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Synthesis/Regeneration 19   (Spring 1999)

First the Seed

by Brian Tokar, Goddard College, Institute for Social Ecology

With over 50 million acres of genetically engineered crops grown in the U.S. last year, the biotechnology industry has tried to convey the message that their products are here to stay. Monsanto has been rapidly buying up some of the largest commercial seed companies, including Asgrow Agronomics, Holden's Foundation Seeds, and DeKalb Genetics. They are seeking to purchase Delta and Pine Land, the Mississippi-based company that controls three quarters of the U.S. cotton seed market, and which shares the patent on Terminator technology with the USDA. The commercial market in vegetable seeds is being rapidly monopolized as well, largely due to the efforts of a Mexican company, Empresas La Moderna, whose aristocratic founder was profiled in a front page Wall Street Journal story earlier this winter (January 28, 1999).

Clearly, control over seeds is the key to the future of agriculture. Farmers in southern India knew this when they mobilized 500,000 people to protest corporate monopolization of seeds on the eve of the passage of the most recent General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In New England, we have become aware that significant numbers of farmers, mostly traditional dairy farmers, are being sold on genetically engineered varieties of seed, without any knowledge that the new "herbicide tolerant" and "pest resistant" varieties of corn, soybeans and seed potatoes that are now widely advertised are in fact products of genetic tinkering.

New England Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, the regional network that emerged from the First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation, is developing a campaign against genetically engineered seeds. While field actions, such as those in California in the 1980s and across Europe in the nineties, might have a relatively small impact in the U.S. today, given the large scale of biotech crop production, the sale and distribution of genetically engineered seeds offers a potentially crucial focus for our work.

…The sale and distribution of genetically engineered seeds offers a potentially crucial focus for our work.

Our campaign has three components:

1. A short-term focus on Johnny's Seeds: Johnny's Selected Seeds, perhaps the best known supplier of vegetable and grain seeds to organic farmers and gardeners in the Northeast, has announced that they are considering offering genetically engineered varieties in the future. This is a serious affront to the values of organic producers in our region. We are urging Johnny's customers and other concerned people to write to the company and make it clear that if Johnny's ever lists a GE variety in their catalog, they will face a nationwide boycott (Fax:1-800437-4290; E-mail: staff@johnnyseeds.com). We have met and corresponded with Johnny's chairman and founder Robert L. Johnston, Jr., demanding that he retract his "open door" policy toward genetically engineered seeds and pledge that genetically engineered varieties will not be offered by Johnny's in the coming years.

2. A medium-term focus to identify companies in our region that are selling genetically engineered seeds to commercial growers. We have begun collecting catalogs and are working to identify local and regional suppliers. There will be widespread efforts to get GE seeds off local shelves throughout this winter/spring seed ordering season, including public outreach, contacting store owners, leafleting campaigns, picketing and direct action. We are planning regional demonstrations at public universities in Massachusetts and Maine that have acknowledged close ties to the biotechnology industry.

3. Ongoing outreach to farmers: Many commercial growers are being sold on GE seeds, especially herbicide tolerant (Roundup Ready, etc.) crops and pest- and virus-resistant varieties (Bt, etc.), without any information about their consequences. These varieties are being marketed as alternatives to increased pesticide use, and are practically never identified as genetically engineered. We will organize house meetings and public forums to speak directly with farmers, especially in dairy farming communities in our region.

We may also call for a national day of action against genetically engineered seeds before the end of the year, including major demonstrations at corporate headquarters, as well as seed suppliers and other local outlets for the biotechnology industry. Monsanto and other biotech companies have openly announced their plans to completely dominate the global seed market in the next few years. People all around the world, from Europe to India to Australia, are saying NO to these plans; it is time for activists in the U.S. to take a stand of no compromise against the biotech colonization of our entire food supply.

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