RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Lotsa Bull

A March 15 letter to the editor of The Progressive Populist asks why farmers can't pass a law to ban gene pollution in their crops. The writer reasons that gene pollution --which happens when the pollen from one field infects the seed of another field --is like trespassing. The person trespassed-upon can argue that the trespasser has done something wrong. It should be a simple matter of property rights.

As a livestock farmer, I understand this logic. If our bull goes through the fence and into a neighbor's herd, we have to pay damages and fix the fence. Same thing if our bull goes through the fence and eats a neighbor's soybeans. It used to be, under the law, that both neighbors had the obligation to fix fences together. Today, though, the obligation is with the livestock owner, who has the organism most likely to cross the fence.

But, as progressive rural activist Bryce Oates once explained to me, corporate laws aren't made to protect citizens like you and me. For example, corporate laws take precedence over nuisance laws when it comes to neighbors' rights against livestock confinements. When the owner's a giant, like Cargill or ConAgra, property rights are of absolutely no matter. The giants can stink up the air and pollute the water, but neighbors and regulators have little recourse.

Patent laws, as interpreted by the courts, have the same effect on citizens' rights. As Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser found out when Monsanto's patented genes got into Schmeiser's traditional canola crop, Monsanto could sue Schmeiser for stealing genes from Monsanto. And Monsanto could win.

70-year-old Schmeiser had been raising canola and saving the best seeds to re-plant for 50 years. Then the pollen from a neighbor's Monsanto gene-altered field got into Schmeiser's crop. Monsanto investigators came on Schmeiser's farm and made some tests. Remember this: Schmeiser had been developing his own line of seed for 50 years and did not want biotech genes.

When Schmeiser's canola tested positive for Monsanto's patented genes, Monsanto insisted on payment and took Schmeiser to court in 1998. The court decided three things: (1) it didn't matter how Monsanto's genes got into the field, whether by birds, bees, wind, animals or off a farmer's truck; (2) any plant of any kind that gets cross-pollinated and carries the patented genes, even against the owner's wishes, becomes the patent-holder's property; (3) the fact that Schmeiser never used Monsanto's patented property on his property is immaterial.

In other words, patent rights are more important than people's rights. And patent laws are the same all over the world.

Schmeiser is appealing the decision, and there's more about the travesty of justice on Schmeiser's web page. "Weirder than X-files," said Jim Hightower, trying to explain the case to an Austin, Texas, audience. Hightower put Schmeiser in the same category with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other human rights defenders.

Travesty of justice, yes, but not travesty of the law. Corporate laws aren't made to protect citizens like Schmeiser and you and me.

And now there's more.

Monsanto has now admitted that canola seed --including, perhaps, the seed planted by Schmeiser's neighbor --contains genetic material that should never have left the laboratory. That's right. Monsanto's canola seed planted in Canada and the US contained "GT200," a gene that was never approved for human consumption.

Monsanto says it never sold GT200-seed in Canada and wonders how it got there. Clearly, Monsanto can't keep the biotech bull on its side of the fence.

"This is genetic pollution," says Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety. Canada forced Monsanto to recall of hundreds of tons of the stuff.

This disaster might have never been discovered if it was not for Japanese consumer groups that test for gene pollution and refuse grain shipments from North America if they are polluted. American processors wouldn't have found the stowaway gene. In 2000, Kraft used Starlink corn, which had been banned from human consumption, in Taco Bell taco shells and Kraft corn products. Starlink corn is indigestible, but digestibility wasn't the scientist's goal. From a scientist's viewpoint, the corn is successful if it kills insect larva and can be sold to farmers as bug-proof.

The Starlink recalls were embarrassing and costly to Aventis, owner of the Starlink patent. First, they tried to blame farmers who had planted the seed, saying the farmers should have known not to sell their crops to buyers who would use it in human food. But farmers and grain handlers hadn't been told. Sixteen state attorneys general sued Aventis on behalf of farmers and grain handlers. Aventis, a pharmaceutical, sold its crop science division to German pharmaceutical Bayer. So far, Aventis has set aside 100 million euros --$88 million --to compensate growers and processors that used Starlink.

American processors don't test for banned genes because testing would be expensive and time-consuming. ConAgra, which dominates the oil and margarine business, admitted to the Wall Street Journal on April 15 that they don't screen their canola oil for banned genes when they process their Wesson oils and margarines such as Parkay, Blue Bonnet, Fleischmann's, or Chiffon, Touch of Butter and Move Over Butter. ConAgra uses canola in hundreds of products because canola is supposed to have a health benefit. It tests lower for saturated fats, so you can look for it in ConAgra's low-fat products like Healthy Choice, and low-fat versions of dozens of brands.

Instead of testing to see if ingredients are fit for human consumption, and recalling products that carry illegal ingredients, American corporations demand that laws are changed. Monsanto has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to change its opinion of GT200 and approve it for human use.

Interesting. We can remember when Phil Angell, Monsanto spokesman, said that Monsanto's job is to sell as much biotech food as possible; Angell said it's the FDA's job to guarantee the food's safety.

Clearly, the patent owners can't keep their bulls on their side of the fence. GMO genes have even gotten into even organic crops. "As we see more and more varieties ... you might find trace amounts in food that didn't go through the full regulatory measure," said spokesperson Michael P. Phillips of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Industry argues that we should accept this contamination, and, indeed, the FDA said after a day --they gave it a full day! --of mulling it over that the contamination doesn't "appear to pose health risks." This statement protects Monsanto from lawsuits, but put the bull back in the pasture.

In fact, there's only one way to keep the bull on his side of the fence, and that's to resist this biotech incursion into one crop after another. Right now, US wheat farmers are fighting the introduction of biotech wheat into their croplands.

According to North Dakota farmer Rodney Nelson, Monsanto told North Dakota legislators that if the lawmakers did not stand up to protesting wheat farmers Monsanto would take action. They would withhold research money from the state universities and they would sue the state for blocking free trade.

Consumers --we are responsible for tightening this fence and keeping the bull on his side. We must make clear that we don't want biotech wheat in our bread, pasta, cupcakes and cookies. Tell your grocer, your restaurateur, your office cafeteria manager, your movie theatre owner. Get in the habit of asking what brands they serve and in the habit of resisting untested GMO foods. No more bull.

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

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