RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Prairie Pirates

To the casual news junkie, the rejection of American genetically modified organism (GMO) food by the leaders of starving African nations is an extreme case of sovereignty. With brief speeches, the leaders rejected foods Americans unknowingly eat every day (also called "biotech," "genetically engineered," "GE," and lots of other confusing labels). The leaders seemingly condemned their own people to death.

Look closer.

African leaders are afraid of America's untested, bio-devastating technology. America's three biggest food customers -- Japan, the EU, and China -- are similarly afraid and not buying. These consumers are saying they won't eat foods that haven't been tested for safety from crops that threaten the environmental integrity of all life forms on the planet.

And, having lost these markets, American farmers are condemned to an even deeper need for taxpayer help to boost prices. American taxpayers, therefore, will be paying more and more to keep farmers in business. And -- follow the money -- the low prices benefit the same corporations that have gotten us in trouble in the first place.

A group of non-government organizations condemning the American offer to Africa said: "The United States' use of food aid as a tool of propaganda to force acceptance of GM food and crops by Southern nations" is "a thinly disguised attempt to pollute the subcontinent's grain stocks with patented genetically modified varieties."

This devastating pollution, promoted by the companies that own the patents, has occurred all over North America. Predictably, in a system where corporate interest and lawmakers work for mutual interest, the system is being upheld by the courts.

Percy Schmeiser, Canadian farmer, was first hauled to Canadian court in 1998 when Monsanto accused him of raising biotech canola without paying a tech fee. Biotech canola has been engineered to grow even when doused with Roundup, a chemical that kills everything green.

Schmeiser had never raised biotech canola, and says he doesn't even know how the giant corporation came to the conclusion that he had patented plants on his land. Other farmers, similarly accused, had paid big fines to Monsanto rather than face off with the multinational corporation. Schmeiser and his wife stood up to them.

The Schmeiser case was decided in Canadian appellate court in early September, and the findings were bad for farmers and good for corporations. Upholding a lower court decision, the three-judge panel ruled that it doesn't matter how GMO plants get on your land. The plants can spring from seed carried by birds, bounced from a passing truck, or dropped from the air. They can even come from the pollination of your conventional plants with biotech neighbors from miles away.

Second, the court said, it doesn't matter if the pollution is against your wishes. Third, it doesn't matter if you never benefit from the new plants. The rights of landowners, in other words, is immaterial. The idea is that patented seeds are the intellectual property of the patent holder, and that the patent holder has somehow "invented" the seed, even if it springs up in a completely different plant. As far as Canadian canola goes, there are no pure sources of seed any more -- it's all been polluted by biotech genes.

In fact, patented canola has become a superweed in Canada. Each plant bears thousands of seeds. Plants are coming up in all sorts of unexpected places, and they can't be killed with conventional Roundup, the herbicide that kills everything. Utility companies spraying around poles need a new way to kill the canola weeds -- and Monsanto has promised a new generation of super sprays.

When I learned that Percy was coming to mid-Missouri, I started calling neighbors to get them to his speech. Most people didn't know who he was, but everyone knew that Monsanto is checking up on farmers. One neighbor after another told me how the Pinkerton men had come on their property and asked where the seeds came from for their crop, and whether any neighbors had tried to sell seeds.

Monsanto is a St. Louis company, and a supporter of research at our state university. Farmers around here happily signed patent agreements, giving Monsanto the right to come on their land, because they trusted that Monsanto was building better seeds -- more productivity, less chemically dependent, more nutritious. Don't blame the farmers. They thought they were saving the hungry of the world.

But now the patent ridiculousness has gone farther. Our Supreme Court, on Dec. 10, 2001, ruled 6-2 that plants -- any plants -- can be patented. Attorney General and Missourian John Ashcroft asked for the ruling, which was written by Clarence Thomas. Now the corporations don't have to do anything but collect plants and figure out the gene sequence. And at University of Missouri a project is on to figure the sequences of all the various beans, each valued by a particular tribe in a particular place, in Africa.

The Supreme Court decision protects seed companies rich enough to pay for patents. Before the ruling, the status of plant patents was undetermined. Patents, after all, were designed to protect inventions -- human creativity -- not to claim living things.

You don't need a law degree to figure out what this means to the average farmer. From now on, crops raised from saved seeds will be suspect, by Monsanto or other patent holders. They'll be tested, and when patented genes are found, the farmer will be sued.

And you don't need a law degree to figure out what this means to consumers. From now on, our food will be made from crops designed by corporations. Understanding this makes it easier to understand the actions by African countries that want to keep biotech foods out of their country. If the biotech crops get into the country, and if someone plants some of the seeds, and if the pollen from the biotech seeds gets into traditional crops, well, there goes the rights of African farmers, just like the Americans, and our neighbors and best friends -- Canadians like Percy Schmeiser.

Is there any way to resist this creeping imperialism?

As usual, the answers are un-sexy and boring. Ask about your food sources. Demand from your lawmakers the labeling of GMO ingredients. If you're a stockholder in food companies, dump them. Boycott the big food marts.

Support your local farmers. Ask what goes into the foods you eat. Use foods that are produced without GMO ingredients. Animals raised on pasture. Organic vegetables.

If only we could give a different answer -- something X-rated, international, shiny, and new. Sorry to be so dull.

Schmeiser's case is going to the Supreme Court in Canada.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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