Friday, January 28, 2005

Seedy situation

Monsanto quit selling seeds in Argentina last year, but that doesn't mean the seed giant plans to stop making money there.

According to this AP story, 95 percent of Argentina's expected 35 million metric-ton soybean crop for 2005 will emerge from GMO seeds, mainly Monsanto's infamous Roundup Ready seeds.

(Roundup Ready shines a harsh light on biotech's claims of environmental friendliness; these are seeds created to withstand Roundup, Monsanto's cash-cow herbicide. In other words, farmers using Roundup Ready seeds can dump as much herbicide as they want into the field and not affect their soy crops.)

The company claims that the great bulk of the soybean crops currently in the ground in Argentina came from seeds that farmers never paid for; they saved them from previous crops or bought them on the black market. Thus it plans to intervene in Argentina's export market, going to countries that import Argentine soybeans and demanding a 2% per-ton "licensing fee." According to an Argentine farmers' advocacy group, that would amount to $100 million annually into Monsanto's coffers from farmers' pockets. That's a pretty good revenue stream from a country where you've stopped selling your product.

There's really nothing good about this story. Argentina's GMO soybean crops are being sold internationally mainly as chicken feed, thus being shipped great distances for use in factory farms. Garbage in, garbage out, and a whole lot of energy spent and animal suffering in between.

But I will say a few things in defense of those Argentine soybean farmers. I just talked to a friend of mine who's been living in Salvador, Brazil, for a couple of months. Maverick Farms had charged him with scoring us some raw cocoa beans. He had bad news for me today. "All of the cocoa beans are GMO [genetically modified] here," he said. "It's Nestle. They planted so much GMO cocoa that the bugs got out of control for the rest of the cocao farmers. They all gave in."

I hope those farmers didn't pay some transnational company for the GMO seeds they planted. The economic relationship described by my friend amounts to extortion, not a free market. Who knows whether some similar factor didn't play a role in the GMO takeover of Argentina's soybean crop.

Also, seed-saving is an age-old practice. Maverick Farms just dropped $300 on seeds from Fedco, a sinisterly named but benign organic, heirloom seed specialist. Will Fedco come after us at the farmers market if we save our seeds from this year's crops and use them for next year's? Or will it demand some sort of licensing fee from us?

A pox on Monsanto, and a salute to any farmer who stiffs it.

Meanwhile, Brazil, world's biggest soybean producer, is trying to sort out its own mess with Monsanto.

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