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Local Seeds vs. Big Guns

Sarah Simpson

It was April 18 -- a warm and sunny day, weather completely unlike we had seen for some time.

I must confess, I didn't have a chance to buy those not-so-fancy farming overalls like I had hoped. But, I did manage to plant my grains -- inch by inch, (or thereabouts) crooked row by crooked row.

Red Fife, a hard wheat variety, emmer and hulless oats made up my crop -- and by crop I mean whatever I could jam into my 200-square foot plot, which, incidentally, feels a whole lot bigger when you have to pull the weeds out.

The day began with a short session with Metchosin's Tom Henry, the editor of Small Farm Canada, and Mike Doehnel, a presenter of backyard grains workshops, and a guy well known for producing his own beer from seeds through to suds.

It took a couple hours in total, to get the plot primed and those little seeds into the ground and now what's left is to wait -- and ultimately see if I've got any kind of green thumb at all.

And while my grains percolate close to home, I've decided to turn my attention to the bigger picture.

It's been more than 10 years since agribusiness giant Monsanto applied to both the U.S. and Canadian governments for approval to grow commercial yields of their genetically modified (GM) products.

The GM seeds were engineered to resist glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's herbicide Roundup®.

Monsanto claims that with these seeds a farmer can spray the herbicide over a planted field, kill all the weeds growing there, but not hurt the crop -- as long as Monsanto seeds were used.

While it seems like an easy solution to their weed problems, some farmers say all it has done is created havoc throughout the agricultural community, forcing them to buy Monsanto seed every year and use Monsanto herbicides.

The issue came to a head in Canada in 1998 with Monsanto v. Schmeiser.

In 1997 long-time Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser did what he did every other year. He took the seeds saved from the year before and planted them.

Little did he know more than 791 acres of his 1,400-acre canola farm had been contaminated by Monsanto's GM canola.

Monsanto sued the farmer claiming he illegally planted the firm's canola without paying a $37-per-hectare fee for the privilege.

Schmeiser insists any Monsanto products growing on his land were scattered there by wind or flooding, pollen movement, or by grain trucks travelling on roads that run parallel to his fields.

He countersued for libel, among other things.

Schmeiser wasn't the first Canadian farmer to do battle with Monsanto, but he was the first to stand up to the agri-giant, believing he was the victim, not Monsanto.

The landmark case heard by the Federal Court of Canada, attracted international attention because it could help determine how much control a handful of powerful biotech companies can exert over farmers.

The trial was heard June 5-20, 2000 in a Federal courtroom in Saskatoon.

By most accounts, it was a draw and further legal action was taken.

In March of last year Schmeiser and Monsanto settled out of court.

Monsanto agreed to pay for the cleanup costs of the canola that contaminated Schmeiser's fields and the farmer retained the right to sue Monsanto again should his fields become re-contaminated.

Schmeiser is still paying off his legal bills.

The debacle raised and furthers the issue of just how much control farmers ought to be able to have over their crops. For many hundreds of years farmers have saved seeds from plants with the most desirable traits and planted them the following year. These practices have led to the gradual bettering of all crops around the world. Many farmers see GM crops as a threat to that process.

Island Grains is helping create a new generation of seed savers, given that Monsanto and other agri-food giants are trying to eliminate seed savers so farmers are dependent on their GM seeds.

Makaria Farm's Brock McLeod said what he finds interesting about the Monsanto case is that Schmeiser was not simply a farmer who planted the seed he had saved, but was also a seed developer.

"Schmeiser was one of the farmers who would develop new varieties of grains adapted to the local growing area and sell the seed to fellow farmers. In targeting Schmeiser, Monsanto was striking at its competition -- the farmer who sells naturally developed seed," said McLeod.

He says what's cool about the Island Grains project is that a new generation of seed savers and potential developers is being cultivated.

"While we're not on a scale that would threaten or interest the Monsanto's of the world, we are a small part of keeping alive the tradition of developing and discovering varieties of grain adapted to our local growing conditions," he said. "Our efforts as Grainies, and others like us across Canada, could be a vital part of re-establishing the natural seed stock should Monsanto succeed in eliminating commercial-scale growers like Percy Schmeiser."


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--Sarah Simpson

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