At the end of 2009, 930,000 tonnes of Canadian-produced flaxseed was left with nowhere to go. The massive amount of unsold product was meant for European markets, which account for 70 percent of flax grown in Canada.
The European Union shut the door on Canadian flax after genetically modified organisms were detected in 11 Canadian shipments in less than one month.
Canadian farmers knew that GMO flax is not approved for sale in Europe. The crops were contaminated, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network representative Lucy Sharratt told Reuters in October.
This story and the threat such incidents pose to the livelihoods of Canadian farmers is one that Percy Schmeiser is sure to highlight at his upcoming engagement in Vancouver.
While proponents of the biotechnology tout GMOs as an invaluable tool to help feed a growing human population, Schmeiser and others have argued that for 13 years, the increasing prevalence of GMOs has eroded farmers’ rights.
A GMO is a plant that has been genetically engineered to include a gene from another organism. Plants are genetically modified by agricultural corporations like Monsanto to introduce desirable characteristics, such as a resistance to pests.
According to a 2004 CBC News report, some estimates indicate that as many as 30,000 grocery store products contain GMOs. Today, that number is likely to be significantly higher.
“There is no longer the possibility that you can even have organic farmers,” Schmeiser told the Straight in a telephone interview. “You cannot have coexistence. And I think that a lot of the organic farmers did not realize how serious the situation was until they realized, three or four years ago, that they could lose their certification overnight.”
The Saskatchewan farmer gained notoriety over the course of the last decade through a string of highly publicized court battles with Monsanto Canada Inc., a division of Monsanto Company, which is the world’s largest seed supplier.
Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto in 1998 for allegedly violating patent rights for biotechnology via the cultivation of genetically modified canola seeds. He finally won his battle with the multinational corporation in an out-of-court settlement agreed upon in March 2008. Monsanto paid all clean-up costs for Schmeiser’s fields.
“It wasn’t just a victory for ourselves, but for all farmers,” Schmeiser said. “If you are contaminated now, there is an avenue, or a precedent has been set, where you can take Monsanto to court.”
Trish Jordan, a spokesperson for Monsanto, said that it is and always has been a farmer’s right to choose what sort of crop they grow, and remains so today. She noted that since Monsanto began selling seeds modified through biotechnology, global yields of certified organic crops have significantly increased.
“It is completely their choice as to whether or not they want to sign that contract and whether or not they want to use our technology,” Jordan maintained.
Monsanto has farmers sign contracts which often stipulate that seeds cannot be saved from one year to the next, but must be purchased each growing season. Addressing concerns related to such contracts, Jordan emphasized that worldwide, the corporation spends US$2.6 million a day on research and development in over 80 countries.
“It takes anywhere from five to 10 years, and probably closer to eight to 10 years, and US$50 to US$100 million, to bring a new technology to the marketplace,” she explained. “So we do put a significant amount of research and development dollars into developing new products, and those products are directed only at farmers, because farmers are our only customers.”
Schmeiser went on to say that just as great a concern as farmers’ rights to choose what they grow, are consumers’ rights to know what they are eating. He said that the consumption of GMOs could have potentially detrimental health consequences for consumers and that is why products containing GMOs should be labelled in a way that says so.
“It is a drastic violation of human rights in Canada when we don’t know what is in our food,” Schmeiser emphasized.
Garnet Etsell, chair of the British Columbia Agriculture Council, told the Straight that his organization officially has no position on GMO labelling. He explained that is because it is his opinion that there is currently no scientific evidence indicating that GMOs are harmful to people’s health.
“Proper labelling is important,” Etsell said from his farm in Abbotsford. But, he added, “I think the concern is that improper labelling absolutely can affect sales and profit margins. So if there is not a strong basis and justification, then I don’t see the need for it.”
In June 2007, Alex Atamanenko, NDP MP for British Columbia Southern Interior, tabled a private member’s bill that would have required the labelling of GMOs in food. Shortly after, the Bloc Québécois introduced a similar bill which was voted down by the Conservative and Liberal parties.
More recently, Atamanenko has targeted GMOs with a different approach. On November 2, 2009, Bill C-474—an act to amend the Seeds Regulations—received a first reading in the House of Commons.
If passed, C-474 would place a moratorium on the introduction of new GMO species in Canada pending an economic analysis of the effects any introduction of a new GMO could have on farmers in the country.
“I think it is pretty hard not to support a bill that is going to help farmers,” Atamanenko said from his office in Castlegar.
He expressed disappointment that debate on C-474 has been postponed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s proroguing of Parliament, and said that he is looking forward to seeing the bill receive a second reading scheduled for the third week of March.
Tara Moreau, a director for the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, would also like to see more research done on GMOs. An entomologist, she told the Straight that there is a place for GMOs, but that further research is needed.
According to Moreau, if consumers want to ensure that they avoid consuming GMOs, the only way to do it is to buy foods that are certified organic.
“I know that there are lots of people pushing to have labelling of foods but I don’t see it happening,” she said. “My advice to always buy organic.”
Schmeiser is scheduled to speak at the Vancouver Unitary Church (5840 Oak Street) on Saturday (February 6) at 8 p.m. Tickets are $19 in advance and $25 at the door. Complete event information is available at www.biofield.ca/.
You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.