Saskatchewan, Canada, May 6, 2004:
The arguments around the registration of Roundup Ready wheat
continue unabated. The latest salvo in the battle was fired
by an unlikely source – G. Allen Andreas, the CEO of
agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. In an interview
with Reuters news agency, Andreas warned Canadian farmers
that they might not want to be the pioneers in pushing a product
the world's consumers do not want.
For many opponents of Roundup Ready wheat, the argument is
that simple. Eighty-seven percent of the CWB's customers require
guarantees that the wheat they are buying is not genetically
modified. Since there is currently no way to control the spread
of Roundup Ready wheat into conventional varieties, introducing
it is equivalent at this time to losing those markets.
Given this, many farmers cannot understand why our varietal
registration process does not protect farmers from potential
economic disasters. It did at one time. The economic impacts
of releasing a variety were once part of the consideration
in the process. The federal government eliminated that, apparently
to pave the way for Roundup Ready wheat, which Agriculture
Canada was developing for Monsanto.
Those supporting Monsanto's bid to release Roundup Ready
wheat get rather confused around the issue of science. So
we see impassioned pleas for freedom to release GM crops coupled
with claims that to be against this is to stand in the way
of science and hence progress. Opponents of GM crops, whatever
their reason for that position, are vilified as wanting to
return us to the dark ages.
All this also gets confused around the notion of patents
themselves. Because many groups oppose the patenting of higher
life forms, like plants and animals, they are accused of opposing
the concept of patenting.
So those supporting the release of Roundup Ready wheat have
lots of avenues to attack their opponents. Unfortunately,
most of these avenues involve setting up, and then whacking
down a variety of straw men.
For example, Roland Penner, in an editorial in the March
4 Manitoba Co-operator, claimed that the argument against
patenting higher life forms implies "there should not
be any such thing as patents to begin with". This is
ridiculous. I have never heard such an argument made. I have
heard arguments made that the extension of patent rights to
discoveries (rather than inventions, as originally intended)
and to living organisms (like plants and animals) should be
carefully examined and debated in a public forum, rather than
arise from decisions by the patent office. A little harder
straw man to knock down.
The question of "opposing science" is equally interesting.
It can be argued that the development of GM crops is not science,
but rather the application of science. It is, in fact, technology.
The science comes in learning how to isolate specific genes,
to manipulate DNA, to insert genes into cells. I know very
few people who want to stop that type of research. It holds
great promise, for example, in treating genetic diseases,
through gene therapy.
But society has a right, and in fact a duty, to control technology.
For example, under the vague definition of science, those
standing against the development of biological weapons would
be anti-science. In fact, the development of these things
is the application of science – i.e. technology.
There can be a great many reasons for controlling technology.
It may be harmful to the general good, like biological weapons.
It may be an expensive waste of resources, like the GM sweet
potato in Kenya, that took millions of dollars to develop,
when sweet potatoes in neighbouring countries already has
the disease resistance of the Kenyan GM potato. It may be
harmful economically, (not to mention unwanted) like GM wheat.
What it really comes down to, is that some companies want
freedom to produce and sell anything they like, without consideration
for the economic and social impacts. That is why we have,
or should have, regulations and regulators. The argument over
Roundup Ready wheat boils down to this. Which is more important,
the right of Monsanto to sell a product or the right of farmers
to protect their markets? I vote for the farmers.
© Paul Beingessner, email@example.com
. The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and
third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.