Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

Spermicidal Breakfast Cereal

This article was translated from the Spanish by Miguel Alvarado.

Just when the global diatribe over food and genetically modified crops (GM) is heating up in tone and breadth, the corporations that create them are staging a showcase for a fresh batch of transgenics.

These new GM crops, known as biopharmaceuticals, or biopharms for short, produce industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals within their tissues. The plants, including soy, rice, corn and tobacco, are genetically altered to produce substances such as growth hormones, curdling agents (coagulants), vaccines for humans (as well as farm animals), human antibodies, industrial enzymes, contraceptives and even pregnancy deterrents.

Scientists and corporations alike embrace biopharmaceuticals with glee: "Imagine being able to harvest enough globulin (a compound that fights arthritis) for the whole world in all of fifty acres?" writes Dr. William O. Robertson for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Imagine being able to find the protein healthy people use to prevent arthritis or breast cancer and being able to produce it in large quantities in rice and tobacco."

ProdiGene, a leader in the field, calculates that by the end of this decade, 10% of the corn produced in the US will be biopharmaceutical. The volume of biopharmaceutical drugs and chemicals could reach the $200 billion figure, according to Dow AgroSciences' Guy Cardinau.

Warnings

But some scientists and ecologists are concerned. Will it be possible to contain and segregate such crops, fruit and seed, in order to avoid a biological Chernobyl?

Is there any guarantee that these products won't accidentally end up at the supermarket? And how can we keep their pollen from fertilizing other fields and reproducing out of control?

"One single mistake from a biotechnology company and we'll be having someone else's prescription medicine for breakfast in our cereal," warns Larry Bohlen, spokesman for Friends of the Earth, an international ecology organization.

"What will happen if the pollen of a transgenic plant containing some kind of drug fertilizes a nearby edible crop?" argues the Erosion, Technology and Concentration Action Group (ETC) in a report published in 2000.

The report continues to ask: "How will the soil microorganisms and insects which benefit agriculture be affected by crops genetically designed to produce industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals? What will happen if animals eat the biopharmaceutical crops? Will the biopharmaceutical proteins be altered during the various stages of growth, harvest and storage? Will they cause allergic reactions?

According to biologist Brian Tokar, professor at the Institute for Social Ecology, the most serious problems concern cross-pollination and unknown effects to insects, soil microorganisms and other native life-forms.

A Little Mishap In Nebraska

There have been mistakes with these crops already. In November 2002, at an agricultural cooperative in Aurora, Nebraska, 500,000 bushels of soy were contaminated with biopharmaceutical corn. One of the coop members harvested an experimental batch of corn for ProdiGene the year before and then proceeded to plant a crop of soy for human consumption in the same field.

During a routine inspection, federal officials from the Department of Agriculture found the corn stalks for ProdiGene growing among the soy plants. By the time they made the discovery, soy from that field was already being stored mixed with the soy of other coop members. Fortunately, the authorities were able to segregate the contaminated grain just before it reached the supermarket aisles.

The company was slapped with a $500,000 fine for negligence; yet, and in spite of such gross near disaster, the government still allows the corporation to continue with biopharmaceutical research as well as keeping the precise nature of the contaminating batch in Nebraska a trade secret. Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, describes the incident as the "Three Mile Island" of biotechnology, in reference to the emergency caused by a nuclear reactor in the 70s.

After the ProdiGene scandal, two industrial corporations which had so far supported transgenic research began to reconsider their positions. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a group which represents supermarket distributing companies, expressed concern about the possibility that biopharmaceuticals could end up contaminating food supplies; such concern was also shared by the National Food Processors Association. The president, John Cady, requested strict and mandatory regulations in order to protect food products from being contaminated by biopharms.

Other people don't share such concerns. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a group that represents biotech companies, and the American Farm Bureau Federation, an organization dedicated to Big Farming, are currently lobbying in Washington to obtain support from the federal government in order to weaken biopharmaceutical regulations.

Biological contamination

Transgenic products unfit for human consumption have already contaminated the food chain. At the end of the year 2000, environmental and consumer advocacy groups in the United States discovered that hundreds of american products in the supermarkets had been contaminated with traces of Starlink, a genetically enhanced GM corn that was declared unfit for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Although the Starlink strain was farmed in just 0.04% of the US corn production area, and was only meant for farm animal consumption, it ended up tainting 430 million bushels and to this day keeps showing up regularly in US exports.

"The Starlink discovery in Japan and South Korea, two of the most important US corn consumers, indicates that it could be found anywhere," remarks Meena Raman, from Malaysia, coordinator in Asia for Friends of the Earth Transgenics Program. "Until the US and Aventis (the biotechnology company that created Starlink) controls contamination, no other countries should allow corn imports."

A more severe case of genetic contamination is taking place in Mexico, where the presence of GM corn has been documented since 2001. It continues to show up in rural farming communities, both peasant and indigenous, sown by small farmers who are not aware of the transgenic threat; and it is proliferating rapidly, across wild and mixed varieties, in spite of the Mexican government's ban on transgenic crops, in effect since 1998. This contamination deeply concerns environmentalists, scientists and farmers, since Mexico is the cradle of corn and axis of its diversity, rendering the long term consequences on the environment and human health uncertain.

In Mexico, people are distressed by the possibility that biopharmaceutical corn could be introduced in the country. Silvia Ribeiro, of the ETC organization, expresses great annoyance about the California-based company Epicyte, which ostentatiously declared having developed a spermicidal corn to be used as a contraceptive.

Ribeiro stated in La Jornada: "The potential of spermicidal corn as a biological weapon is outrageous, since it easily interbreeds with other varieties, is capable of going undetected and could lodge itself at the very core of indigenous and farming cultures. We have witnessed the execution of repeated sterilization campaigns performed against indigenous communities. This method is certainly much more difficult to trace."

We cover the world

Where are biopharms cultivated? All over the world. At the molecularfarming.com website, investors solicit the collaboration of farmers willing to lease their land for biopharmaceutical experiments anywhere in the world. They have signed agreements in Brazil, Ireland, Australia, Greece, Zimbabwe, Panama and many other countries.

Activist Beth Burrows first denounced the claims at the Molecular Farming's website. Burrows is president of the Edmonds Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to bioethics and biosecurity issues.

Award-winning journalist Devinder Sharma, an expert in agricultural and nutritional matters who lives in India, comments on molecularfarming.com: "This is part of a global scheme to transfer dirty industries onto the Third World."

"First came the exporting of toxic and industrial recycled waste to developing countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. Now comes the biopharms. In the US there's a huge problem regarding these crops. What are they gonna do? Transfer dirty technology."

Don't worry, be happy

In spite of all this, biopharming advocates assure us that they're perfectly safe. Doctor Allan S. Felsot, an environmental toxicologist at Washington State University considers the use of plants to produce pharmaceuticals and other chemicals "not even a new concept, if we take into account that we've used medicinal plants for centuries."

Felsot insists there's nothing unusual about our breeding human proteins in the tissues of transgenic plants. "The proteins (in question) are the same found in our bodies. Most of them are used as medicine through cellular fermentation. They are very well defined and have been subject to exhaustive research and clinical trials on humans."

Doctor Robertson adds: "The possibilities boggle the mind, the opportunities are impossible to grasp in their totality and the risks appear minimal when they're compared with the risks we have encountered in medicine throughout the years."

What's ahead?

"What will have to happen before the Department of Agriculture takes seriously the fact that millions of people almost ended up consuming experimental drugs and chemicals?" asks Brandon Keim, of the Council for Responsible Genetics in reference to the ProdiGene scandal. "A few sensational deaths? Maybe an increase in debilitating disorders which will only be noticeable some decades later, when it's already too late?"

Biopharmaceuticals are in an experimental stage but the corporations producing them anxiously await the day when federal authorities give them the go-ahead to enter the market.

Carmelo Ruiz is a journalist and a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology. He has previously published in Grist, E Magazine, the New York Daily News, Corporate Watch, IPS and other media.

Biopirates in the Americas

With the establishment of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the United States government and major American transnational corporations hope to obtain unlimited access to Latin America's vast biological riches. Control of biodiversity is an element of increasing importance in the competitive advantage of corporations and nations, for it is the raw material of the genetic revolution in what some analysts refer to as the "Biotech Century." The businesses that covet biodiversity -- pharmaceutical and agrochemical corporations, as well as upstarts in the budding fields of genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics -- comprise a veritable biological industrial complex that seeks control of health and nutrition worldwide.

Once a biological resource with commercial potential is identified, the corporation that "discovered" it can claim a patent on it, and thus turn what was once freely available to all into private property. Corporations are applying for patents on everything from trees and rice varieties to proteins, gene sequences and human stem cells. All living organisms and their components are patentable.

Unfortunately for Corporate America, most of the world's biodiversity is outside the borders of the United States and is concentrated mostly in the tropical countries of the Third World. In Central and South America, for example, the concentration of biodiversity resources is impressive:

Biologists John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto counted eight tree species in a one-hectare (2.47 acre) plot in northern Michigan, while in a plot of the same size in Nicaragua they counted over 200 tree species.

Costa Rica, with only a tenth the size of France, has three times as many vertebrate species.

In the Peruvian Amazon, American biologist E. O. Wilson identified 43 ant species inhabiting a single tree.

A single hectare in the Ecuadoran Amazon is home to approximately 400 tree species, as well as 96 species of grasses and 22 kinds of palm trees.

If geography is a disadvantage, the biological industrial complex has one countervailing advantage: the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO's intellectual property rights agreement confers legally binding character to patents, meaning that all WTO member countries must honor all patents filed in the United States or face economic sanctions known as cross retaliation. In the Americas, the corporations can also count on the intellectual property rights provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the proposed FTAA, which are even more favorable to patent holders.

The hunt for biological riches in areas of high biological diversity is known as bioprospection. But for indigenous peoples and rural dwellers all over the world and international NGOs like GRAIN and the ETC Group, today's bioprospectors are no better than the colonial plunderers of yesteryear. They perceive that in the five centuries since Columbus the agenda has remaind the same: Obtain biological resources for the creation of lucrative value-added products. Indigenous and rural peoples, who nurtured and managed these resources for millenia, do not receive any royalties. Sometimes their role as custodians and protectors of biodiversity is not even acknowledged. They do not call it bioprospection, instead they prefer to call it biopiracy.

"Biopiracy, and patents based on it, are equivalent to enclosing the biological and intellectual commons, while dispossessing the original innovators and users", said Indian ecofeminist Vandana Shiva. "What was available to them freely and what they have contributed to is converted into a priced commodity, and they will have to pay royalties each time they use it."

Bioprospection or biopiracy?

Bioprospection, or biopiracy, is not a futuristic scenario but a reality. In 1998 the U.S.-based Diversa Corporation signed a deal with the Mexican government to obtain access to the biodiversity of Chiapas. Also in Mexico, British company Nature Ltd. is exploring traditional Maya knowledge of medicinal plants with $2.5 million from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (ICBG), an American public-private consortium that includes the National Science Foundation and the Department of Agriculture.

The U.S. government has its own program to commercialize Maya traditional knowledge, called ICBG-Maya. Between 1993 and 2001 ICBG gave out $18.5 million to fund bioprospection activities all over the world, and has worked with corporate partners like GlaxoSmithKline, Dow Agroscience and American Cyanamid.

Some environmentalists participate in bioprospection ventures, arguing that they're a way to create incentives to conserve tropical rainforests. Conservation International, for example, scouted the Surinam rainforest for Smithkline Beecham, today GlaxoSmithKline.

Human genes, too

Gene patenting and bioprospecting are aimed not only at the plants that native peoples have used and nurtured throughout centuries but also at the genes of those peoples themselves. Ron Brown, U.S. Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton administration, solicited patents for the cells of a native Guaymi woman from Panama. Her cells contained some extraordinary antibodies that were deemed potentially useful for medical research.

Upon learning of this, Guaymi chief Isidro Acosta declared that he "never imagined that people would ever patent plants and animals. That is fundamentally inmoral, contrary to how us Guaymi perceive nature and our place in it. Patenting human DNA violates the integrity of life itself as well as our deepest sense of morality."

The international scandal and outrage were of such intensity that Brown decided to withdraw the patent application. But beginning in 1994 more patent applications for human genes of native and tribal peoples all over the world have surfaced.

The Costa Rican model

In response to the critiques and accusations of biopiracy, some bioprospecting corporations have taken on a discourse of social responsibility and have set up "benefit sharing" arrangements.

Of these arrangements, the one that set the standard was the Merck pharmaceutical company's deal with Costa Rica's National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio), signed in 1991. The deal required INBio to provide Merck with samples of plants from the country's national parks in exchange for $1,135,000 in two years for the Institute's research budget plus a confidential percentage of whatever commercial products are spun off from the plant samples. But the sum of $1,135,000 pales in comparison to Merck's sales that year, which totaled $8.6 billion, significantly larger than Costa Rica's gross national product, which was then $5.2 billion.

Was this deal a success or a failure? It depends on whom you ask. In the years that have followed, INBio has maintained no less than 20 contractual relationships with various corporations. For critics, it is biopiracy, but for supporters of this entepreneurial model, what INBio does is a template to be emulated in the rest of the world.

In the last two decades Costa Rica has received endless praise from environmentalists, bioprospectors and ecotourists. Mainstream environmentalists, as well as transnational corporations, the World Bank and the United States government present this Central American country as a showcase model of environmental conservation in harmony with commercial interests. With the FTAA, the Costa Rican model of nature conservation could be exported to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The model's supporters point out that by the mid 1990's, Costa Rica's national parks covered an impressive 12 percent of the national territory and a total of 27 percent of the territory was under some kind of protected status. However, in 1990 the World Resources Institute calculated that the annual deforestation rate was an astounding 7.6 percent. As Vandermeer and Perfecto point out in their book "Breakfast of Biodiversity", that was the world's highest deforestation rate.

So much for this conservation model, so celebrated and praised in environmental literature. "The fact that the model has been an utter failure in Costa Rica, where it had the greatest chance of success, calls the model itself into serious question."

Why does it fail? Its critics hold that, for all their good intentions, the environmentalists that promote it ignore the social and economic contradictions that encourage the growth of export crop plantations and force landless peasants to clear the rainforest.

According to National Autonomous University of Mexico professor Andrés Barreda, Costa Rica occupies a very special place in the post-cold war economic and political strategies of the United States.

"The relative peace that Costa Rica experiences, its important strategic biodiversity resources and its key position within the flows of the Central American drug traffic explain why the United States supports there the establishment of such important centers of research and strategic intelligence for the region", declared Barreda in 2001.

Costa Rica "is where the master programs for the private appropriation of the riches of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (INBio being a case in point) take place, while countries like Guatemala and El Salvador are made to experiment with military scorched earth tactics and paramilitary actions of low intensity warfare." (Parenthesis in original)

The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor that Barreda refers to seeks to expand the Costa Rican model to all of Central America and Mexico, thus opening vast biodiversity-rich areas to bioprospection. But the Corridor is only the beginning. The FTAA will pave the way for similar initiatives of even larger proportions all over South America. Thus the biodiversity treasures of the Andes and the Amazon will be in open season, bioprospectors operating under the banner of free trade and environmental protection and with the blessing of hemisphere-wide intellectual property rights provisions.

Debt for nature

Buying land for conservation and bioprospction costs money. Where will the capital come from? Enter the debt-for-nature swaps, an ingenious financial mechanism devised in the 1980's. In these transactions, large environmental organizations with sizable budgets pay part of the external debt of Third World countries. In exchange for this financial relief, the country's government makes a commitment to use part of the money it saved on environmental conservation projects, which include the purchase of rainforest lands.

Examples: the World Wildlife Fund gave debt relief to Ecuador, in exchange for which the government gave a donation to Fundación Natura, a local environmental group, to administer and protect national parks and nature preserves. The Dominican Republic did one such swap with the help of the Nature Conservancy, the Bank of Boston and the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust.

Contrary to what many American environmentalists believe, not all of their Latin American counterparts are thrilled with debt-for-nature swaps. But the critical voices south of the border have gone largely unheeded.

According to Amparo Chantada, of the Dominican Republic's Movimiento Ambiente y Sociedad, "The projects [funded by the swap] were not significant or of priority in the order of national concerns. And none of them were consulted with the rest of the environmental movement."

Ecuadoran environmentalist Esperanza Martínez says that with the swaps, "the developed countries will have assured for themselves control of our economies and will end up burying once and for all our comparative advantages based on natural riches -- We are raffling our biological diversity so that the developed countries can broaden their gap vis-à-vis the Third World and so that they can impose new forms of dependency and wealth extraction."

The fourth Destiny and Hope of the Earth Congress, celebrated in Nicaragua in 1989 denounced the swaps as a strategy to support "major genetic engineering and biotechnology firms that need the Third World in order to reinforce the high-technology hybrids used in agriculture, or for the biological synthesis of industrialized medicines."

Back to the FTAA: a morbid footnote

NAFTA and the FTAA are more powerful than the WTO as tools to facilitate and enforce the corporate appropriation of biodiversity because unlike the WTO, NAFTA and the FTAA allow private parties to sue governmnts. In concrete terms, this means that if a Latin American country balks at corporations patenting their flora and fauna or puts even the smallest obstacle or limit to bioprospection, it can be sued by foreign investors for violating its FTAA commitments.

If the courts don't work there's always the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency willing to lend a hand to distressed American investors. In 1996 U.S. president Bill Clinton signed the Economic Espionage Act, which authorizes intelligence agencies to defend the intellectual property rights of American corporations all over the world. With this Act and with the FTAA the evcryday activities of ordinary people all over the Americas can be monitored in the name of free trade and U.S. national security.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist. He is also a research associate at the Institute for Social Ecology and a fellow at the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Environmental Leadership Program.

Spy Technology Meets Agribusiness

"Flip the tortilla" ("virar la tortilla") is a common Puerto Rican expression. It describes the act of taking someone's argument and turning it on its head. This is precisely what the biotechnology and agribusiness industries are now doing to confound their critics.

The corporations that brought us genetically modified (GM) crops fought a pitched battle against labeling and segregating their products from non-GM counterparts. Activists called for such measures because of concerns about the safety of genetically engineered foods.

Corporations countered that GM crops were perfectly safe, and that labeling and segregating them would be impractical and would create a cumbersome and prohibitively expensive regulatory apparatus.

Now, the GM corn tortilla is certainly being flipped as major biotech corporations begin to soften to activist demands to label and segregate GM crops. Far from being a sincere expression of corporate responsibility, critics say corporations are pushing for these measures in order to tighten their hold on farmers.

They charge that agribusiness hopes to extend its control over the food industry from the farm to the retail store. This unprecedented degree of corporate control will be made possible by a package of new surveillance technologies, which when put to agricultural use, are known as "precision farming."

Precision farming "benefits from the emergence and convergence of several technologies, including geographic information systems (GIS), automated machine guidance, infield and remote sensing, mobile computing, telecommunications and advanced information processing", according to GPS World magazine. The global positioning system (GPS) is a key technology used in precision farming that provides highly accurate geo-spatial information.

Which corporations are involved? Joining forces to promote precision farming are farm equipment manufacturers like John Deere, agrochemical companies like Monsanto and DowElanco, pharmaceutical/biotech companies like Rhone-Poulenc, Novartis and AstraZeneca, as well as information brokering/data management firms.

Not surprisingly, corporations with a long history of service to the military-industrial complex and intelligence agencies, like Rockwell and Lockheed Martin, are also jumping onto the precision farming bandwagon.

For example, in a 1,000-acre potato farm, aerospace behemoth Lockheed Martin can place meteorological stations that measure 13 different weather parameters every 15 minutes and telemeter the data to a computer base station.

"More than 430 gauges measure irrigation. Yield measurements are taken every three seconds during harvest. Crop quality samples are analyzed" Lockheed's promotional material boasts. What's more, "Soil is tested for 18 nutrient parameters. Microbial communities in the topsoil are studied."

The Downside

An interesting historical parallel comes to mind. Just as World War Two military contractors developed the chemicals and machinery that fueled the Green Revolution of the 1970's, precision farming is, to a large extent, an outgrowth of the space-age surveillance technologies used in the Cold War. The tight relationship between the military industries and industrial agriculture continues well into the twenty first century.

Some observers fear that these new technologies bode ill for sustainable agriculture and democratic governance, and could impose new forms of dependence on farmers. "Precision farming has less to do with mitigating agricultural pollution than with advancing industrial modes of production", according to social scientists Steven Wolf of the University of California, Berkeley and Fred Buttel of the University of Wisconsin.

Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) Research Director Hope Shand agrees. "Precision farming is about commodification and control of information and it is among the high-tech tools that are driving the industrialization of agriculture, the loss of local farm knowledge and the erosion of farmers rights", she told CorpWatch.

"With precision farming, farmers increasingly depend on off-farm decision making to determine precise levels of inputs. For example, dictating what seed, fertilizer, chemicals, row spacing, irrigation and harvesting techniques are used, and other management requirements," Shand explained.

Precision farming seeks to legitimate and reinforce the uniformity and chemical-intensive requirements of industrial agriculture under the guise of protecting the environment and improving efficiency, according to Shand.

How it Works: Remote Sensing

Remote sensing is an important component of precision agriculture. For example, NASA is a partner in Ag 20/20, a long-range research project that involves remote sensing. A satellite-mounted sensor looks down on farm fields, distinguishing as many as 256 light wavelengths. Similar systems that work with land-based and plane-mounted sensors are also in the works.

With the right hardware, software and know-how, the precision farmer can use this spectral information to find out a crop's health status. Does it need irrigation? Is it under attack by pests? Are weeds gaining ground? Are soil nitrogen levels OK? A great number of quantifiable variables can be measured.

The use of satellites in agriculture is already a reality. The government of the southern Pacific island of Tasmania is using GPS technology on some 600 farms as part of an identity protection pilot program, which it plans to extend to all of Tasmania's farms by 2005. In Argentina, satellite surveillance is being used to catch farmers who cheat on their taxes by underreporting the size of their fields, and to prevent them from saving seed, which is illegal there.

Who Will Benefit?

Will farmers want, or be able, to understand the advanced gadgetry of precision farming? In Puerto Rico, for example, only 14% of farmers have college degrees, and a higher percentage might be illiterate altogether. The average Puerto Rican farmer is 55 years old, according to the US Farm Census. Many are probably too traditional to embrace advanced software, satellite imaging and other new technologies.

To get around this obstacle, precision farming contractors plan to offer farmers a plethora of consulting services. Critics fear that these services will exacerbate farmers' dependence on the purveyors of agribusiness even further.

Of course the more fundamental question is what farmer will be able to afford precision farming technology, whose basic packages start at $15,000 to $20,000? How can American family farms, facing extinction by economic strangulation, afford these dazzling technological advances?

What will happen to rural America and farming communities worldwide if food processors, retailers and other major purchasers of agricultural produce start requiring suppliers to use precision farming and identity protection technology? Large American industrial farms, heavily capitalized and subsidized by the US government with tens of billions of dollars a year, will easily afford the technology. But struggling family farms could be put out of business.

Suing the Victim

These remote sensing technologies can also be used to distinguish GM from non-GM crops, and trace genetic pollution. Runaway pollen and seeds from GM crops like soy, corn and canola have been a great concern since the commercial cultivation of GM plants began in 1996. Last year, GM corn was found to be aggressively proliferating in Mexico, causing farmers, scientists and environmentalists to worry about potential consequences for the environment, biodiversity and world agriculture.

Agribusiness corporations can use satellite imaging to find out what farmers have had their crops contaminated with GM pollen and sue them.

This actually happened to Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser of Saskatchewan. When he complained that his organic canola crop had been genetically contaminated by a GM canola field somewhere upwind, Monsanto's lawyers sued him for illegally planting the corporation's patented seed. Kafka could have hardly thought of a more bizarre scenario.

Monsanto didn't accept Schmeiser's argument that the corporation's GM canola had blown downwind to his farm, and neither did the judge, who ruled that how the GM seed got there is irrelevant. In September 2002 Schmeiser lost his appeal and now intends to take his case to Canada's Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, Schmeiser's ordeal is not an isolated case. Monsanto is suing farmers all over Canada and the United States for allegedly planting its patented GM seeds without authorization. Many of them claim they never knowingly planted Monsanto's patented seeds, and that their fields were contaminated by upwind GM plantations.

Once again, the tortilla gets flipped. The same corporations that vehemently denied that GM pollution by pollination would ever take place, may soon be eager -- too eager-- to believe every report of such contamination. Especially if the information can be used to sue the victims.

Precision Agriculture and Global Trade

This type of persecution can reach global proportions through the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPs) enforced by the World Trade Organization (WTO). Under TRIPs, the WTO can impose economic sanctions against countries deemed guilty of illegally using patented products, like seeds. The intellectual property rights provisions of NAFTA are even more draconian, since the agreement allows private entities to sue governments.

Given this possibility, one can visualize a scenario in which Monsanto sues Mexico under NAFTA for illegally planting its GM corn. The corporation could conceivably demand a compensation ranging in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

What are advocates of socially responsible and environmentally sustainable agriculture doing about precision farming? Many in the movement against corporate globalization hold that this and other new agro-technologies, like biotech, must be addressed within the context of a broader critique of industrial agriculture.

"The reality is that farmers do not control precision farming," notes Hope Shand of ETC Group. "Rather, precision agriculture is more likely to dictate decision making, control and management of the farmer."

Shand compares precision agriculture to a kind of high tech feudalism: "Precision farming reinforces bioserfdom and the role of the farmer as a "renter of germplasm."

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist. He is a Fellow at the Society of Environmental Journalists and a Research Associate at the Institute for Social Ecology.

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