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Why Percy Schmeiser is a Pioneer of Sustainability

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An outbreak of cholera was occurring in Haiti while the international media followed the sixty-nine day drilling-rescue of thirty-three trapped Chilean miners. It took this contagion spreading for the first time in a century and a coming hurricane to get Haiti back into the news. The failure after January’s devastating earthquake to ensure safe drinking water to prevent cholera’s quick death by dehydration, is itself newsworthy. But the deeper story about Haiti’s struggle with reconstruction in the wake of the unprecedented death of 230,000 people still hasn’t been told.

Aid sometimes accentuates Haiti’s problems. Instead of monetary aid going to help shore up local farmers producing for the needy, much donated money went to pay for imported food. Locally grown food remained unaffordable to those left homeless by the earthquake, while canned food was being purchased and flown into Haiti from abroad. The earthquake forced a half million Haitians to move back to the country-side where they have some chance of self-reliance. But aid can also hinder this. In June, 10,000 peasant farmers protested against the U.S. biotech company Monsanto’s “gift” of 60 tonnes of seeds to the country. Asked about the protest, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, head of Haiti’s largest and longest-operating, 200,000 member strong peasant organization, said “Monsanto is trying to use the reconstruction effort to make us dependent on their seeds. We can save our native seeds – creole seeds as we call them, from one year to another. But you can’t do that with Monsanto’s seeds.”

THE RISE OF MONSANTO

In 1995 the World Trade Organization (WTO) made intellectual property including patenting rights over seeds more enforceable and thus more profitable. Prior to this Monsanto wasn’t even among the top seed-patenting companies. In 2007 Monsanto had become the number one seed company, controlling nearly one-quarter of the global market. Along with DuPont and other U.S. companies, American corporations control 42 percent of the market; most of the rest is controlled by European companies.

In 2007 European companies such as Bayer, Syngenta and BASF controlled one-half of the global agrochemical market; U.S. companies like Dow, Monsanto and DuPont controlled one-quarter of it. But six of the ten biggest agrochemical companies are now also seed industry giants. Three companies – Monsanto, DuPont and Swiss’s Syngenta, control nearly one-half of the world seed market. But Monsanto stands out: the largest seed company, it is responsible for 87 percent of the total global area devoted to genetically-modified (GMO) crops.

Such corporate concentration is not only a threat to farmer independence but to biodiversity and sustainability. Already we rely on only 15 plant species to provide 90 percent of our food crops. As industrial agriculture expands and wilderness shrinks the biodiversity of crops as well as natural systems declines. As monopolization accelerates, and agrochemical and seed companies merge and move towards more GMO seeds, their standardized crops will become ever more vulnerable to pests, diseases and climate change.

FROM COLONIALISM TO GMO

Agribusiness has a long imperial history. British colonialists smuggled rubber plants from the Amazon to S.E. Asia, coffee plants from Ethiopia to Latin America, and cocoa plants from Mexico to West Africa. Later, hybrid seeds were created to get more reliable, uniform production of various cash crops, mostly for export. Pioneer Hi-Bred became the world’s largest seed company after producing hybrid corn (maize) and later cotton, sunflower, sorghum, sugar beet and some vegetables. In recent years, global chemical companies previously complicit in weapons production morphed into agro-chemical and seed firms. Since the 1970’s a thousand seed companies have been purchased. In 1999, after DuPont paid $7.7 billion to purchase Pioneer Hi-Bred, it tried to rebrand itself as a “life sciences” company.

Monsanto was originally known for its herbicide Roundup. In 1993 it developed its Roundup Ready GMO soybean to be resistant to the herbicide. After a WTO ruling in 1995 it began to patent the genes of its GMO seeds worldwide. In 1997 it developed its GMO canola. From 1996 to 1998 Monsanto spent $8 billion buying up seed interests in Cargill, Advanta, Seminis and Delta Pine and Land to become the world’s largest seed merchant. Monsanto now controls most of the world’s GMO crops and claims worldview ownership of the patented seeds that farmers using Roundup Ready crops must buy year after year. Monsanto looks to expanding its control over agriculture in lucrative developing country markets; it worked behind the scenes when U.S. President Bush signed the “knowledge initiative” with India in 2006.

PERCY AND GOLIATH

Monsanto spends $30 million a year protecting its patented seeds and a Saskatchewan farmer has felt the full brunt of its security forces. In 1998 Monsanto sued Bruno farmer Percy Schmeiser for patent infringement, after GMO Roundup Ready canola was found on Schmeiser’s field. As a past mayor and Saskatchewan MLA, Percy “went political”. When this case finally made it to Canada’s Supreme Court it ruled 5-4 in favour of Monsanto’s patent being valid and infringed. The matter of GMO crop contamination was not explicitly considered; Monsanto’s case was that Schmeiser knowingly harvested the cross-contaminated canola. But, unlike Monsanto, Percy Schmeiser had no motive for gain, and the court found 9-0 that his profits were exactly the same with or without Roundup Ready canola. In 2005 the Schmeiser’s sent Monsanto a $660 bill for cleaning up more Roundup Ready canola that had contaminated their field. After refusing to sign a gag order as part of a settlement, Schmeiser finally got an out of court settlement with Monsanto which paid the bill without stipulation.

Schmeiser is known worldwide as a campaigner for, as he put it, “the right of a farmer to save and re-use his seed.” He sees Monsanto’s control over seeds as “going back to a feudal system” that many farmers came here from Europe to escape. He is a hero in parts of India where the GM-Free India Coalition has organized “GMO-free” villages across the country-side. For his courage in standing up to the behemoth Monsanto, Schmeiser was awarded the Mahatma Gandhi Award in 2000 for “working for the good of mankind in a non-violent way.” In 2007 Percy and Louise Schmeiser won the Right Livelihood Ward, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize.

MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL PARADIGM OBSELETE

It may seem ironic, even contradictory, that corporations that once made gunpowder (DuPont), the cyanide-based pesticide, Zyklon B gas, used by the Nazis (Bayer-IG Farben), and the herbicide Agent Orange used to defoliate Vietnam (Monsanto and Dow) are now big players in agribusiness. But their approach to mega-agribusiness is not unlike warfare. I have heard chemical-GMO agribusiness referred to as “scorched earth policy” because herbicides are used to try to kill everything except the GMO plants which are bred to be resistant to the chemical poison. This doesn’t actually work and new super-weeds now plague many farmers. But this undercuts biodiversity and creates genetic vulnerability. As the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said in a 2009 report: “Through the continuing shift to commercial agriculture, much of the diversity that still exists remains under threat…a large amount of knowledge about crops and varieties is probably being lost, and with it much of the value of the genetic resources themselves.”

This military-industrial paradigm is inappropriate for food and agriculture, and because of the risks it presents to ecology, farmer independence and food security, it is vital to accelerate the transition to sustainable agriculture.

Next time I’ll explore what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has to do with sustainability.