Interest groups turn Supreme Court case into ‘save the seeds’ myth

The Bowman vs Monsanto Supreme Court hearing is big news in the United States and we are seeing ripple effects of it up here in Canada.  Although some headlines sparked by interest groups that oppose modern agricultural production methods, including use of genetically modified (GM) crops, might suggest otherwise, this case is not about farm-saved seed.  This case is an attempt to make an exception in well-established patent law for products of agricultural biotechnology, thereby granting the purchaser of GM seeds the right to copies of that innovative technology.

soybean field

Biotech soybean field in the United States. (USDA-ARS)

Bowman (the plaintiff and an Indiana farmer) and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Save Our Seeds (SOS) want the Supreme Court to reverse lower court decisions upholding Monsanto’s patent rights and conveyance of limited-use rights to farmers.  Such a reversal would have great applicability to other industries and would devastate innovation in biotechnology and other technologies that are based on inventions that are readily copied.  What incentive would inventors in the public and private sectors have to invest in research and development if they had virtually no protection from others copying their inventions? Bowman argues in the case of Monsanto’s patented soybeans, the company’s rights were terminated after the first sale and those rights should not extend to progeny with Monsanto’s patented technology.

So who is the real villain in this drama?  Is it Monsanto, who invested 10+ years and $100+ million in development of improved soybeans widely adopted by farmers globally because of their benefits; or is it Bowman and interest groups that have rolled this recent case into a ‘save the seeds’ campaign?  In one of her most recent articles, Debbie Barker (international director for CFS and project director for SOS) stated: “The Supreme Court ought to rule in favour of Bowman so that instead of farmers becoming modern-day serfs of agrichemical companies, they can regain traditional seed rights.” 

But Barker is out of touch with the practices of today’s farmers. In Canada alone, farmers have been using certified seed as part of their operations for over 100 years.  This is nothing new. Very few farmers, if any, breed seed these days. In his opinion piece in CNN’s Eatocracy, Indiana farmer Brian Scott states: “If we wanted to breed our own varieties I’m sure we could, but I look at it right now as division of labor. Seed companies are great at coming up with great products, and farmers are great at turning those products into a bounty of food, feed, fuel, and fiber.”

Years of public and private research costing millions and millions of dollars have gone into producing modern seeds that perform better than previous generations.  Farmers want to plant the best, locally adapted and productive package of genetics available.  Patented soybeans are grown by more than 90% of the 275,000 soybean farms in the United States.  For the record, nobody forces a farmer to agree to the terms of a seed purchase.  If a farmer wishes to forgo the advantages of a superior variety, he or she can simply use older, unrestricted crop varieties.  But as this case documents, farmers want to plant improved varieties and they want GM technology – the vast majority are willing to pay a premium for the benefits, and a few, like Bowman want it all and for free.

if there are not IPRs

Why are patents important?  Patents are a provision of exclusive rights granted to an inventor for a limited period of time.  Rhetoric might suggest that patents are ‘bad’ but they drive investment in invention and innovation in the public and private sectors.  Intellectual property rights (IPRs) exist for a reason.  If there are no property rights, there is no protection.  If there is no protection, there is no return on investment. If there is no return on investment, there is no innovation. And if that happens, we all lose.

When Bowman purchased the commodity seed from the grain elevator, he knew exactly what he was buying.  By planting those seeds, Bowman was using copies of the company’s technology for personal gain, just as if he had copied music or software and sold it for a profit; he didn’t have that right and he knew it. Reports coming out of the hearing on the 19th suggest that the Supreme Court is leaning in favour of Monsanto.  The alternative would be unthinkable. Not only would there be huge implications for modern agriculture, but for self-replicating technologies in a range of industries that rely on IPRs to protect their investments (software, vaccines, cell lines).  Without access to new and innovative crop varieties, we are hard-pressed to meet the challenges of a growing world population, shrinking arable land base, environmental issues, disease, pests and drought.

Versions of this blog have been posted in: The Winnipeg Free Press (February 23, 2013) and the Huffington Post Alberta Ag Blog (Feburary 25, 2013).  

EuropaBio’s factsheet on global adoption of GE Crops

Who grows GE crops and why?  Check out this factsheet published by EuropaBio! Click on the image below!

  • 17 million farmers cultivate GM crops on about 10% of the world’s fields
  • many farmers decide to invest in GM seeds mainly to reduce their inputs
  • 4/5 of global cotton and 3/4 of soybean harvest are GM

EuropaBio factsheet



bias + misrepresentation = politically motivated propaganda

An op-ed, by Rob Wager and me, in the Western Producer (November 22, 2012) You can eat your bugs — and toxins, too was written in response to Alex Atamanenko’s opinion piece “I’d rather eat bugs” from a couple of issues earlier.  Atamanenko heavily leverages the Séralini study which he views as “damning evidence” that “…call[s] into question not only the safety of genetically modified food but the stringency of government regulations and assessments.” Rob Wager and I take Atamanenko to task on his bias and gross misrepresentation of science:


Séralini’s sketchy version of ‘science’:

Séralini’s study was more an exercise in media manipulation than an example of rigorous scientific work. Using a well-constructed public relations strategy and backed by anti-GM organizations, Séralini pushed this study into the media spotlight along with his personal agenda. It’s no coincidence that he launched an anti-GM book and a movie that same week. It appears as if the goal of the study was to “prove” something rather than to objectively “investigate” something.

And what about regulatory oversight?:

Industry manages trials and testing of new crop varieties based on guidelines developed by Environment Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It must adhere to strict science-based protocols. It’s important to note that industry doesn’t pay for “approvals” but bears the cost of all trials and tests.

Final thoughts:

Atamanenko takes a biased position here, misrepresenting good science and promoting poor science. It’s just politically motivated propaganda. We think that Canadian farmers and consumers deserve to know the facts.

Related posts:

I smell a rat” (September 20, 2012)

Outstanding summary of Séralini study by Jay Byrne

The roles of ‘rationality’, ‘toxicity’ and ‘partisanship’ in interpreting scientific information

The article Why we are poles apart on climate change by Yale U law and psychology professor Dan Kahan came across my ‘desktop’ yesterday.  Climate change is a topic that is hotly debated in the mainstream media and in social media as well.  There are climate change proponents and then there are climate change ‘denialists’.  Personally, I resist resting a foot in any camp as I don’t really know enough about the whole issue of climate change.  But I do know that Kahan’s points are certainly relevant when you consider them in the context of the genetically modified food debate.

There are ardent supporters of the technology at one end of the continuum and very passionate opponents on the opposite side.  But why are we so deeply divided on the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms)? Kahan poses this (à la climate change debate). He suggests that it’s not that people are irrational. Rather, it may be that their reasoning powers have become disabled by a polluted science-communication environment”“…[C]itizens are …are, in fact, too rational — at filtering OUT [the] information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers.”

Hmmm. Now, what does he mean by ‘polluted’ and what does he mean by ‘too rational’? Well, Kahan’s following remark provide insights into that:

“People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand. Usually, this strategy works just fine. We live in a science-communication environment richly stocked…The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.”

So, we are largely influenced by our closely-tied networks, our communities and our families. Makes sense.  I am contemplating Kahan’s ideas further in the context of how (dare I say if?) governments acquire / interpret science based information in order to inform policy-making decisions.  What gaps out there need to be addressed? What can be done?

I would welcome your comments. Kahan’s article is attached. It’s a one-pager and a quick and relatively easy read.

Why we are poles apart on climate change? Kahan, Nature, 2012

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Happy to say that this blog has been picked up and posted by Biofortified at this link and by David Tribe on his blog GMO Pundit a.k.a. David Tribe at this link.  Thanks for the support everyone! 

The Triffid Flax Story: growers’ perspective (plus more)

Over the past couple of years, I have been working with the TUFGEN group (Total Utilization of Flax Genomics) at the University of Saskatchewan.  As the social scientist on the team, I was tasked with (among other things) exploring the Triffid issue that came up in 2009. So, I joined forces with the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission and together we hosted a focus group, administered a flax grower survey and conducted one-on-one interviews with industry stakeholders.  We were able to, in almost real-time, document the Triffid issue from 2009 up until present. Our findings have been published in an article in the AgBioForum journal. A background to the story and a summary of our findings are outlined below.

Background: Triffid flax was developed in the late 1980s at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan and was designed to thrive in soil containing residues from sulfonylurea-type herbices (good weed control option).  It received both feed and food regulatory approval in Canada and the US by the late 1990s.  However, negative consumer response to genetic modified crops in the EU (major flax export market) forced the Canadian flax industry to make a tough decision.  Triffid was voluntarily removed from the market. In fact, it was never even commercially grown.  Done deal, right? Nope. In 2009, Triffid flax was discovered in baking products in the EU food chain.  As you can imagine, this threw the Canadian industry into a whirlwind… “A winter of discontent turned into the perfect storm of all that can go wrong…”


1. Wide spread low-level presence of Triffid flax across the Canadian growing belt is likely multifaceted and due to a) persistence of the variety (in fields where growers did not rotate for three years and in seed mixing/movement by equipment) and in the b) dispersal of the variety (flax seed ‘sticks’ when wet or dry).

2. Exports of flax into the EU food market (Canada’s major export market for flax) has NOT resumed but Canada is meeting exports there for industrial use.  Russia and the Ukraine have stepped up production and are filling the gaps in the EU food market.

3. Although prices have recovered to some degree and a certain amount of complacency has settled in, the Triffid situation has left some flax growers very frustrated. Particularly with the costs associated with ongoing testing (which continues according to the agreement between Canada and the EU).

4. Costs to the Canadian industry, although difficult to estimate, total CDN $30 Million. This includes demurrage, testing, segregation and other costs. The EU industry sustained ~ CDN $50 million.

This story is documented (yes, ‘academically’ in journal format – but not too difficult of a read) in pdf format here (Ryan and Smyth Triffid 2012).  A link to the article in the online journal AgBioForum (“Economic Implications of Low-level Presence in a Zero-Tolerance European Import Market: The Case of Canadian Triffid Flax” Ryan and Smyth) is here: We worked with the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission and with the other industry organizations to pull this story together.  A huge component of our work revolved around a ‘farmer survey’. The article includes very passionate quotes from Canadian farmers.

I would love to hear your comments! This represents an interesting turn in Canada’s agricultural history.  I was happy to be part of the team effort to get this story out!

Slide presentation on this work available on the SaskFlax website:

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We (Stuart Smyth and I) are grateful for the support of The Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission, Flax Council of Canada, our colleagues at TUFGEN and in the Department of Bioresource Policy, Business and Economics at the U of S and the Canadian Agricultural Adaption Program (CAAP) and Agricultural Council of Saskatchewan, Inc. for funding.

Organic food not safer than conventional

January 7, 2012

Hey all! 

Check out Rob Wager’s and my opinion piece that was published in the Western Producer this week.  

“We cannot continue to assume that organic is the more superior food choice or agricultural practice. The process of bringing food from the farm to the fork is more complex than that.”


Canadian Reality TV: a ‘storytelling’ avenue for ag, eh!

June 16, 2011

Misperceptions are pervasive around the agricultural industry and with agricultural practices.  We live in a world where the urban population is rapidly growing while that of the rural is dwindling.  As a society, we seem to be losing touch with our pioneering heritage and have become largely disconnected from our ‘rural roots’.  The advent of new agricultural technologies, including the introduction of genetically modified crop varieties, has created new opportunities for modern farming practice. However, these developments have also represented the rise of the agri-cynical ‘foodies’. The agriculture community now not only has to deal with the volatility of world trade markets and the weather, but also with the ‘urban armchair foodie-quarterback’ who often presumes a level of ag expertise and knowledge and often without ever even having set foot on a farm.

The pervasive question for ‘ag-vocates’ then becomes how do we reach this consumer? How do we change perceptions? I draw on a recent blog entry by Michele Payn-Knoper (Gate to Plate), a noted ag consultant in social media, where she poses this (related) question and challenges ag-vocates:

“…[W]hen was the last time you truly made an effort to relate on human terms instead of ag terms?”

How do we put a human face to agriculture? Well, there are great strides being made by many ranchers and producers. They are all doing their part to ‘tell the agriculture story’ by leveraging social media tools through blogging, Twittering and Facebook. Personally, through Twitter, I have had the pleasure of connecting with the likes of @katpinke @JeffFowle @ShaunHaney @KMRivard @cowartandmore @wifeofadairyman @4GFarms @JPlovesCotton @waynekblack @agridome – the list goes on and on… Needless to say, I have learned a great deal from these folks through the information they pass along via Twitter and other online tools such as YouTube, personal blogs and Facebook.

It is evident that online social media has become an important part of the storytelling process.  But what of television? I mean, what better way to put a human face to agriculture than through reality TV?

“Dust Up” is a new reality reality show and is touted as ‘one rowdy rural ride through the world of crop dusting’.  For almost a hundred years, Canadians have used aircraft as aids in the protection of field crops, orchards, and forests from damage caused by insects and pests, fungi, fire and even frost.  The first known aerial application of agricultural materials was by a Kiwi named John Chaytor. In 1906, Chaytor spread seed over a swamped valley floor in New Zealand, using – of all things – a hot air balloon.  Over the past several decades, things have evolved considerably in terms of aerial mechanics – from fixed-wing aircraft in the early part of the century to the use of both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, post-WWII.

“Dust Up” premiered in early June on History Television and it just happens to be filmed on location in my hometown area of Nipawin, Saskatchewan, Canada (Go Bears!) This ag story revolves around three highly competitive aerial crop dusters, two – of which – are father and son (Bud and Brennan Jardine). In the air, these ‘aerial cowboys’ “…buzz inches above the fields – dodging trees and telephone wires – to deliver their payloads…” (Shaw Media Blog) while on the ground they entertain the “Dust Up” audience with family feuds, crisis management and survival strategies.  Shannon Jardine, daughter/sister and the show’s executive producer, appears to have hit the mark with this one – both in recognizing a ‘good story’ and in encouraging her family members to tell it in such a public way. This accomplished actor/producer has come a long way from the shy slip of a girl that I remember!

I have to compliment the “Dust Up” producers, publicists and principals.  They appear to have launched an excellent publicity campaign to promote the program and to raise its visibility. And they have effectively leveraged social media to accomplish this, connecting to viewers through Facebook, YouTube ( and Twitter (@DustUpTV). TV and social media are highly complementary in this case – you betcha

No matter where you farm in the world, ag-vocates all speak the same language – – – agriculture! Pesticides and fungicides play an important role in managing crops and in sustaining our food supply. The practice of aerial spraying represents a cost effective and timely way in which to protect our crops.  So, for a little drama in the sky and a whole lot on the ground – and relating ag on human terms – check out “Dust Up”! You won’t be disappointed!

“So far, the Spray Gods are on my side…” “Maverick” Brennan Jardine, Crop Duster.

“Dust Up” is produced by Paperny Films and Prairie Threat Entertainment in association with Shaw  Media and is televised Thursday evenings on History Television. Episodes of “Dust Up” can also be viewed online at:

Want to meet some more ag storytellers? Michele Payn-Knoper provides a list of farm/ranchs blogs, ag-vocates, and other ag references:  



Estey, Ralph H. (2004). “Canadian use of aircraft for plant protection.” Phytoprotection. 85 (1). Pps: 7 – 12.

Globe and Mail. (2011). “Five Shows worth Watching.” (2011). Thursday, June 9. Available online at:

McCoy, Heath. (2011). “The Hazardous World of Crop Dusting.” Star Phoenix. June 2. Available online at:

Payn-Knoper, Michele. (2011). “I eat. You farm. So what?” Michele Payn-Knoper’s Gate to Plate Blog. Available online at:

Shaw Media Blog. (2011). “New series Dust Up premieres on History Television in June.” Available online at:


Sustainable, profitable and productive ag continues to be boosted by the contribution of biotech crops

The latest annual Global Biotech Crop Impact report covering economic and environmental impacts for the years 1996-2009 has been released (Brooks etal). This work has been subject to full peer review and been accepted for publication in two reputable peer review journals. The key headline impacts are:

*Biotech crops have contributed to significantly reducing the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices – in 2009, this was equivalent to removing 17.7 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or equal to removing 7.8 million cars from the road for one year;
*Biotech crops have reduced pesticide spraying (1996-2009) by 393 million kg (-8.7%) and as a result decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the area planted to biotech crops by 17.1%;
*There have been substantial net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $10.8 billion in 2009 and $64.7 billion for the fourteen year period.

The full report can be downloaded from

USDA planning to test 10% of organics ops

This just in from Mischa…

“There might finally be a bit of good news in the organic industry. Maybe…

Miles V. McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program, plans to begin testing 10 percent of the operations his agency certifies.

But, before anyone gets too excited, try to imagine if they only tested 10 percent of the athletes who competed at the Olympics. How much credibility would they have? Then imagining if they only tested American athletes at the Olympics while Chinese athletes were allowed to simply swear they were clean by signing an affidavit.

So far, only domestic organic farmers will be subjected to tests on their crops to make sure they’re not using prohibited, toxic herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. (No word yet on whether McEvoy plans to test for the big moneymaker, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer). But everyone knows that most domestic organic farmers are honest; it’s our overseas competitors that need to be scrutinized.

You can go to my website for a more on the USDA’s long overdue plan to test organic farms, a plan that President Bill Clinton first envisioned all the way back in 1997. Miles no doubt has good intentions, but unless he tests foreign organic farms that supply over 80 percent of the American and Canadian market for organic food, it’s too little too late.”

Mischa Popoff is a IOIA Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector and the author of Is it Organic? Mischa hails from Osoyoos, BC, Canada.


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By the way, you can get 20% off the purchase of Mischa’s book, Is it Organic? – – – check it out at:  



‘Organic’ does not necessarily mean ‘pesticide-free’

As always, I find Alex Avery’s work insightful. Here is a few quotes from his latest:

“Nature’s Toxic Tools: The Organic Myth of Pesticide-Free Farming”
Alex A. Avery, Center for Global Food Issues


“The primary organic fungicides are sulfur and copper. Both products are mined from natural mineral ores. Both are toxic to a broad range of organisms and are long-term soil and environmental contaminants. Both are applied at significantly higher rates of active ingredient than synthetic fungicides.”


“All farmers use a combination of crop rotation, disease and insect-resistant crop varieties, and soil fertility management to maximize plant health and minimize the impacts of crop pests. But all farmers also combine these strategies with judicious pesticide use to achieve an acceptable balance between crop yield, pest damage, and profitability. The biggest difference between organic farmers and their conventional counterparts is that organic farmers generally accept higher amounts of crop damage and loss before using pesticides. They do so because of the price premium for organic food and because organic pesticides are generally more expensive and less effective than their synthetic counterparts.”


“But organic farmers refuse to use chemical herbicides to kill weeds. They are left with bare-earth weed control methods that lead to increased soil erosion and less sustainability. The irony is that herbicides are the least toxic class of pesticide and offer the most environmental benefit. Herbicides are mostly compounds that narrowly target plant enzymes and are virtually harmless to insects and mammals. Yet the benefits from their use are enormous. An all-organic mandate would eliminate all of these benefits.”