with any business training might be wondering why this is a big deal. I mean.... business is business, right? So if the farmers want to collect seeds, they can find some other seed to use. On the other hand, if they want the benefits of GMO crops (like easier pest control, higher crop yield, etc.) then they can pay for the seeds each year. Unfortunately, things aren't quite so cut and dry when you are dealing with pollinating crops grown outdoors in a relatively uncontrolled environment.

Pollen can be carried on the wind, by bees, or any number of ways from one crop to another. Seeds may fall off a truck, pass through a turbine or be carried by birds. When pollen or seeds are introduced into a new crop, this is what is known as pollen flow or genetic drift... and there is really no way to prevent it.  Why is this important?  Well, if a farmer chooses to use non patented seeds, their crops may still be contaminated by pollen or seeds from their neighbor's GMO fields. A farmer may have no idea that their field acquired GMO material through drift, but once a patented material is introduced into a crop, that farmer automatically becomes legally bound to respect the patent holder's rights or risk legal action.

It might be hard to believe that a giant company like Monsanto would bother to spend the time or money to seek out and prosecute small time farmers, but believe it, because they do. In a press release Monsanto had this to say, "Backed by U.S. patent law, Monsanto is vigorously pursuing growers who pirate any brand or variety of its genetically enhanced seed..." They go on to point out some of the failed defenses farmers unsuccessfully used in court, including "forged signatures, ignorance, accident or mistake by farm employee, or pollen flow from neighboring field."

A 2007 report released by The Center for Food Safety documents the extent of Monsanto's aggressive tactics. According to the report:
  • By October 2007, Monsanto had filed 112 lawsuits against farmers
  • These cases included 372 farmers and 49 small farm businesses
  • The lawsuits span 27 states
  • The largest judgment was $3,052,800.00
  • The smallest judgment was $5,595.00 (Yup... they went after $5, 000!)
  • The number of suits filed increased every year between 2005 and 2007

It's likely that the numbers above (compiled from public court records) don't even begin to reveal the true picture. According to this same report:
  • The number of seed piracy matters reported by Monsanto is 20 to 40 times the number of lawsuits found in public court records
  • As of June 2006, Monsanto had instituted an estimated 2,391 to 4,531 “seed piracy matters” against farmers in 19 states
The bottom line is Monsanto, in their push to dominate world food markets, is employing ruthless tactics and deliberately destroying people's livliehoods even when circumstances (like genetic drift) are beyond anyone's control. You don't have to be a tree-hugging, earthy-crunchy hippy to realize this is wrong.

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