Thursday, 1 May 2014

Why does Vandana Shiva care more about Canada's Bill C18 than we do?

In the natural world systems are closely aligned, interdependent and often symbiotic. A good example is the relationship between pollinators and seed regeneration.

In December 2013 Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz introduced Bill C18, the Agricultural Growth Act. It is before committee awaiting second reading. Buried in section 50 is the recommendation that Canada support the 1991 version of UPOV, the convention of International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. This means companies that grow and sell seeds would be allowed to collect royalties from farmers who store, harvest and replant their seeds. The Act is strongly supported by the Canadian Seed Trade Association which includes in its membership Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and Dupont. The Act is just as strenuously opposed by the National Farmers Union. They say the Act will restrict farmers' ability to save seed for replanting and will allow seed companies to collect royalties based on harvests.

Why should we care? It is about answering basic questions of human rights and the definition of life. Is it a right or a privilege to save seed? Is a seed a life form?

Vandana Shiva's three definitions of seeds in her keynote address to Public Interest Alberta in April;
“It’s part of a global movement to reclaim seed as a commons. To reclaim seed freedom, which for me is three things: the freedom of the seed itself, as a living being, in its diversity, integrity and evolutionary potential; the freedom of the farmer to save and exchange seed, and to have their contribution to breeding recognized; and the freedom of the eater to get good food, because without good seed, there is no good food."

At its simplest her premise is that a life form is not patentable and therefore can not be owned. If seeds become patentable then 'ownership' of seeds becomes a privilege, not a right and subject to laws of the land.

When individual farmers have incurred the wrath of corporate agriculture the story has played out predictably - no victory of the underdog here (notwithstanding Malcolm Gladwell's new book, David and Goliath). Think of Canada's Percy Schmeiser. He is a third generation Saskatchewan farmer who invoked the ire of Monsanto. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Biotechnology history was made when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Schmeiser had violated the patent held by Monsanto on their genetically engineered canola seeds.

Farmers in the bread basket of Africa endured unprecedented drought in 2009. If that wasn't bad enough, they had another problem. Many were using genetically modified corn seed which included in its genome a protein from a bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis, commonly known as Bt. The leaves and stems of Bt Maize produce a toxin whose intention is to destroy the gut  of any moth larvae eating the plant. But in Africa the insects developed a resistance to the Bt pesticide and in fact, the resistant insects proliferated and decimated the crop.

There has been wide reporting of the suicides of Indian farmers. The official report is 270,000 since 1995. While there is controversy over whether these deaths reflect a change from the tradition of farmers planting seed they had saved to buying GMO seeds there is no question that changes to farming practices in India have been detrimental to the small subsistence farmer.

In all parts of the globe bees, one of most important pollinators, are at risk. According to Sierra Club Canada, the presence of neonicotinoid pesticides have been found in 90% of dead bees. Neonicotinoid pesticides were developed to replace insecticides like DDT and were supposed to be ‘better for the environment’. Manufacturers claimed the new pesticides would be more targeted, fatal only to specific insects. Health Canada approved neonicotinoids in 2004 allowing companies to bypass testing.  The "conditional approval" has been renewed ever since. 

Around the world, and in Canada too, government policy supports corporate agriculture, often at the expense of the small family farm. This means that because of "economies of scale", monoculture and use of herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizers trump practices of sustainability, biodiversity and protecting and nourishing our agricultural soil. Farmers who save seed and encourage and protect pollinators become victims of agricultural policy.

I wonder why every newspaper doesn't have a reporter on the Ag beat? Sounds ludicrous, I know. But, considering food is one of the few things all people have in common multiple times each day, why not? It seems as justifiable an inclusion in our daily read as Celebrity Star Gazing, Deals in Wheels and My Lie (the personal ads).

While I am attracted to the idea of a little subversion every once in a while, the notion of becoming a criminal - and a petty one at that - is not top on my list of wanna-do's. I imagine a future where
"Eileen Fawcett, hereby known as the Defendant, is charged with saving and possession of 7 ounces of Heirloom Jacob's Cattle beans seeds (Exhibit A),  13 Heirloom Tomato Seeds -variety Aida (Exhibit B) and 9 ounces of Heirloom Lettuce Seeds - both red and green varieties (Exhibit C)".
Exhibit A; Saved seeds of the heirloom bean, Jacob's Cattle
Exhibit B; Saved seeds of Heirloom Tomato - Aida
Exhibit C; Saved seeds of Heirloom Lettuces

In this, the International Year of the Family Farm (who knew? really?), it is time to put the "culture" back in agriculture. Farmers' markets and CSAs, where there is a  relationship between producer and consumer, are good signs. But more is needed. It is time for each and every one of us to write our local MP to stand up for our food security, our agricultural land and our pollinators; we need to protest Bill C18.
Kale gone to seed is used as an ornamental in one of the 9 Smithsonian Gardens

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