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Let's Cheer Our Defeat

Canada tried to un-ban 'terminator' seeds. Instead, 1.4 billion farmers won.

By Murray Dobbin 3 Apr 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Murray Dobbin is an author, commentator and journalist. He is the author of five books and is a former columnist with Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press. He is a board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness and on the advisory council of the Rideau Institute. He lives in Powell River, BC.

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Hurrah! Canada loses!

Not very patriotic, you say? Yes, well not everything international happens at the Olympics or the Commonwealth games. There are times when Canadians should cheer when "their" government loses in an international contest. That was undoubtedly the case when, on March 24, Canada's continued efforts to undermine and eventually eliminate the ban on so-called terminator seed technology suffered a severe setback.

Terminator technology refers to seed genetically modified to produce sterile seeds which cannot be planted.

The victory took place at a meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Curitiba, Brazil. The Brazilian government, chairing the meeting, announced that the 188 member governments of the CBD agreed to reject language that would have undermined the six year old moratorium on terminator. Promoters, including Canada, have called for a "case by case risk assessment" of terminator seeds, with the intention of allowing the technology to be approved through existing legislation for genetically modified crops.

Millions of winners

Canada's loss is a huge victory for the approximately 1.4 billion farmers and peasants worldwide who depend for their livelihoods on using seeds kept from the previous harvest. If the winners are legion the losers are small in number; the so-called "Terminator Trio" -- the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The US also wants the moratorium lifted, but has not signed the Convention on Biological Diversity. Many terminator critics accuse Canada of doing the US's dirty work in hope of some return favour.

The extent to which out-of-control ideology drives this technology is revealed by the fact that the three largest seed multinationals -- Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred (DuPont) and Syngenta -- have all given up the fight in the face of global opposition. They have all pledged not to pursue the technology. At this point, only one major company, Delta and Pine Land (D&PL), joint owner of three US patents on terminator, has declared its intention of commercializing the technology.

That Canada would continue to pursue the commercialization of terminator technology is inexplicable from any practical standpoint. Not a single company in Canada has a stated interest in using this technology and virtually every farm organization in the country opposes it. The impact of the terminator, also called "suicide seeds", has been calculated to be in the hundreds of millions in lost annual income for Third World farmers.

According to the ETC Group, which monitors the issue "Brazilian soybean farmers would see their seed costs increase by approximately $515 million each year. Argentina's soybean farmers would pay an extra US$276 million. Wheat farmers in Pakistan would face a price rise of US$191 million. Rice farmers in the Philippines will pay another US$172 million."

And it is not just farmers of the Global South who would suffer. Terminator wheat, if it were ever commercialized, would cost Canadian farmers an additional US$85 million dollars per year, according to ETC.

Farmers opposed

The global fight against the ravages of neo-liberalism and corporate globalization is nowhere more fierce or determined than it is against this perverse technology. Nearly 500 organizations worldwide - from farmers' groups and international civil society organizations, to unions and churches - have called for a permanent ban. The fight is led by the international peasant movement, Via Campesina, which speaks for millions of farmers around the globe. The popularity of this movement and its influence on governments was clear at the Brazil meeting. When the decision maintaining the moratorium was announced, it was met by cheering and a standing ovation -- highly unusual for a UN gathering. Only three small pockets of delegates from the "Terminator Trio" remained in their seats.

In Canada, not a single major farm group supports terminator technology. Those actively opposed include the Union des Producteurs Agricoles (UPA), representing 44,000 Québec farmers, the National Farmers Union, as well as Canadian Organic Growers. In early March, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the largest farmer-based group in Canada, (membership 200,000) passed a critical resolution requesting an assessment of terminator's impacts on farmers.

None of this opposition has had any impact on the free trade and liberalization zealots who now determine Canada's foreign policy. It does not seem to matter what international issue is being discussed, the Canadian delegation always includes these free market promoters and if an international treaty or accord in any way violates the principle of liberalized markets, it is almost automatically opposed.

Canada sent a huge delegation to the Brazil meeting: 48 people (most countries of the south manage two or three, if they're fortunate). But the more interesting aspect is that while Environment Canada was supposed to be the lead department in Canada's delegation, it was officials from industry, trade and agriculture who dominated and ensured that Canada's position was to allow for case-by-case testing.

According to Eric Chaurette, program manager for Inter Pares, an NGO opposed to terminator, there was intense disagreement within the Canadian delegation. "We have sympathetic people in the Brazilian delegation and they told of us incredible infighting, [in the Canadian delegation] so much so that people were in tears and some people ended up refusing to speak to each other."

Who's guiding policy?

The original source of Canada's policy position is still unclear, but if it follows the logic of the trade department, it is largely driven more by free trade ideologues within the bureaucracy than it is by politicians or even industry. The only industry group with an expressed interest is the forest industry which is doing research on GMO trees. And despite universal opposition from Canadian farmers, the main spokesperson for Canada's pro-terminator position comes from Agriculture Canada. Giuliano Tolusso is a Senior Policy Analyst with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. He admitted that Agriculture Canada hasn't talked to farmers. "We haven't necessarily actively consulted farmers," Tolusso told the Ottawa Citizen. But, he said, we should go ahead with terminator anyway, because "There's always a risk with any technology. The brakes on your car are not 100 percent effective either. They can fail."

According to Chaurette, Canada's policy seems not to have been assessed since last year when our delegation made a similar attempt to sabotage the moratorium. Repeated calls and letters to Stephen Harper's office have received no reply. The Conservative government seems more than willing to let the issue go undebated just as its Liberal predecessors did. If a policy has even the remotest possibility of serving transnational corporations, it will be supported. One powerful politician in the world who seems to get it is Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who spoke to the world's ministers of environment at the meeting.

"Biodiversity ...is the biggest treasure of our planet. Anything that threatens it or conspires against the equitable sharing of its resources must be rejected ...This understanding has directed the Brazilian position [on] the use of sterile seeds. Whatever threatens life or monopolizes access to its resources doesn't serve the common cause of humanity."

It wasn't that long ago that this statement could have been made by a Canadian prime minister. If Canadians demand a permanent ban on this hideous technology, it could be our position again.

Murray Dobbin's 'State of the Nation' column appears twice monthly on The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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