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).  

Dear Pam (content warning: extreme sarcasm)

Disclaimer: These words are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Stampede or its affiliates.

There has been a huge uproar in the media, of late, around the sport of chuckwagon racing. Most of this hullabaloo came as a result of the tragic accident that occurred on the track last week at the Calgary Stampede. Driver Chad Harden lost three of his valued team members; three horses – “members of the family” as he referred to them. It was a sad day for the Hardens and a sad day for the Stampede.

Before I go any further, I want to clear up some facts. Many sites are misrepresenting the details around the accident.

  • FACT: The left lead horse collapsed and died on the track due to natural causes (a ruptured aortic aneurysm, a pre-existing condition that couldn’t have been detected prior to the race)
  • FACT: The collapse of the left lead brought down the rest of the team and, subsequently, the horse and his outrider who were following behind
  • FACT: Two of the horses (right lead and outrider horse) had to be euthanized due to the extent of their injuries
  • FACT: One horse was to undergo surgery and is expected to survive. One is doing just fine.
  • FACT: Chad Harden’s close attention to his team and his expert driving prevented what could have been a much worse on-track disaster.
  • FACT: Yes, the loss of the animals was tragic but no human life was lost. For that, we are all grateful.

I had the opportunity to visit the chuckwagon barns at the Stampede last week and witnessed first-hand how well these magnificent horses are cared for. Chuckwagon drivers spend hours every day with their horses – feeding, grooming, washing and caring for them. They get to know their talents as well as their limitations. They take time to consider who should be positioned as leads or in wheel positions based upon their individual skills. They instinctively know which horses love each other best and, as a result, who would work well together as a team. These horses have incredibly distinct personalities, you can see it in how they relate to humans and to one another. A friend of mine refers to thoroughbreds as the “unruly teenagers”. They are high energy animals, they are athletes and they are always ready to run. That’s what they are born and bred for.

The sport of chuckwagon racing has an extensive history (with the Stampede and beyond) and there are incredibly strong familial links in the chuckwagon community. These people work together, play together and have developed working and sporting protocols that are dedicated to maintaining high standards in the sport and in animal care. And these protocols and standards are constantly improving and evolving. Horses are a chuckwagon driver’s life. I don’t know any cowboy (or cowgirl, for that matter) whose thoughts don’t often return to their horse(s) throughout the day. These people love their horses. They, like all people that bring their animals to the Stampede, care deeply about animal welfare and well-being.

What really burns my britches is when celebrities adopt a cause, push a political agenda (amplified by ego or other personal motivations) and see fit to misrepresent or malign good people and good practices (I see it in agriculture all the time). Flanking her friends at PETA and another Stampede-critic Bob Barker, Pamela Anderson has hit the headlines and airwaves of late, criticizing the sport of chuckwagons and petitioning the Premier of Alberta to ban the sport. This is my letter to her.

Dear Pam:

You stated that horses are “routinely killed” in chuckwagon races. What do you mean by “routinely”? Only 50 horses have died out of an estimated 75,000 at Stampedes in the past 26 years. This number represents ‘a percentage of a percentage of a percentage’ based upon total starts. This number is NOT statistically significant. Just so you know, Pam, more women died in the United States last year (2011) going under the knife for cosmetic surgery. This latter statistic, although relatively higher, is not significant either – so you can rest easy. The practice of cosmetic surgery will carry on.

So, you want the sport of chuckwagon racing banned? Let’s say, Pam – in all your infinite ‘equine wisdom’ – that you are able to somehow shut down the sport. Are you prepared to accept the consequences? Presumably, Pam, you wouldn’t want to see these animals euthanized. If you (and your friends at PETA and we can’t forget Bob Barker, of course) plan to move forward, you better be prepared to make some major investments. These thoroughbreds that are no longer working will require new homes. Yours, perhaps? If so, grab a pen and paper ‘cause this is what you will need:

  1. A minimum of two acres of pasture per animal so that you watch your magnificent creature frolic, prance and nibble grass in the setting sun (cue: elevator music)
  2. You will also have to seed this pasture acreage on occasion in order to sustain it
  3. You will need a truck and trailer to transport your new pet (plus other acreage maintenance equipment)
  4. Hay, on average, will cost ~500$ per horse per year (plus cost of supplements, etc, if you choose)
  5. Vet bills will run you $500-$800 per year at a minimum and that’s with NO accidents or significant health issues (good luck with that)
  6. Hoof trimming will run you at a minimum of $400 per year (if you are tempted to ride your new pet for “your amusement and entertainment” (God forbid), then add on another ~$1000 per year for shoeing)
  7. The horse will require some form of shelter which can cost anywhere from $1000 and up depending upon how extravagant you want to get (don’t forget maintenance costs)
  8. Then there’s fencing which will run you anywhere from $7000 to $10000 (you would want post-and-rail and not barb-wire, correct? Yeah, save the barb-wire for your tattoos).
  9. You will need tack (you will only require a halter and blanket or two but if you plan to ride for “your amusement and entertainment”, you will need a saddle, bridle and other tack) plus some grooming tools. This could easily cost $3000 or $4000.
  10. As this pastoral animal will no longer be a ‘working’ animal, it will not be in top physical condition and its life expectancy will be greatly reduced. It will also be vulnerable to more health issuses. This means higher vet bills (see #5).

Conservatively speaking, we are looking at variable costs of well over $2000 per animal per year and don’t forget your fixed / capital outlay costs for shelter, fencing, land, truck, trailer, equipment, etc (thousands and thousands of dollars). Multiply all this by the number of horses that would be ‘out of a job’ if the sport of chuckwagon racing was banned. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Wow, either way, this is adding up. Perhaps not all will find homes, Pam (imagine that). Then you would have to factor in another $700+ to euthanize, remove and dispose of each horse. Whew. Where are we at now? *franticallytappingcalculator*

In short, political motivations, optics and actions today can carry some serious long term implications, Pam. Although those retired thoroughbreds would look magnificent grazing in your back 10 acres just outside of LA, all that they would end up being is mere ‘eye candy’. Oh wait, that might work for you. Bad argument. At any rate, ‘eye candy’ does not justify the perpetuation of a breed. If these animals don’t work, there is no incentive to breed or raise them. The breed, as we know it, would eventually disappear (AKA “extinction”).

What happened at the chuckwagon races the other day was a tragic accident, Pam. Nothing more. If those horses weren’t out running there, they could have been just as easily running in some pastoral setting somewhere and have broken a leg in a gopher hole. In 2007, my husband and I lost two horses when they got out and were hit by a car (ironically, it was a Mustang). It’s difficult to estimate how many horses (and other animals) die in vehicular mishaps alone. Much of these incidents go unreported. Should we ban cars and trucks as well?

One final note, Pam. Did you know that the sport of chuckwagon racing also operates as a pseudo rescue organization? They adopt ex-race horses. You know – those same horses that you used to watch race every year at the Kentucky Derby until you boycotted the event in 2006. The sport of chuckwagon racing saves literally thousands of thoroughbreds each year from the abattoirs, often extending their lives for ten years or more! …Think about it.

Pam, honey, you have no jurisdiction here. You can no more tell the Stampede – or the Premier, for that matter – to shut down the chucks than any of us can tell you to stop getting cosmetic surgery. Stick to what you know.


A meat-eating, leather-boot-shoe-wearing, horse-back-riding, rodeo and chuckwagon-supporting, agriculture enthusiast. :O)

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Standing Up Against Gene-ocide | Truth About Trade and Technology

No matter what your opinion is, there is NO room for abuse! Roberto Peiretti shares his experience when he was attacked by GMO naysayers – – – “I am fed up with the foes of GM crops. While they exhibit a sense of moral superiority, they are showing scientific illiteracy. They know next to nothing about farming or genetics…access to biotechnology is not just about business – it is about lives.”   

Standing Up Against Gene-ocide | Truth About Trade and Technology – Truth About Trade and Technology 



Online Anti-Technology Advocacy Networks

Ryan January 2010 Advocacy & Issue Networks.pdf

Please check out this working paper I wrote… “Framing, Exploring and Understanding Online Anti-Technology Advocacy Networks (working title)” (January 2010). I experiment with the webcrawler tool “Issuecrawler” to explore online advocacy networks around this issues of ‘terminator technology’ (or gene use restriction technologies) and ‘synthetic biology’.

Thanks to Dr. Edna Einseidel for her support of this work (through funding from Genome Canada GE3LS).

Researchers and activists alike benefit from dialogue… #research #activtism

An Act of Distinction

– Editorial, Nature v.466, p 414, July 22, 2010
‘Researchers and activists alike benefit from dialogue – and a clear line between legal and illegal acts.’
When prosecutors in California charged four animal-rights activists with violations of the 2008 federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) last year, they were vague about the actions involved – which is why the indictment was dismissed on 12 July. The act criminalizes “a course of conduct involving threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment, or intimidation” if it places individuals who work with animals, or their families, in fear for their lives or safety. Federal judge Ronald Whyte of the Northern California district court in San Jose said that prosecutors had not explained what the activists had done to cross a line.

The prosecutors have the option to re-indict if they can be more explicit. But a lawyer for the activists suggests that the prosecutors’ vagueness on that first round was intentional: the specific actions, when set down in an indictment, might look suspiciously like ‘speech’ protected by the first amendment to the US constitution.

According to police reports, that speech allegedly involved shouting epithets at researchers on university campuses throughout California’s San Francisco Bay Area – “Vivisectors go to hell!” and “You’re a murderer!” being among the milder examples – writing slogans on the pavements outside researcher’s homes; wearing masks; and banging on doors.

Whatever one thinks about such behaviour, the US constitution does protect even offensive free speech. Lawyers, ethicists and the research community should look critically at the AETA. Does it make the line between protest and crime clearer or blurrier? Is it even necessary?

There is a case to be made that it is not. Animal-rights activists causing trouble for researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have been successfully dealt with using court injunctions and existing anti-stalking laws, for example.

But there are also arguments to be made in the AETA’s favour. According to Colin Blakemore, a University of Oxford neuroscientist with extensive and sometimes painful experience of the issues, similar laws enacted in the United Kingdom have been instrumental in raising awareness among police and prosecutors about the activists’ gruelling organized campaigns. And when enforcement against activists was tightened, the result was a general relaxation among researchers and a boom in communication and openness.

Whatever the merits of the AETA, having a clear distinction between legitimate and illegitimate tactics is in everyone’s best interest. Activists who want to protest legally need to know what is allowed, and researchers who wish to engage with legitimate animal-rights activists need to be able to recognize who they are.

Not every researcher believes that such engagement is worth pursuing, arguing that the minds of hard-core activists are already firmly made up. But engaging in dialogue with more moderate animal-rights groups – particularly young people who might otherwise, in the future, become further radicalized – can be mutually beneficial, demonstrating to everyone that the opposing side are not monsters.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, where cars have been set alight, homes flooded and razor blades sent in the post, the US branch of the animal-research defence group Pro-Test and the campus animal-rights club Bruins for Animals put together a panel on animal-research ethics in February. The event culminated in a joint statement condemning harassment and intimidation that had been directed at those who participated in the panel.

Such steps are to be applauded. When researchers and non-violent animal rights advocates air their differences by communicating with one another, the result can be more than just a feel-good exercise. If labs communicate, animal lovers can be convinced that not all research involving animals is torture. And if activists persuade rather than frighten, researchers can be motivated to rethink experimental design and reduce their reliance on animals.

Kudos to Greenpeace for backing down on Golden Rice

Greenpeace Backing Down on GMOs

– AfricaBio, January 6, 2010
Greenpeace has for the second time in eight years backed down on opposing the development of Golden Rice. Kumi Naidoo of Durban , the South African born newly appointed executive director of Greenpeace International, in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, on the question of Golden Rice, said:
“In view of developments like Golden Rice, Greenpeace must reconsider its position with regard to GMOs. We must make sure not to dismiss new and important developments.”
“This is a very welcome approach to the acceptance of GMOs in general and not only concerns Golden Rice. It will undoubtedly boost Africa’s endeavours to speed up the development of GM crops to alleviate hunger and poverty,” says Professor Jocelyn Webster, executive director of AfricaBio , South Africa , a biotechnology stakeholders’ organisation. “It is an encouraging move away from the usual radical view of activists to a more open approach where things can be discussed, which is a boon to GMO acceptance worldwide in general,” says Professor Webster.
This is the second positive statement from Greenpeace on Golden Rice, Prof Webster emphasised. She pointed out that in February 2001 at the BioVision Conference in Lyon , France , Benedict Haerlin, genetic engineering coordinator of Greenpeace, also backed down from the stand against GM crops. He admitted that Greenpeace would not oppose field trials of Golden Rice being developed to combat blindness in the Third World . (Daily Telegraph, London , 10 February 2001)
Golden Rice was developed to combat Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) which kills 6000 people daily and causes blindness in 500 000 children annually. (UNICEF 2007)
“A single month of delay in the marketing Golden Rice would cause 50 000 children to go blind. This is the price to pay for opposing the development of this unique scientific breakthrough in human food. At last it seems that Greenpeace is seeing the light that could save the loss of sight of 500 000 children annually in the developing world.”
“I’m sure that South African born Naidoo is encouraged by the success of GM crop production in South Africa over the past eleven years. There have been no adverse effects on human and animal health nor the environment. Main beneficiaries have undoubtedly been the thousands of smallholder farmers who have increased their yields by up to 30%, providing them with a sustainable food supply,” according to Prof Webster.
Commenting on Naidoo’s remarks, Professor Klaus Ammann, eminent Swiss scientist said: “Greenpeace’s aggressiveness towards Golden Rice and Naidoo’s encouraging stance will soon turn into a major success like Bt rice in China. China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of rice and has just approved the production of GM rice promising a yield increase of 8% and an 80% decrease in insecticides.”
Golden Rice is scheduled to be launched in 2011/12.