Last of 3 parts: The economics of Bt crops
DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/21 Dec) – Sometime in 1961, Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey declared: “Agriculture is the greatest story America has ever had… The scourge of the world today is hunger and famine, and we’re the only nation in the world in a position to do something about it. It’s a far more powerful weapon than nuclear fusion. The Russians may be cheating on nuclear tests, but we’re not cheating on agriculture. We’re only timid about using it as a weapon for peace.”
Humphrey’s pronouncement came a year after the Green Revolution was introduced in developing countries, including the Philippines where the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations bankrolled the establishment of the International Rice Research Institute at UP Los Banos. Green Revolution started much earlier, however, in 1943 in Mexico where it was deemed a success. IRRI developed IR8, a cultivar that produced higher yields but required the use of fertilizers and pesticides, eventually killing off fish and vegetables that had thrived in rice paddies. Despite this and other criticisms the program became the food production regime in the Philippines, India and parts of Africa.
Coincidence or not, the Green Revolution provided captive markets for the manufacturers of the seeds and chemical inputs needed to control the high level of pest occurrence resulting from monocropping. One of these firms happened to be Monsanto, maker of the DDT which the US Congress banned in 1972. Aside from DDT, Monsanto produced the deadly Agent Orange, a defoliant widely used during the Vietnam War and later found to be highly carcinogenic to people who come into close contact with it. The firm also produced polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs. Categorized as a persistent organic pollutant, the US Congress banned its production in 1979.
Monsanto would later shift much of its corporate energy to biotechnology years after its scientists genetically modified a plant cell and conducted field trials for GE crops. Among the crops that Monsanto has genetically modified are corn, soybean, canola, cotton and recently, eggplant, and in such a way that has made them resistant to the Roundup herbicide, one of the company’s leading agrochemical products.
But farmers may be expecting too much if they think that Monsanto “invented” these crops with egalitarianism as the primary motive. Generosity or the buzz phrase “corporate social responsibility” is nowhere near its radar screen. The company shields its GE products with patents and other instruments under intellectual property laws. Monsanto Canada v. Schmeiser, a case of patent infringement filed in 1998 by Monsanto against Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, is instructive.
Monsanto sued Schmeiser for patent infringement after the company discovered that its Roundup-ready canola had grown on his farm. Farmers using Monsanto’s GE canola had to sign a Technology Use Agreement with the firm upon purchase of the seed, Monsanto’s form of license for growers of the seed containing the patented gene.
In his defense, Schmeiser said he did not intentionally plant the initial Roundup-ready canola, and that his custom-bred canola had been contaminated since other farmers in the area were planting the GE variety. He further argued that since he did not use the Roundup herbicide on the canola, he did not use the plant gene. He admitted though that he harvested the initial Roundup-ready canola in 1997 and planted the seeds the next year.
The Federal Court of Canada ruled in favor of Monsanto. In his decision dated 29 March 2001, Judge W. Andrew Mackay said: “…The defendants (Schmeiser was charged along with his wife Louise) grew canola in 1998 in nine fields, from seed saved from their 1997 crop, which seed Mr. Schmeiser knew or can be taken to have known was Roundup tolerant. That seed was grown and ultimately the crop was harvested and sold. In my opinion, whether or not that crop was sprayed with Roundup during its growing period is not important. Growth of the seed, reproducing the patented gene and cell, and sale of the harvested crop constitutes taking the essence of the plaintiffs’ invention, using it, without permission. In so doing the defendants infringed upon the patent interests of the plaintiffs.”
Schmeiser brought the case to the Supreme Court, which upheld the trial court’s ruling that the defendant infringed on Monsanto’s patent, although the Supreme Court ruled that Schmeiser did not owe damages to the company because he did not profit from using the GE canola. Interestingly, the courts did not bother asking the defendant-farmer how much damage the genetic contamination had caused on his custom-bred canola.
Monsanto v. Schmeiser highlighted yet again the debate on the legal and ethical dimensions of patenting life forms, genes in particular. The Canadian courts’ decision has far-reaching implications in relation to the practice of individual farmers of breeding seeds to evolve better varieties. Such centuries-old practice may possibly be deemed illegal under existing patent laws or future ones which government may enact to protect Monsanto’s “ownership” of GE crops.
And while Monsanto has always marketed its GE products as being designed to become less dependent on pesticides, documented evidence of certain target pests having become resistant to Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), the bacterium embedded in its GE crops, has cast doubts on such crops as a key to attaining long-term agricultural productivity and food security and uplifting the social conditions of impoverished farmers. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno / MindaNews)