This past Saturday, a worldwide day of action against the bio-tech company Monsanto took place, with marches taking place in all of South Africa’s major cities. What was it all about? Why has so much anger been displayed against one corporation in particular and how does this relate to food?
Monsanto is synonymous with GM (genetically modified) crops. It is at the centre of the debate on the safety and desirability of GM crops and their presence in our food. As an Organic farmer I am opposed to GM crops for the reasons I will give below.
In a nutshell the concept of genetic modification means the insertion of genes from other species into the genetic make-up of a particular crop to develop certain traits. It is done through direct human intervention and not by natural breeding.
My main objections to the use of GM crops fall into two areas. Firstly there is concern over safety and health, human and animal and ecological. Secondly there is the problem over control of seeds due to patent rights held by the bio-tech companies.
If there is the smallest doubt as to the safety of any any product one must first apply the precautionary principle. This means that the agency introducing the GM crop to the environment and for human consumption must bear full responsibility for the consequences of that action.
To date that is not being done. There are studies that have shown that GM crops can be harmful to health and the environment, yet these crops are still marketed. The bio-tech corporations insist that they have proved the safety of these crops but these studies are hidden behind a firewall of proprietary confidentiality.
Every farmer should have the right to save and to share seed taken from his own crops. As an organic farmer I try to only use open pollinated varieties which invariably are also heirloom varieties. This means they have a lineage far older than the seed companies that sell them and as such should be “open source” and free for all to use. For instance one of my lettuce varieties, “Lolla biondo”, dates back to Roman times.
In order to fund their research the bio-tech corporations such as Monsanto have resorted to strict patenting of their intellectual property. This has now become a general trend and seed companies are starting to claim proprietary rights over even the open pollinated varieties.
Governments are being lobbied to restrict farmers rights to save their own seeds and to increase bureaucratic control to make it difficult for small vendors of heirloom seeds to do business. What this ultimatly means is that control over seed will be concentrated in the hands of a few profit centred corporations and, as a result our food sovereignty will be threatened. Not just the farmers, but everyone rich or poor will have the source of their sustenance under the control of a monopoly.
Monsanto is now the worlds largest seed company.
There is a lot more to this controversy than can be fitted into this article. The bottom line is that we have a right to food that is safe. We have a right to choose what food we eat and we have a right to food itself. We also have a right to an environment that is not detrimental to our well-being.
These rights are being eroded by the dominance of the big bio-tech companies. Monsanto is most aggressive of these corporations and has attracted the most anger but it is not the only one.