Friday, November 7, 2008

Deflating the Power of Genetically Engineered Seed Companies, and Restoring the Balance of Power to Farmers

Agribusiness and biotechnology companies have rapidly consolidated their market power through: (1) government complacency, and (2) overwhelming market clout as compared to farmers and growers. Historically, seed buyers purchased not only seeds, but also the future means of production -- saved seeds from a successful crop for replanting the following year. Different rules apply to genetically engineered seeds, and contracts for the sale of genetically engineered (GE) seeds contain provisions contrary to sound public policy.

Powerful seed companies often impose onerous conditions on growers, including a prohibition on saving seeds from current crops for future use. Growers must grant access to seed companies to their land at any time to enable the seed companies to test for unauthorized planting of GE crops. Farmers must agree to punitive measures and fees for contract violations, and agree in advance to mandatory arbitration of disputes and mandatory jurisdiction in courts far from home.

Seed companies already have and continue to work on technology to render plants infertile, known as Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT) or colloquially as “terminator technology.” By modifying seed with certain genes, companies ensure that the next generation of seeds self-destructs and are unable to reproduce. Essentially, the plants make sterile seeds, making seed saving impossible and mandating that growers purchase new seeds every year, year after year.

Consolidation of Seed Companies and Market Power

Dow AgroSciences has acquired or is acquiring Brodbeck Seed, Triumph Seed, and Dairyland Seed Company. It is also making acquisitons overseas, including Sudwestsaat GbR (SWS), MTI and Duo Maize.

Monsanto acquired Seminis, Inc., DeRuiter Seeds, and Semillas Cristiani Burkard.

Bayer CropScience acquired South Korean vegetable seed company SeedEx. These are but a few examples of recent consolidation. Consolidation continues and governments stand idly by.

US Legislation to the Level The Playing Field

While most public advocacy groups focus on legislation to mandate labeling of GM foods, a resolution was introduced recently in Congress by Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). HR 6637, also known as the Genetically Engineered Technology Farmer Protection Act, seeks to define genetically engineered animals, plants and seeds and level the playing field for farmers. The Act recognized both the rapid consolidation of agribusiness and biotechnology companies, and the detrimental effects it has on farming and sustainability.

The Act specifically makes void and unenforceable any provision in a genetically engineered seed contract that prohibits the grower from retaining seeds from the crops for future use, or that imposes a fee on the grower to retain seeds for future use. This restores the natural order where farmers have saved seeds for centuries to replant in future years.

The Act also renders void any contract provision that requires the grower to grant access to his land to the seller of the seeds or their testing agents. It does away with mandatory arbitration clauses and enables growers to sue biotech companies in the grower’s local courts. It also does away with contract clauses imposing arbitrary and punitive fees on growers for reusing seeds. To further level the playing field, the Act enables courts to void “unfair conditions” set by seed sellers in their contracts.

This proposed law is sweeping and necessary to contain the power of seed companies and the control they’ve acquired over the means of food production. It makes the acquisition of seeds an arms-length transaction and precludes inclusion of adhesive contract provisions in GE seed contracts.

Ban on Terminator Technology

In a separate provision, the law would also prohibit the manufacture, distribution, planting or other use of any seed that is genetically engineered to produce plants whose seeds are infertile. It also bans genetically engineered plants whose seeds become infertile by the application of an external chemical inducer – that is a plant genetically programmed to become sterile upon the application of another chemical.

This ban is essential, forward-thinking legislation. It strives to stall a future where food is grown only with the consent of seed manufacturers and at prices imposed by them for viable plants and seeds.

Status of the Resolution

HR 6637 has five co-sponsors and last month was referred to the House Subcommittee on Livestock Dairy & Poultry. Dennis Kucinich’s remarks about the HR 6637 appear in the Congressional Record.

This legislation will be opposed by agribusiness and biotechnology and their lobbyists with every resource at their disposal. Urge your representatives to support this bill and to add their names as co-sponsors. Tell them not to let it die in committee.

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