Musings about our farm, organic farming, regional foods and markets.

Plus, what's in the news about foods, systems and regulations around the world.

Monday, February 20, 2012

State of the Organic Union (Toronto)

Wilhelm and Barnhild Pfenning

It seems that every other year my spirit tells me it is time to check in on the world of organics via the Toronto conference organized by Canadian Organic Growers (COG) Toronto chapter. My first conference was four years ago in 2008 when I became inspired by the words of Hellge Hellberg of Marin Organic. I came away from the conference feeling as if I had arrived where I belonged – amongst organic growers and consumers empowered with a united vision of doing the right thing.

Two years later, in 2010, the ante was upped by a stellar array of speakers and true organic heroes. Bärbel Höhn, Germany’s first Green Party agricultural minister, related the incredible political foresight and achievement of Germany in embracing, promoting and implementing organic practices nationwide. Percy Schmeiser told his amazing account of his (one farmer’s) brave battle after being sued by Monsanto. Michael Schmidt brought along his passion for raw milk and came out pulling no punches. Wilhelm and Barnhild Pfenning (who in 1965 made the commitment to farm organically and never looked back) received a lifetime achievement award for their tireless work in growing and marketing organics in Ontario. And Wayne Roberts moderated with his usual mix of insight, passion and humour. My sense of belonging in the organic community deepened as I was inspired by the spirit and drive of these organic groundbreaking visionaries.

So it was that I went along in eager anticipation to this year’s conference, titled “The Value of Organic”. I should have known from this vague theme that I should lower my expectations. In 2008 it had been “Visionary Farmers and Consumers”; in 2010 “Grounds for Change.” This year’s keynote speaker was a farmer who did not even embrace organic certification, remarking in the closing session that she knew some very bad organic farmers and some very good conventional ones. Another speaker was a doctor advocating for an “organic” sleep remedy he had developed and patented which was not certified organic. Guy Dauncey raised the bar with his empassioned presentation, noting that organic certification was “an essential benchmark to prevent greenwashing”. Thank you, Mr. Dauncey, for this simple gem of truth. 

The theme of the closing panel session was “Is Organic too Extreme?”  Conference program notes were littered with organic in inverted commas, angst and soul-searching about the role and future of organics. In my view, whatever organic is and isn’t, whether its too extreme or not extreme enough, too big or too small, it is the only sane and sensible way to approach food and farming as we move forward, both locally and globally. The ever-growing appetite for organic produce and artisan food at farmers markets and farmgates, in health food stores and yes, even in supermarkets, is testament to this. There is much work is to be done on the farm; there is more food to be grown and brought to market for customers to appreciate. The organic movement continues to make waves, offer an alternative to the highly-processed (and now threatened) mainstream. Organic has legs; we should run with them. Missed was a Michael Schmidt or Percy Schmeiser or Helle Hellberg to reinforce Guy Dauncey’s passion to empower, inspire, and sustain us until next year’s conference.  

In the meantime, I have decided to supplement my membership of Canadian Organic Growers by supporting their important role with the donation of our annual farm registration fee of $195 to them. The Government of Ontario mandates that there is a choice only between contributing this fee to the National Farmers Union - Ontario, or the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, or the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, none of whom focus on organic farming. I resent this limited choice. However, I can request a refund after I have paid my fee, so this is what I shall do. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The seed emergency: The threat to food and democracy

Patenting seeds has led to a farming and food crisis - and huge profits for US biotechnology corporations.

By Dr Vandana Shiva

New Delhi, India - The seed is the first link in the food chain - and seed sovereignty is the foundation of food sovereignty. If farmers do not have their own seeds or access to open pollinated varieties that they can save, improve and exchange, they have no seed sovereignty - and consequently no food sovereignty.

The deepening agrarian and food crisis has its roots in changes in the seed supply system, and the erosion of seed diversity and seed sovereignty.

Seed sovereignty includes the farmer's rights to save, breed and exchange seeds, to have access to diverse open source seeds which can be saved - and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants. It is based on reclaiming seeds and biodiversity as commons and public good.

The past twenty years have seen a very rapid erosion of seed diversity and seed sovereignty, and the concentration of the control over seeds by a very small number of giant corporations. In 1995, when the UN organised the Plant Genetic Resources Conference in Leipzig, it was reported that 75 per cent of all agricultural biodiversity had disappeared because of the introduction of "modern" varieties, which are always cultivated as monocultures. Since then, the erosion has accelerated.

The introduction of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement of the World Trade Organisation has accelerated the spread of genetically engineered seeds - which can be patented - and for which royalties can be collected. Navdanya was started in response to the introduction of these patents on seeds in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - a forerunner to the WTO - about which a Monsanto representative later stated: "In drafting these agreements, we were the patient, diagnostician [and] physician all in one." Corporations defined a problem - and for them the problem was farmers saving seeds. They offered a solution, and the solution was to make it illegal for farmers to save seed - by introducing patents and intellectual property rights on those very seeds. As a result, acreage under GM corn, soya, canola, cotton has increased dramatically.

Threats to seed sovereignty
Besides displacing and destroying diversity, patented GMO seeds are also undermining seed sovereignty. Across the world, new seed laws are being introduced which enforce compulsory registration of seeds, thus making it impossible for small farmers to grow their own diversity, and forcing them into dependency on giant seed corporations. Corporations are also patenting climate resilient seeds evolved by farmers - thus robbing farmers of using their own seeds and knowledge for climate adaptation.

Another threat to seed sovereignty is genetic contamination. India has lost its cotton seeds because of contamination from Bt Cotton - a strain engineered to contain the pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium. Canada has lost its canola seed because of contamination from Roundup Ready canola. And Mexico has lost its corn due to contamination from Bt Cotton.

After contamination, biotech seed corporations sue farmers with patent infringement cases, as happened in the case of Percy Schmeiser. That is why more than 80 groups came together and filed a case to prevent Monsanto from suing farmers whose seed had been contaminated.

As a farmer's seed supply is eroded, and farmers become dependent on patented GMO seed, the result is debt. India, the home of cotton, has lost its cotton seed diversity and cotton seed sovereignty. Some 95 per cent of the country's cotton seed is now controlled by Monsanto - and the debt trap created by being forced to buy seed every year - with royalty payments - has pushed hundreds of thousands of farmers to suicide; of the 250,000 farmer suicides, the majority are in the cotton belt.

Seeding control
Even as the disappearance of biodiversity and seed sovereignty creates a major crisis for agriculture and food security, corporations are pushing governments to use public money to destroy the public seed supply and replace it with unreliable non-renewable, patented seed - which must be bought each and every year.
In Europe, the 1994 regulation for protection of plant varieties forces farmers to make a "compulsory voluntary contribution" to seed companies. The terms themselves are contradictory. What is compulsory cannot be voluntary.

In France, a law was passed in November 2011, which makes royalty payments compulsory. As Agriculture Minister Bruna Le Marie stated: "Seeds can be longer be royalty free, as is currently the case." Of the 5,000 or so cultivated plant varieties, 600 are protected by certificate in France, and these account for 99 per cent of the varieties grown by farmers.

The "compulsory voluntary contribution", in other words a royalty, is justified on grounds that "a fee is paid to certificate holders [seed companies] to sustain funding of research and efforts to improve genetic resources".

Monsanto pirates biodiversity and genetic resources from farming communities, as it did in the case of a wheat biopiracy case fought by Navdanya with Greenpeace, and climate resilient crops and brinjal (also known as aubergine or eggplant) varieties for Bt Brinjal. As Monsanto states, "it draws from a collection of germ-plasm that is unparalleled in history" and "mines the diversity in this genetic library to develop elite seeds faster than ever before".

In effect, what is taking place is the enclosure of the genetic commons of our biodiversity and the intellectual commons of public breeding by farming communities and public institutions. And the GMO seeds Monsanto is offering are failing.  This is not "improvement" of genetic resources, but degradation. This is not innovation but piracy.

For example, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) - being pushed by the Gates Foundation - is a major assault on Africa's seed sovereignty.

The 2009 US Global Food Security Act, also called the Lugar-Casey Act , "A bill to authorize appropriations for fiscal years 2010 through 2014 to provide assistance to foreign countries to promote food security, to stimulate rural economies, and to improve emergency response to food crisis, to amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and for other purposes".

The amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act would "include research on bio-technological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology". The $ 7.7bn that goes with the bill would go to benefit Monsanto to push GM seeds.

An article in Forbes, titled "Why Uncle Sam Supports Franken Foods", shows how agribusiness is the only sector in which US has a positive trade balance. Hence the push for GMOs - because they bring royalties to the US. However, royalties for Monsanto are based on debt, suicidal farmers and the disappearance of biodiversity worldwide.

Under the US Global Food Security Act, Nepal signed an agreement with USAID and Monsanto. This led to massive protests across the country. India was forced to allow patents on seeds through the first dispute brought by the US against India in the WTO. Since 2004, India has also been trying to introduce a Seed Act which would require farmers to register their own seeds and take licenses. This in effect would force farmers from using their indigenous seed varieties. By creating a Seed Satyagraha - a non-cooperation movement in Gandhi's footsteps, handing over hundreds of thousands of signatures to the prime minister, and working with parliament - we have so far prevented the Seed Law from being introduced.   

India has signed a US-India Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, with Monsanto on the Board. Individual states are also being pressured to sign agreements with Monsanto. One example is the Monsanto-Rajasthan Memorandum of Understanding, under which Monsanto would get intellectual property rights to all genetic resources, and to carry out research on indigenous seeds. It took a campaign by Navdanya and a "Monsanto Quit India" Bija Yatra ["seed pilgrimage"] to force the government of Rajasthan to cancel the MOU.

This asymmetric pressure of Monsanto on the US government, and the joint pressure of both on the governments across the world, is a major threat to the future of seeds, the future of food and the future of democracy.

Dr Vandana Shiva is a physicist, eco-feminist, philosopher, activist and author of more than 20 books and 500 papers. She is the founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and has campaigned for biodiversity, conservation and farmers' rights, winning the Right Livelihood Award [Alternative Nobel Prize] in 1993.