Let farmers decide what seeds to sow

The federal government is opening the door to genetically engineered seeds and endangering our global heritage of open pollinated seeds.

Seedy Saturdays and Sundays ended recently and a hot topic was Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act, introduced on Nov. 13.

The bill includes signing on by Aug. 14 to UPOV ’91, standards set by the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, a Geneva-based organization. ‘Plant breeders’ rights’ sounds all right until it becomes clear that the phrase is a cloak for moving control of plant breeding out of the public domain into the private control of biotech companies such as Monsanto, now the highest earner in the sales of seeds worldwide. UPOV ’91 opens the door to genetically engineered seeds and endangers our global heritage of open pollinated seeds, husbanded over thousands of years for the good of all.

One result of an anti-science government is the lack of guidance from independent, tax-funded scientists on issues such as this. How many of us know that open pollination is the natural means of plant propagation (sometimes with a little help from hands-on farmers to protect innocent carrots from genetically unfortunate seduction by Queen Anne’s Lace growing all around)? How many know that genetic engineering is a reckless invasion of plants with material from different species and would never occur without violent intrusions?

There are gardeners today who remember when they could trust the seed packages they bought from local stores or mail-ordered after poring over catalogues. Those days are gone for ever. One of the most popular mail order companies, Stokes Seeds, is one of the many now owned by Monsanto, the most infamous of the big six companies that own the world’s seed, pesticide and biotechnology industries.

These corporations bought up thousands of small seed companies, then discontinued production of many crop varieties to streamline their operations. Ninety-six per cent of food crops available in 1903 are now extinct because of this careless neglect.

The National Farmers Union is calling for a new Seed Act for Farmers in which Canada will “recognize the inherent rights of farmers – derived from thousands of years of custom and tradition – to save, reuse, select, exchange, and sell seeds.”

They are joined by Foodshare Toronto, which opposes C-18 “because we are worried that it will increase pressures on farmers who save their own seeds and jeopardize the ability of Canadian farmers to grow food for Canadians.”

Matt Gehl, a Saskatchewan farmer writing in the Western Producer, says “[Stephen] Harper and agriculture minister Gerry Ritz must be stopped from favouring the rights of plant breeders at the expense of the rights of farmers and consumers to use grain varieties developed impartially in the public interest.”

Last year Dr. Vandana Shiva, physicist and ecologist, concluded her University of Victoria president’s distinguished lecture with part of a poem by the Palestinian exile Fawaz Turki: “I do not fear your tyranny, I guard one seed, of a tree, my forefathers have saved, that I shall plant again, in my homeland.”

What the poet wrote as a metaphor might well be a rallying cry for all of us today.

Marjorie Stewart is board chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at marjorieandalstewart@shaw.ca.