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    September 2001: Although the Food and Agriculture Organisation adopted a resolution in 1989 introducing the concept of farmers' rights, the implementation of these rights over the past decade has been very slow. The recent case of Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer, shows that farmers' rights are being threatened by the biotech industry.

    I've been using my own seed for years, and now farmers like me are being told we can't do that anymore if our neighbours are growing (genetically modified) crops that blow in. ... Basically, the right to use our own seed has been taken away.' says Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer. At the end of March, a Canadian judge ordered farmer Percy Schmeiser to pay Monsanto thousands of dollars because a genetically modified (GM) canola variety patented by Monsanto was found growing on his field. This decision was reached even though Schmeiser consistently stated that he did not grow these seeds voluntarily, but that his crops were cross-pollinated by modified plants from another farm. Although several similar lawsuits have been filed against farmers in North America, this is the first case that ended up in a trial.

    The customary right of farmers to save, use and exchange their seeds and other planting material is one of the cornerstones of agriculture. Traditionally, farmers have saved their best seeds and used them again the next year. Now, however, companies sell GM seeds under the agreement that they be used in a single season, forcing farmers to buy the new seed each year. For the first time in history, farmers risk losing the right to save their seeds, and along with that, their autonomy.

    Percy Schmeiser's case underlines the increasing tension between farmers and large biotech companies, which with their introduction of patented genes intend to change traditional agricultural patterns forever. The impact of these changes on farming communities worldwide could be tremendous. In the South, where people will likely not be able to afford high-tech seeds and the associated chemical inputs year after year, the introduction of GM seed varieties presents a particularly grave threat to the food security and food sovereignty of thousands of local and indigenous farming communities.

    Seed diversity disappearing

    Over 90% of the earth's remaining biodiversity is in Southern countries. Local farming communities have preserved and reused their diverse indigenous seed varieties over generations. Women have been the primary contributors to this form of biodiversity management, identifying and storing seeds each year. The industrialisation of agriculture, initiated with the Green Revolution, has pushed women aside and undermined genetic resources and the knowledge associated with them through the promotion of a handful of cash crops. Traditional seed varieties suffered another big blow during this process, which also promoted the intensive use of agrochemicals in the environment.

    Instead of learning from the mistakes of the past, we have now been thrust into the Gene Revolution. This streamlined form of agriculture promotes the planting of millions of hectares of land with just a few crops, such as Monsanto's Round-up Ready soya, genetically engineered to resist the company's own chemical pesticide. The rapid introduction of just a few GM crops since 1996 is threatening to displace traditional varieties even more aggressively than did the Green Revolution.

    Seed security is food security

    Plant genetic resources, like maize taken from the heart of Mexico, constitute the basis of food and agriculture production throughout the world today. Local and indigenous communities and farmers from all regions of the world have made an enormous contribution to the spread of agriculture. The customary practice in indigenous and local communities of saving seeds is a key component of their food security, guaranteeing access to the food they need at all times. Shifting seed control into the hands of multinationals would undermine the household food security of these communities.

    Strengthening farmers' rights

    In 1989, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) adopted a resolution that introduced the concept of farmers' rights. The resolution recognised that farmers have conserved and improved plant genetic resources, the majority of which came from developing countries, over millennia. It further noted that the importance of these farmers' contributions has not been sufficiently recognised or rewarded. The resolution describes farmers' rights as 'vested in the International Community, as trustee for present and future generations of farmers, for the purpose of ensuring full benefits to farmers, and supporting the continuation of their contributions'.

    However, the implementation of these rights over the past decade has been very slow, and the revision of the international undertaking on plant genetic resources in food and agriculture under the FAO has not provided strong provisions to protect farmers' rights. Farmers' rights must be strengthened, and they must retain their rights to save seeds. Farmers who choose not to grow GM crops should not be punished by corporations seeking to control traditional resources, and cases like that of Percy Schmeiser should not be repeated.

    Juan Lopez Villar
    September 2001

    Juan Lopez Villar is with Friends of the Earth, Europe, and the FoEI GMO Programme. The above article first appeared in the magazine LINK (April/June 2001), and is reproduced here from Third World Network Features. Third World Network Features is a unique, reliable, independent features service, monitoring the world through Third World Eyes.

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