TALKING SHOP: Michigan
Michigan Conference on Organic Agriculture, March 3-4, 2003

The right to save your own seed.
The impact of war on farming.

Michigan organic farmers confront the big issues of GMOs and a global economy at emotional conference sessions

By Bernard Ware, Jr.
Posted March 21, 2003

About the author:

Bernard Ware's family has been growing strawberries in northwest Lower Michigan for over 125 years. Bernard and Sandee, his wife, are transitioning their mixed fruit and vegetable farm to certified organic production.

EAST LANSING, Michigan: Conference organizers tell me that the 300 participants in this, the third Michigan Conference on Organic Agriculture, were “more enthusiastic” than last year. Maybe last year we were still under a cloud from 9/11, or maybe it was that last year the speakers stirred little controversy. Not so this year during the early March sessions.

MOFFA (Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance) and the Michigan Environmental Council sponsored Friday night’s organic dinner, speaker presentation and panel discussion. Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian canola grower battling Monsanto Corporation, delivered the evening’s keynote. Percy’s powerful story needs to be heard by all persons involved with food, whether they are producers or consumers.

Related resources:

For more infomration on Percy Schmeiser and his fight with Monsanto, check out www.percyschmeiser.com.

For background on Mark Ritchie's organization, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, visit www.iatp.org.

Schmeiser is a third generation canola grower, seed saver and seed developer. Schmeiser was also mayor of his community for 25 years and a former member of Canadian Parliament. Since 1947 the Schmeiser family had been working to develop a type of canola more resistant to disease in the Saskatoon Saskatchewan region. He reported success, as the variety their family developed was hardier than conventional seed.

Monsanto Corporation in Canadian courts ended this lifelong work of the Schmeiser family.

In l998 Monsanto sued for alleged violations of the patents on their GMO seed, despite the fact that Schmeiser neither bought their seed nor obtained it illegally. His court case raises serious issues for farmers all over the world, as the Canadian Courts have sided with Monsanto thus far. The court found that it does not matter how Monsanto’s GMO gene gets on your farm, through wind, wildlife or any other accident.

Courts overturn seed-saving rights

Schmeiser stated, “Even though I never intentionally used Monsanto’s GMO patented seed, the fact that there was some growing in the ditch at the edge of my field meant I violated the patent law.” The court also ruled all the Schmeiser family canola seed became property of Monsanto, because there was evidence of the patented gene in some of his fields. This is an issue of patent law over-taking the property rights and seed saving rights of farmers. The major farm organizations and media have been mysteriously silent on this basic right of all farmers.

"My wife is seventy-one and I am seventy-two years old. We don’t know how many good years we have left. But in the good years we have we are going to go down fighting for the rights of farmers around the world to use their own seed."

--Percy Schmeiser

Schmeiser described the effect of being sued by a multibillion-dollar corporation. He talked of intimidation against him and others through incentives offered to turn in neighbors suspected of saving GMO seed. He speaks of “big brother” bullying by the corporate giants facilitating “the break down of the social fabric of rural communities by promoting fear and distrust among neighbors.” In my view, the social fabric is the cooperative spirit our fore fathers and mothers created that established the communities we're all a part of today.

Percy Schmeiser is no ordinary man, as is exhibited by his courage and strength. Though it has cost him his life savings and his family’s lifelong efforts develop canola seed, he wants to leave his family, and all of us, a legacy. He concluded his speech with these words: “My wife is seventy-one and I am seventy-two years old. We don’t know how many good years we have left. But in the good years we have left we are going to go down fighting, for the rights of farmers around the world to use their own seed.” These words brought the crowd to its feet for an ovation of respect and admiration.

A panel discussion and lively question and answer session followed, concluding with an eloquent apology delivered to Percy Schmeiser on behalf of growers and citizens of America, offered by Jim Moses, a Northern Michigan farmer.

War impact on ag markets

The next morning’s address, given by Mark Ritchie and titled The Global Context for Michigan Organics, was thought provoking and possibly more controversial than the previous evening’s dialogues. Mark is President of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). IATP promotes family farms, sustainable rural communities and ecosystems throughout the world by doing research, education and advocacy.

" It is no longer enough to farm and raise a family. To be responsible we must raise our eyes, voices, hearts, and lift up our pens to let our leaders know how we feel. We also need to support each other however we can; and in making that connection, we will create community."

--Mark Ritchie

Ritchie addressed “the good, the bad and the ugly aspects” of a war with Iraq and the effects on organic agriculture in Michigan. A war might be good for organic growers through potential financial gain from higher food prices, and fear could move customers to purchase local food. Mark then listed the bad effects of war and how they might further erode family farms through loss of youth, falling stock market, increased government borrowing followed by higher interest rates and diverting the attention of leaders from critical issues. An example might be concentration on foreign policy while continuing to ignore the small farm crises.

When Ritchie gave the “ugly effects of a war for oil,” it was evident that some of the approximately 125 people were upset: several walked out of the room. One woman commented to me as she walked by that, “I love my country too much to listen to this.” I thought to myself, "I love my country too. But what's ugly are the lies being promoted by some of our leaders and the loss of our constitutional rights." Ritchie felt the drives to ignore international treaties would lead to increased violence worldwide, including more violence inside our own country.

Ritchie quickly moved to a positive message as he suggested that “organic farming is a way to move to a sustainable future by creating relationships with the earth and with your neighbors.” To preserve this movement, he said, we must maintain constant vigilance toward government and trade policies, which could favor big business. He warned of WTO trade rules, which would not allow labels to differentiate organic products from conventional products. He reminded us our tax money helps fund the WTO. Ritchie challenged all, as he pleaded, “ It is no longer enough to farm and raise a family. To be responsible we must raise our eyes, voices, hearts, and lift up our pens to let our leaders know how we feel. We also need to support each other however we can; and in making that connection, we will create community.”

As I reflect on Schmeiser and Ritchie's words, I just know that many of the challenges that are present in today’s world are going to be solved by organic growers. We have the skill to build relationships and to establish community. We are not afraid of hard work. We are highly adaptable and we are able to move out of our comfort zones. These are exciting times to live—and farm—in and we have a lot of work to do. Let’s get on with it!