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Biotechnology, Globalization and Food Security
How plant patents and trade policy
threaten the global food supply

This lecture featuring Devinder Sharma, noted Indian journalist and outspoken critic of industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, globalization and free trade was held November 18, 2003 at the University of Texas, Austin. The following links will provide a summary of the material presented.

assorted grains

Event Information

Biotechnology, Globalization and Food Security:
How plant patents and trade policy threaten the global food supply

(PDF format)

PIPRA: Charity in the Name of Science
(Word document)

The Politics of Food and Agriculture
An in-depth interview with In Motion Magazine
(scroll down the alphabetical list to Sharma and click)

Food as Political Weapon
Acres USA interview with Devinder Sharma

spraying chemicals


African Priests Criticise Vatican GMO Conference

by Philip Pullella
November 11, 2003

(Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- ROME - Organisers of an international Vatican seminar on genetically modified foods came under fire from their own on Tuesday when African priests said it should have included more Church members critical of the crops.

The seminar, attended by experts from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa, is intended to help the Vatican decide whether GMOs (genetically modified organisms) eventually get its backing which could affect the views of millions of Catholics.

The gathering, which was closing later on Tuesday, had already come under fire on its opening day from two speakers who said it was biased with scientists who favour GMOs.

"We are concerned that several voices of Church leaders around the world are not represented on these panels," two Jesuit priests said in a joint written presentation.

The priests were Roland Lesseps, senior scientist at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre in Lusaka, Zambia, and Peter Henriot, director of Lusaka's Jesuit Centre of Theological Reflection.

They pointed to recent statements by Church leaders in the Philippines, Brazil and South Africa, which they said had expressed "deep concerns based on practical experiences" and were not reflected at the seminar.

In their paper, the priests quoted Pope John Paul, who has said the world was not ready to assess the biological disturbance that could result from what he called "unscrupulous development of new forms of plants and animal life."

The European Union on Monday postponed a decision on whether to allow the import of a type of genetically modified maize that would have tested its de-facto ban on the crops.

Small Farms Threatened?

The two priests said the current design of commercially promoted GMOs was based on an industrial model of agriculture that favours large farms at the expense of family farms.

They warned it would "introduce a serious dependency of small-scale and mostly poor farmers on large multinational corporations for seeds and complementary necessities."

They said there also was a risk that alternative agriculture, such as organic farming, would be severely limited by the use of GMOs and abrogate the tradition in many developing countries of saving seeds each year for replanting.

The seminar of 67 scientists, plant experts and Catholic Church representatives, was organised by the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace, which deals with development issues.

It is closely watched by political, business and scientific communities because the Vatican's position on GMOs could affect the views of millions of Catholics across the world.

They said the assertion that GMO crops would lessen the problem of world hunger through increased productivity "is open to direct challenge."

Dorren Stabinsky of the environmental group Greenpeace again criticised the seminar, saying it included "an overwhelming presence of GMO advocates" and few critics.

"In our view, this seminar adequately addresses neither the issue of GMO (problems) nor that of solving world hunger. The question posed in the title of this seminar -- 'GMOs: Hope or Threat' - will not be answered here," she told the group.

The Vatican organisers and other scientists have rejected assertions that the balance was intentionally biased against GMOs. They said sides would be taken into consideration when the Vatican position on GMOs is eventually formulated.


Cabinet Papers Warn Canada Off GM crops

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
The Guardian (UK)
November 13, 2003

Farmers fear long-term threat to food exports

A secret briefing to the Canadian government has warned that the country's massive food exports are at risk from its continued use of GM crops.

The paper, which has been obtained under the Access of Information Act, warns the cabinet of the "pressing need to immediately address these concerns".

Such fears contrast with the government's repeated endorsement of GM crops and technology as a great opportunity for Canada.

The paper, which was drafted by a senior civil servant, says that "producers are becoming worried about losing markets and losing choice over what they produce", while consumers are becoming more worried that they cannot distinguish between GM and non-GM products.

"These concerns could precipitate a loss of confidence in the integrity of the Canadian food system, which could be very disruptive to the domestic system as well as Canada's ability to export to demanding markets."

Some pages of the secret document, which have been blanked out, concern advice on how to deal with the growing public fears and the potential loss of further export markets for Canadian goods.

Canada is the third-largest producer of GM crops after the US and Argentina. But the paper says that the production of GM canola (oilseed rape) is affecting the value of non- GM canola in some markets. It says: "The EU was effectively closed to all Canadian commodity canola."

The Canadian farmers' greatest fear, however, is the introduction of GM wheat, of which trials are imminent.

The Canadian Wheat Board has just surveyed its overseas customers in Europe, Japan and the US, with 82% saying that they would not take GM wheat. The export market for milling wheat into bread is worth £2bn a year to Canada.

The paper says that large Canadian producers in other fields have already taken defensive action. Flax producers, for instance, will not produce a GM version, while the largest potato processor, McCains, has declared it will not purchase GM potatoes. Jim Robbins, a farmer and business consultant for the Canadian National Farmers Union said that large exports of oilseed rape had been lost to Europe as it was impossible to separate GM and conventional crops. In Canada, they had all been mixed together.

Cross contamination, it said, was now "irreversible".

Canadian farmers feared the same would happen with wheat, prompting a loss of exports and a crash in prices.

"I cannot see how it would be possible to separate GM wheat and non-GM wheat," Mr Robbins said. "It is also very difficult, not to say impossible, as we have discovered with canola, to prevent the spread of GM canola plants into conventional crops."

He said the Canadian government's problem involves the lack of legal regulation to thwart the introduction of GM wheat, prompting the potential for contamination of conventional crops.

Mr Robbins believes fears for the environment could be a useful defence, pointing out that if GM wheat - basically a grass - escaped into the Canadian countryside it might become an extremely difficult weed to eradicate because it would be herbicide resistant.

He said: "That might provide an escape route for Canada, like the GM field trials have in Britain."


Biotech Critics Gain A Victory

By Mike Lee, Bee Staff Writer
November 19, 2003

Mendocino voters may decide on local ban of altered crops.

Voters in Mendocino County will have a chance to be the first in the nation to ban the raising of genetically engineered crops.

Mendocino elections officials said Tuesday that backers of a biotech crop ban have submitted enough valid signatures to earn a spot on the March ballot.

The announcement marked a victory for a handful of organic enthusiasts who started building support months ago, hoping to energize Northern California anti-biotech activists and to draw out opposition on a topic of worldwide debate.

The Mendocino Organic Network proposed the ban as a way to protect the purity of the county's large and growing organic wine-grape industry from genetic contamination. The nucleus of the signature drive was a couple who run Ukiah Brewing Co., one of the nation's few all-organic brewpubs.

"It's very exciting to set the pace and not only protect our own county but maybe set a precedent for other counties to follow," said Allen Cooperrider, one of the owners.

The initiative is largely symbolic because no biotech crops are currently grown in Mendocino, nor are there commercial genetically modified versions of Mendocino's major crops, which include wine grapes and pears.

It's no surprise that the initiative took root in Mendocino, given the county's history of organic farming, its large Green Party registration and the pride many residents take in bucking corporate-driven movements.

"I think it will spawn other efforts in the state," said Dave Henson, director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, a Sonoma County-based environmental organization.

"People will see that there is an opportunity to take this issue into their own hands," said Henson, who is working with environmentalists and farmers to shape Sonoma's response to genetically engineered crops.

Even though Mendocino's signature drive succeeded, a vote might be delayed until next fall if county supervisors decide at their Dec. 2 meeting to further evaluate the impact of the proposed law. Supervisors could enact the initiative themselves, but that seems unlikely at this point.

While county lawyers and politicians assess the initiative, opposition is forming. The Mendocino County Farm Bureau has come out against the ban, saying that it's bad policy for the county to undermine a technology regulated by the federal government.

It's still not clear whether the biotech industry will try to defeat the measure, as it did last fall when Oregon citizens unsuccessfully tried to force labeling of biotech foods.

At the Sacramento-based California Plant Health Association, a large association of fertilizer and pesticide companies, and at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C., officials are monitoring the Mendocino initiative, but no action is planned.

The main concern of both organizations is that the initiative could limit farmers' crop choices.

Genetic engineering involves moving genes among species in ways that can't be done with traditional cross-breeding.

Studies show that Americans are largely ignorant about the use of biotech ingredients in an estimated 75 percent of all processed foods. So far, their inclusion has not proved harmful.

Sporadic opposition to biotechnology has surfaced in the United States, including a protest that shut down Sacramento streets last summer and spirited campaigns from Hawaii to Vermont to keep out biotech products. None, however, has led to a ban on the growing of genetically engineered crops.

Opposition is stronger in the European Union, where the government has approved a strict labeling policy for genetically engineered foods, and in developing countries. A few developing countries have refused biotech grain donated by the United States.

Major concerns include the environmental and human health uncertainties inherent in tinkering with nature. Proponents say the technology offers a way to reduce pesticide use and, potentially, a way to grow healthier foods.

In a sign of the increasing import of the worldwide debate, the Vatican last week convened a panel of experts on biotechnology to help shape church policy.

Closer to home, Bay Area anti-biotech activists are watching to see if Mendocino's landmark ban prevails.

"I think it would be pretty inspiring," said Devi Peri of GE-Free Marin in Fairfax. "It seems like in a place like Marin, which is pretty progressive, it's got a lot of possibilities."

Even if all Bay Area counties followed Mendocino's lead, however, it would have little immediate effect given that major biotech crops -- corn, soybeans, cotton and canola -- aren't agricultural staples in Northern California.

But genetically modified fruit and nut trees are being developed, and the ecology center's Henson said Mendocino's initiative could generate important discussion before they arrive.

"We need literacy," he said. "Our task is to keep it in the public eye."

The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or at


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