Standing Ground

Standing Ground, June 2010

I recently attended a meeting here in Montana where we discussed farmer protection legislation. The purpose was to bring together people with different interests – farmers, seed companies, farm organizations,and state agencies – to find common ground on testing and dispute resolution regarding seed patent infringement cases.

The meeting was productive and no one’s feathers were ruffled — until the concerns of organic and other non-GMO farmers about contamination and liability ignited a heated debate. At that point the president of a well-respected seed company recently purchased by Monsanto exclaimed, “Soon there will be sustainability traits for organic…sustainability traits that are necessary for saving the world.”

In other words, the biotechnology industry is working hard to convince the public that combining organic agriculture with genetic engineering is our only chance at feeding the world and farming sustainably.

I understand well the rhetoric around the marriage of biotechnology and organics.Still, I couldn’t help but respond as if a bag of seed corn was thrown at me. “Sustainability biotech traits?” I asked. “But biotech traits aren’t allowed in the organic standards.” The gruff response: “We have to work out the morals.”

What followed was a speech about changing the organic standards to allow the use of genetically engineered seed — an excluded method, of course, that the organic community fought hard to preserve. Beyond the unconvincing arguments was a general hostility toward organic, and it reminded me of the fundamental differences in values between the biotechnology and organic sectors. (You can read more about organic values as they pertain to seed in our July 2010 newsletter.)

The distance between these two value systems is far too wide for there to be much common ground on our biggest challenges, including contamination. Companies producing seed technologies talk about “co-existence,” but too many farmers face a different reality, one that involves contaminated seed and lost markets.

While the organic community may not always agree on policies and practices, OSA and our partners agree that genetic engineering has no place in the movement’s collective vision of an organic production system. The importance of our work and that of our partners in developing ethical,farmer-oriented, organic seed systems cannot be overstated. Organic farmers depend on organic and other seed free of transgenic material to meet the organic — and their customers’ — standards.

The state farmer protection legislation that was discussed at this meeting is an important step forward. These bills level the playing field in patent infringement cases, and though these initiatives have had mixed success,together they signal a real need for federal legislation. In particular this legislation needs to go much further by transferring liability for economic damage to the patent holders, an essential accountability component currently absent.

But as fights ensue in capitols we must also foster the systems that stand as promising solutions to what we oppose. That’s why I’m encouraged by the work of Organic Seed Alliance and excited to join their team as a staff member. Meaningful change will grow all around us if we keep planting the seeds.

Kristina Hubbard, Advocacy Program Specialist

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