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Joan Obra of the Fresno Bee called a few weeks ago to ask questions about the seed industry. We get quite a few calls from reporters, and most of the time it’s a somewhat frustrating experience – with the reporters wanting to reduce complex ideas to a sound bite and even when they get you to squeak one out they often get it wrong. Sorry journalists, but this is the experience of much of the citizenry.

Not Joan.

She was fantastic, asked great questions, made follow-up calls to other experts and then back to us, and her hard work and good journalism paid off with one of the better pieces I have read on the issue of farmers losing access to important open-pollinated commercial varieties.

I think talking to all the seed freaks may have infected her with the passion, as she told me that she got enough material for several articles and plans to write them. Fresno is lucky to have her on the food beat.

Her article:

Seeds of change; Farmers work to maintain beloved varieties that otherwise could be lost

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Well, the folks at ETC have another view on the Enola Been Patent appeal decision that I wrote about yesterday. Hope Shand’s comments give a bitter-sweet taste to what I saw as a happy ending of a tale that started out as a horror story. I have admired the work of Hope and Pat, RAFI and ETC, for many years. I agree with her on her points, but disagree with the PR approach on this one.

Specifically, I agree that the damage to farmer livelihoods should be addressed (and that is the bitterest piece of all), and recognize that, as in most court cases, Proctor’s lawyers delayed the process to suit their clients advantage, I am less inclined to see it as a “hollow” victory, which strongly implies that it is without meaning. It has meaning, it just doesn’t result in a full measure of justice. Unfortunately, justice will not be a meal served in a single course.

The patent system is a mess. Concentrated corporate interests influence the entire political process and as such PTO. A complete institutional overhaul is needed to address concentration in the agricultural sector, corporate influence on politics, dangerous technologies and practices, and our overall regulatory approach to plant genetic systems. But, I don’t think we can realistically expect change to come in any manner other than small victories that build cultural recognition of the issues and political reformation. I don’t see a revolution welling up outside the door to demand reform. I’d like to see Prius filled streets of Port Townsend – where everyone’s a “locavore” but government policy glazes peoples eyes – filled with pitchfork wielding populist radicals. In fact I offer tine sharpening services. But we also have to set realistic objectives, with accomplishments that we can attain, or it’s all doom and gloom.

I think that ETC, CGIAR, and others should pat themselves on the back for remaining vigilant, seeing this case to its current status, and continuing the fight. Don’t break any arms doing it, but we have to celebrate even small victories when the daily news on the agricultural front is constantly filled with such disastrous tides. Wow I sound like my mom, the preschool teacher, writing about giving gold stars – but I believe it is true. Don’t rest on laurels or imagine them more grand than they are, but an overly dark approach doesn’t do much to fuel those of us who continue to work for change. The Enola case helps builds a foundation. Bittersweet, but a victory nonetheless. I’m grateful for all the work that those on the case have put into it. And for the continued fight from folks like ETC.

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There have been several sugarbeet industry responses to the RR lawsuit filed by Organic Seed Alliance, Center For Food Safety, and Sierra Club.

First, an interview: Five Minutes With Luther Markwart, American Sugarbeet Growers
And along the same lines these comments from the American Association of Subarbeet.Please read the excellent public comments at the end of that article.

The one thing that I continue to see is a denial of how this technology impacts pre-existing rural economies/farmers/companies. These large commodity groups and their gene giant partners refuse to see that their acts/products can result in the loss of “freedom to operate” for farmers with an already existing market(non-gmo Beta vulgaris seed crops). They don’t want to pay for contamination testing, losses due to contamination, or even recognize that these seed grower’s products have value. And with seed the value is exponential – not only a value to the seed growers, but to the farmers who rely on seed free of contamination.

But then we get called “selfish”?

That was one of the nasty labels thrown out in a posting on Truth About Trade & Technology. It’s difficult to not respond with a volley of schoolyard name calling and an emotional rant such as was done by the TATT poster Noel Kjesbo. I’m not sure calling people “dishonest” and “selfish” without backing it up is an indicator of “truth” as much as it is juvenile and slanderous.

For the record Noel, Organic Seed Alliance has no links to Greenpeace (as you claim), nor are we an activist group. And, I challenge you to logically prove your slanderous statements (“fradulent”, “dishonest”, “hiding behind misleading names”, etc)

In any case, I would like to point my dear readers to Frank Morton’s (Wild Garden Seed) well reasoned response. Well done Frank.


FRANK’S RESPONSE:

As a farmer, seedsman, plant breeder, and member of the Isolation Pinning Rules Committee of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Specialty Seeds Association, I have another agricultural perspective to offer this author and his audience.

Our Valley produces virtually all of the sugar beet seed for our United States. It also produces some table beet seed and a huge percentage of the Swiss chard seed that ends up in the fresh salad trade from California to Maine and other markets overseas. We also grow seed for much of the world’s Brassica veg crops, cabbage, kale, broccoli, turnips and their kin. We think we matter as much as your sugar beet farmers in the Red River Valley, and we think our high value specialty seed trade with the Pacific Rim and the EU is a big deal. But this is all dependent on seed quality, and for us in our sensitive markets, seed quality means genetic purity–both for trueness to type, and freedom from transgenic contamination. Our buyers do not want GMOs in our seed whether you care (or we care) or not. Transgenes from Roundup Ready sugar beets or oilseed canola in our Swiss chard or Chinese cabbage will not be accepted by our overseas customers any more than they will by our organic seed customers in California. That’s the truth about trade that is obvious from my window.

What your folks see as a great blessing (may improve yields 10% I hear from the company that stands to gain the most) could hereabouts destroy the value of conventional seedsmen’s crops downwind of GMO plantings of sugar beets, canola, corn, or whatever the next transgenic specialty crop may be. BT-broccoli, RR-radish, onion, spinach–all of these are potential trade disasters waiting to happen to my happy valley, now 95% stocked with Roundup Ready sugar beets, brought in secretly over three years without any notification to neighbors, fellow seedfolks, or the seed association, until after planting of the third year.

This valley isn’t big enough to provide certainty of genetic isolation between GE-sugar beets and conventional beets and Swiss chard. Such certainty would require more than 6 miles of isolation distance between transgenic and conventional fields, according to the sugar beet industry’s own research. The Pinning Isolation Rules of the seed association provide for 3 miles of isolation, and these are the new rules, made in full cognizance (for the first time) that GMOs were among us. To provide the 6 miles necessary to keep conventional beets and Swiss chard transgene-free, sugar beet isolations would need to expand against their conventional neighbors, and due to production seniority, would push other producers out of the valley entirely. In other words, to protect the conventional beet/chard industry, it would be disappeared. That might seem fair in someone’s version of the truth, but not the guys I know.

None of these issues related to genetic contamination of world class seed production zones like ours were taken into account by USDA/APHIS, the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture, or my own WVSSA members that visited this suprise upon us about one year ago. Since these would have been the guardians of the public and commercial intrests at hand, and since none of this was in fact considered when USDA/APHIS deregulated GE-beets (nor when they began to planted in Oregon), it seems entirely reasonable to me that we specialty seedfolk have been infringed upon in more ways than one, and a Judge ought to have a look at the situation. Maybe our author and “the company that has the most to gain” would prefer to have their day in a Missouri Court to argue before a Judge, but my grief is happening well west of there, and I’m happy with our justice system in this regard.

This is no different than the Roundup Ready Alfalfa case. One company assumed it could ride in and transgenically contaminate everyone producing alfalfa–regardless of the market consequences–and get away with it. Alfalfa seed and forage farmers showed them different, and that company is paying a price for assuming it can push its heavy weight around any farming sector. RR-Alfalfa is a flawed technology put back in its box where it belongs. RR-beets are the same kind of buffalo bull, likely to cross the fence and make little beefalos where they are not the intended kind of cow.

I would think any farmer that knows the truth when he sees it would be able to understand this; milking beefalos will not do for the dairyman.

When biotech can manage to keep its pretties at home where they have a value to someone, and when biotech is proud enough of its work that it will label it, then maybe they will have a place in free and fair trade. As long as biotechnology has the potential to destroy the neighborhood’s product values by blowing on the wind, I think biotech has offered up a flawed device.

You think mine is a dangerous idea?

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Wind, birds, and mammals including those of the bipedal variety are all wonderful vehicles for carrying seed to new bioregions and in so doing helping build biodiversity. Well, talk about a wonderful seed dispersal mechanism, Oregon farmers Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still are a part of one of the best – the Seed Ambassadors Project. Sarah and Andrew are on their way to Romania this January to exchange seed and engage in good old fashioned farmer to farmer information sharing. Stay updated on their travels and the project at the sites blog, but also be sure to check out their seed resources page. Andrew and Sarah – travel safe – hope to swap some seeds soon!

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Steve Scher has a wonderful radio show on KUOW (94.9 in the Puget Sound, and streaming live at the KUOW web site) called Weekday. Tuesdays are often his gardening days. Today he had an hour long interview with Gary Nabhan (who helped found Native Seed/SEARCH) and yours truly.

The interview.

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Fedco Seeds, a fantastic cooperative seed company from Maine that specializes in fresh market varieties for the Northeast, has reported GMO contamination in two of their sweet corn lots. The 2007 Feco catalog identifies varieties Tuxedo and Lancelot (both are hybrid varieties) as testing positive in random sampling. 

It’s tough to find information on their web site on this, but on page seven of their catalog they do a nice job of describing the situation. You can go HERE for a PDF of the Fedco catalog and scroll down to page seven.

Fedco has taken the Safe Seed Pledge, tests their varieties for contamination , and is run by some of the best seed people in the business. CR Lawn is a seed wizard and works with great staff like Roberta Bailey and Nikos Kavanya. Thanks for all your work guys.

Also, an update from Fedco on the Seminis-Monsanto issue. Two years ago when I reported on Monsanto’s buyout of Seminis, many seed companies were in a bit of a dilemma. Seminis has some great varieties that their customers have grown to love, but many of their customers also weren’t fond of Monsanto. Fedco decided to work diligently to replace their Seminis varieties with equivalent genetics. CR Lawn writes of the progress towards replacement :

So How Are We Doing? Two years ago when Monsanto bought out Seminis, we decided to phase out our Seminis line. ..At the time of our decision, Seminis was our biggest supplier, accounting for 70 varieties and more than 11% of our gross sales. We set about, through our research and trials, to replace the Seminis selections with the best varieties we could find. In two years we have fulfilled exactly half our quest. For 9 of the varieties we have found alternate sources and for 26 more we have found comparable or superior replacements. We pledge to persevere. Some niches will be easier and quicker to fill than others.

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Warning – this is not objective reporting and contains cynicism and sarcasm. But then again, who needs objectivity, not our Federal agencies…read on….

On September 26th Monsanto announced the “Biotech Yield Endorsement Program”(BYE), a partnership with the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) which will give a 20% discount on crop insurance premiums to farmers who plant Monsanto varieties that feature YieldGard Plus with Roundup Ready Corn 2 or YieldGard VT Triple technologies. In recent days there have been a slew of new press releases and articles on this (it is time to be buying your spring seed you know).

Before I get into this and complete blow a gasket, let me first key you in on the mission of the FCIC. From the FCIC web page:

The Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) promotes the economic stability of agriculture through a sound system of crop insurance and providing the means for the research and experience helpful in devising and establishing such insurance.”

Product not Practices, and Protocols without Public Oversight

The big news isn’t the USDA having a partnership with Monsanto, as they already hold a joint patent on Terminator Technology with the seed company, but rather that it is the first time that the FCIC has allowed a premium discount for a specific commercial product. Normally the FCIC supports farmers making good decisions in practices, that is minimizing risk by choosing the best strategies in irrigation practices, pest management, harvesting or processing, and so on. Product premiums are a bit odd. If John Deere makes a cultivator that leaves less of the harvest for the field mice (thus reducing risk of loss), should farmers get a discount on their crop insurance for using the new model? Is the FCIC really going to go into the product endorsement business?

On September 26th I called FCIC to confirm that this tax-payer funded, federal insurance program, administered under the US Department of Agriculture was indeed offering such a program. FCIC Board Executive Secretary, Brent Doanne, did confirm that this was a first for the organization, but noted that section 1523(D) of the Federal Crop Insurance Act allowed for the development of discount policies if a company could prove that their product clearly demonstrated reduced risk in the field. In this instance the FCIC board allowed for Monsanto’s field trial data to stand as sufficient evidence of clear demonstration; third party verification that the biotech products really reduce risk and maximize yield wasn’t necessary according to Mr. Doanne. But, as he said, “They have thousands and thousands of acres of data.” And hey, big numbers always means good science.

Let’s outsource regulation to the private sector!!

Yes, yes, the government has spent billions of dollars creating agencies to manage regulatory oversight of our environment, public health, economy, and so on. But people still get sick and rivers get polluted, so maybe they haven’t done such a good job. In fact, they’ve done such a bad job let’s go ahead and hire someone else to do it for us. Besides, we can’t afford to spend tax-payer money on regulatory testing – as we have the newly approved energy bill and the oil industry needs that $13.5 Billion in taxpayer funded incentives that the new Energy Bill provides because they only made $35 billion in NET profits last year. Let’s outsource regulatory oversight to people who know how to make money, not spend it, like those government bureaucrats.

Okay, enough sarcasm. The reality is that the FCIC trusts the Monsanto generated data, but they are going to keep their eyes open. Mr. Doanne did say that the FCIC will monitor yield for several years to determine if Monsanto’s products really do result in reduced yield risk. I find this to be an odd regulatory protocol, kind of like buying a mail order bride isn’t it? Not sure what you’ll get but boy they say she’s a beauty, so let’s trust em. Just as the FDA and other federal agencies are now trusting corporations to verify their products efficacy and safety (and isn’t Vioxx great? And nah, OxyContin isn’t addictive), so now another USDA agency continues to avoid regulatory responsibility. They ignore not only their public duty, but deny the immense economic benefit that unregulated approval of these products has for the corporations whose revolving doors they sashay in and out of like belles at the ball.

What? Benefit to Monsanto?

As states such as Iowa launch anti-trust investigation into Monsanto marketing practices the FCIC has in one fell swoop approved a policy that will result in an obvious marketing advantage to the company that already dominates the corn market. In addition to calling Mr. Doanne I also tracked down Curt Sindergard. Mr. Sindergard is a FCIC board member, and Iowas soybean and corn farmer, and seed dealer for DeKalb – which is of course owned by Monsanto. Mr. Sindergard told me that the FCIC board does not see this as favoritism to Monsanto in that other seed companies may petition for similar discount programs. “Monsanto invested a lot of money and time in getting this approved by the (FCIC) board. Other seed companies, competitors to Monsanto, will likely benefit from the precedent and put their own traits forward for similar programs.”

Mr. Sindergard also noted that this will benefit biotech usage, and that the usage of any technology that reduces risk of yield loss is a good thing for farmers. As he put it, “We (FCIC Board) see this as a way to support future enhancement of biotech traits.” Is this the FCIC mission? To support particular technologies? I thought they were in the insurance business. Oh yes, but the insurance business often colludes with the pharmaceutical sector in human health, why not in agricultural systems? Could it be that having a representative from the biotech seed sector on the FCIC board, such as Mr. Sindergard, is just a tad bit inappropriate? Just what does he know about insurance? Economics? Research? Here’s his bio: http://www.rma.usda.gov/fcic/sindergard.pdf

I suppose being a deacon he does have some insurance background. Plant your seeds and say your prayers.

But Hey, the FCIC gives Organic special treatment too

Meanwhile organic farmers are forced to pay an additional 5% surcharge for federal crop insurance, but are paid out on claims at conventional crop values as opposed to the higher, true, organic market value. When I asked Mr. Doane about this surcharge he said that it was, “Necessary because of the higher risk associated with organic farming.” When I pressed him to document that additional risk with research he said that the FCIC was still collecting data to determine just how high the level of risk was from growing organically. Well thank goodness they’re doing their regulatory homework and spending our dollars researching the dangers of organics. In other words organics is presumed guilty of being a substandard system of production with higher risk until proven innocent, whereas industry driven biotech claims are taken as the gold standard of acceptable research? Does the FCIC have an organic or low-input agricultural representative on their board? No. At least not until Monsanto goes organic.

 

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