On March 26 of this year The President of the United States Barack Obama signed the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act 2013, commonly referred to as The Monsanto Protection Act.
This new legislation allows companies that deal with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and genetically engineered (GE) seeds immunity in federal courts. The bill protects Monsanto, and even if farmers and consumers take them to court, it will not halt growth of the patented crop.
This sparked huge controversy, with consumers taking the streets in protest over GMOs not being labelled on foods. On February 28, Tami Canal created a Facebook page calling for a rally against Monsanto. The page now has almost 180,000 likes, and there are dozens of March Against Monsanto pages devoted to individual cities.
No doubt, the social media endeavour was not only an online success. The response was overwhelming, with over two million people participating in a worldwide protest on May 25, including 436 cities and 52 countries. Canadians joined as well, with mass demonstrations in over 45 cities in almost every province. Nearby, demonstrations in Oshawa, Newmarket, Toronto, Hamilton, and Ottawa took place.
The next worldwide March Against Monsanto is already planned for October 12 of this year, intentionally before World Food Day.
“We will continue until Monsanto complies with consumer demand,” Canal says, “They are poisoning our children, poisoning our planet. If we don’t act, who’s going to?”
So, what is this all about GMOs?
Genetically modified foods were developed to resist viruses, improve crop yields, add nutritional benefits, and ultimately increase the global food supply while maximizing profit. There is contention about whether GMOs are as safe as conventional food, and a lot of controversy surrounding Monsanto itself.
Monsanto, founded in 1901, has a controversial history itself, deploying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War between 1961- 1971. The chemical warfare program killed an estimated 400,000 people and is responsible for the adverse birth defects of Vietnamese children. The killer herbicide is further responsible for up to one million disabled Vietnamese, amongst other numerous health problems.
However, the controversy this multi-national biotech company faces today is over a matter of its own GMO seeds. They also produce herbicide called Roundup Ready, which involves an evasive process that kills plants and inhibits regrowth. The crops that Monsanto produces are resistant to Roundup Ready.
An iconic instance of the battle between farmer and corporation happened in the 90s when Monsanto introduced its Roundup Resistant Canola Crop to the Canadian market.
In 1997, Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser discovered some of the Roundup Resistant crop contaminating his land from neighbouring farmers who had planted the Monsanto seed.
Through testing he found that 60% of his crop had been contaminated with the seed, completely resistant to the Roundup Ready spray that kills plants. A lawsuit was launched, Schmeiser claiming the crop had destroyed the process he had been working on for fifty years with his own seeds.
According to the legislation protecting Monsanto, profits that the crop produces go to the company. Schmesier eventually lost the lawsuit due to “patent infringement” even though he had never purchased the seed and it had grown on his land.
The case became a symbol for the struggle between farmers and big corporations, where Monsanto could now sue farmers if they happened to use seeds from crops grown with Monsanto seeds. They have collected more than $15 million in royalties from farmers in this process.
Today, the disappearance of honeybees in the United States has become a worldwide concern, with speculation of the harmful killer herbicide being the cause of it. No bees means no pollination.
Russian president Vladamir Putin expressed his outrage to Obama’s signing of the protection act claiming it would “most certainly” lead to world war. However, the public resistance towards the new legislation is most newsworthy, with mass protests taking place last month.
Another recent event mirrors the 1997 Schmeiser case, with the discovery of altered wheat in Oregon, halting the imports of western-white and feed wheat to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. What is controversial about this instance is that Monsanto’s wheat was not approved for commercial use, and production was halted nine years ago.
The discovered wheat crop has pushed back production and overseas trade, the company unable to provide answers as to why this crop was found in Oregon and farmers are now worried as to how much more has spread without any explanation of how it got there.
The international attitude towards Monsanto has never been good in Europe, but recent events have created GMO bans and burning of the crop in protest of the company.
Therefore, Monsanto has ceased GMO approval in Europe. “We have come to understand that, at the moment, it doesn’t have broad acceptance,” said a Monsanto spokesperson for Germany, “It’s counterproductive to fight against windmills.”
In this last quarter, over $4 billon in seeds have already been sold. The fight for labelling continues as Whole Foods Markets Inc. says that all products in its North American stores containing GMOs will be labelled by 2018.
If the movement to have foods labelled does succeed, participants believe that people will make the right choice once informed and educated about the foods they are buying.
With files from Sara Ostrowska.
All photos are of March Against Monsanto Hamilton. All photos are taken by Monika Murray.