Gone to seed 

Who holds the patent—or liability—for genetic pollution?

Editor’s Note: This is the first of several articles about speakers to be featured at the Global Justice Action Summit in Missoula June 20–24.

The same laws of physics that tell us that nature abhors a vacuum also inform us that nature abhors the status quo. Although ecosystems naturally correct imbalances between, say, the populations of foraging animals and the vegetation they feed on, chaos theory tells us that change is an inevitable part of every natural system. Even in the absence of human tampering, climates heat up and cool down, species migrate, rivers change course and wind currents sweep seeds and pollen far and wide.

Human tampering does not prevent change from occurring in nature, but simply adds more unknown variables for chaos theory to chew on.

Two of the speakers scheduled to address next months’ Global Justice Action Summit (Global JAS) in Missoula know a thing or two about changes borne on the wind, and the hubris of anyone who claims that genetic engineering in an uncontrolled environment will stay confined for long within neatly ruled geographic boundaries.

One of them, Percy Schmeiser, is a familiar name to many Montanans, especially farmers. Schmeiser is the Saskatchewan canola grower who was sued by agribusiness giant Monsanto when the company discovered its patented, genetically engineered (GE) strain of canola growing in his fields. Schmeiser had never signed a patent agreement or paid Monsanto for the right to grow the company’s so-called Roundup Ready Canola, engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

Schmeiser, who spent more than 40 years cultivating his own strain of canola the old-fashioned way, claimed that he never had any intention or desire to grow Roundup Ready canola and doesn’t know how it ended up in his fields. During his trial, he suggested that GE seeds may have blown off passing trucks, or that wind, birds or insects carried GE pollen from neighboring fields. Schmeiser never sprayed his fields with Roundup and sold his crop as grain, not as seed, and thus he never benefited from Monsanto’s GE crop. Nor was there any evidence that Schmeiser was guilty of “brownbagging,” or obtaining Monsanto’s GE seeds fraudulently.

Nevertheless, on March 29, 2001 a federal judge in Canada ruled that Schmeiser had committed multiple patent infringements and ordered him to pay Monsanto $15 (Canadian) per acre ($9.60 U.S.) for his 1,030 acres, plus $153,000 in Monsanto’s court costs, and the profits from his 1998 crop, totaling about $20,000. Adding insult to injury, Schmeiser lost the rights to his own strain of canola, which he had spent a lifetime developing. Last week, Schmeiser, whose five-year legal battle with Monsanto has cost him much of his life’s savings, filed an appeal in Canadian court.

Experts will undoubtedly debate the legal ramifications of the Schmeiser case for years to come, and perhaps in coming years, corporations will find themselves being hauled into court as defendants in “genetic pollution” suits brought by organically certified farms. However, Brad Hash has no doubts about the scientific implications of such genetic drift. Hash, an activist with Action for Social and Ecological Justice in Burlington, Vt., says that while the risks associated with GE food crops are serious enough, the risks associated with GE trees could prove catastrophic, especially in states like Montana.

Most of the research on GE trees is being done in the United States on roughly 140 to 150 university test plots, largely clustered in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike genetically engineered food crops, however, GE trees are at least five to six years away from commercial production. Proponents of GE tree technology point to its impressive and unlimited potential: trees that can be grown faster, harvested less labor intensively, processed with fewer toxins, and produce a bacterial pesticide, Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, that kills off insects that live on the tree.

Opponents, however, sketch a more troubling scenario, noting that once these trees are allowed to reach reproductive maturity on outdoor tree plantations, their genetic material will drift wherever the wind carries their pollen. And whereas crops like canola might spread pollen over a relatively short distance—several hundred meters or so—pollen produced by trees can spread hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. Pollen from test plots in eastern Oregon and Washington would be picked up in prevailing winds, dispersed over public and private lands in northern Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Alberta and British Columbia.

“All of a sudden you have an epidemic and we’re not going to be able to tell what’s going on until it’s too late, because some of those lands are really remote,” says Hash, who will speak about GE trees next month at Global JAS. “The technology they are engineering into trees will spread and contaminate native forests without a doubt, and even industry will not say that they can maintain sterility [of the GE trees] at 100 percent. They don’t even come close to saying that.”

So what happens when patented organisms—with built-in pesticides—begin popping up on public lands? Hash says that the legal precedents in this area is sketchy. If, for example, acres of GE spruce trees begin appearing in Glacier National Park, presumably the public will have to decide whether they should be removed or not. If it’s decided that those trees must be removed, who will get rid of them, and how? Will they be logged, and if so, will roads be have to be built into sensitive areas? Or, will the trees be left where they are and allowed to spread more genetic contamination? “Either way, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” says Hash.

“That’s what I consider the big wild card that really, really pushes the envelope on this and makes it incredibly risky.”

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