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Monday, April 14, 2014

Monsanto vs. Schmeiser: The Case of the Accidental Farmer

“Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” 
― Robert Louis Stevenson

My daughter bought me tickets to the theatre for my birthday. It was a busy week so I didn’t have time to sit down and research the play before the show date, but I had heard it was getting great reviews. “Seeds” is an original play by Annabel Soutar of Montreal. When we sat down at the NAC and I opened the program I was thrilled to see that Eric Peterson of “Corner Gas” was the lead. And as the play began, I realized I was familiar with the story.

“Seeds” was developed out of a series of interviews with key players in the Monsanto vs. Schmeiser drama. Soutar was fascinated with the story of the Saskatchewan canola farmer sued by the biotechnology giant Monsanto. The company claimed Schmeiser ‘stole’ their genetically modified seed, which is resistant to the pesticide “Roundup” and allows farmers to spray entire fields, killing all weeds and leaving healthy canola plants behind.  They said tests of his crop showed over 60% GM canola, so he likely purchased it from a licensed neighbour and cultivated it in his own fields illegally. Schmeiser claims that first crop in 1997 blew in off a passing truck and planted itself.

In 1998, realizing what he had, Schmeiser kept and replanted the super-seed. Monsanto claimed the old farmer had broken patent law. Schmeiser said his field was forever contaminated by the genetically modified seed, and he was just going about his business, exercising his rights as a farmer to replant his own seeds.

The play was built upon a series of interviews with key players in the courtroom and canola field drama. Eric Peterson does a fantastic job in the role of Schmeiser, the canola farmer and member of municipal council in the small town of Bruno, Saskatchewan.

The legal debate, of course, is about far more than the presence in Schmeiser’s fields of genetically-modified seeds containing a patented, pesticide-resistant gene. The case asks the question, where do you draw the line? If the gene is patented, fine, but it’s in the seed. And the seed produces a plant. And by the way, the seeds are pretty hardy and able to grow without a lot of human intervention. It’s quite plausible that they would take root and germinate on their own if spilled onto fertile ground.

Schmeiser stood up for the rights of farmers to cultivate their land and everything that grows on it. And with that course, he sparked the debate about genetically modified organism (GMO) food. Turns out it may not be all that good for us. That is a touchy subject, to be sure. If you ask a farmer who makes his livelihood on GM crops, he isn’t going to be very receptive to your opinion. But the point is technology can be dangerous if it is allowed to proceed without testing and preparation for “unintended consequences”.

Where do we draw the line between stronger, disease-resistant crops and our own health? What about the steroids and antibiotics that we put into feed for beef and chicken? They may help farmers to grow bigger, better animals but when we ingest the additives somewhere down the food chain, how do they affect us? Is our desire to scientifically alter our food so that it grows bigger, produces more and lasts longer, linked to the increasing prevalence of cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s and other health issues? I’m not saying it is. I’m just saying, to use an old farming term, it sounds to me like we’ve put the cart before the horse. Biotechnology is awesome. Scientists have made such advancements in food production that we may be able to one day eradicate world hunger. But at what cost? Is it too much to ask that our science must also be socially responsible?

As in the case of many documentary films and pieces of investigative journalism, “Seeds” asks the hard questions. Because we don’t want to become a victim of our own unintended consequences.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Somebody better call Noah.

Welcome to another season of completely unpredictable weather in Eastern Ontario. I don’t know what you think about the Farmers’ Almanac – I can’t understand the darn thing in hard copy form: too many charts and numbers for me. I prefer words. But the online version is kind of cool, and the search function makes it a heck of a lot easier to find things. I did a search for “summer in Ontario 2014”. The Farmers’ Almanac gave me the whole year. 
Winter was supposed to be a bit warmer than normal. Not sure if I agree that it was. The coldest periods were to be early and mid-December, late January and late February. Well that kind of covers all bases, doesn’t it?
The almanac did predict higher than usual amounts of precipitation and we did get that.
So the almanac can be pretty spot-on. Is it kind of like a weather horoscope? Maybe. Take it or leave it, here’s what the almanac says we have coming up.
April and May will be slightly cooler than normal (Booo….). Snowfall will be above normal, despite below-normal precipitation. Now that I find confusing. Isn’t snowfall the same as precipitation? And WHY are we still speaking of snow in spring?? Anyway, I digress.
The almanac says summer will be warmer than normal, with the hottest temperatures in mid to late June, early to mid-July and early to mid-August. So basically all summer. It’s going to be a hot one. Rainfall will be normal.
Looking ahead to the fall, the almanac says September and October will be warmer than normal. Precipitation will also be above normal.
I’m just lookin’ around and all I see at the moment, as April settles in, is snow. I know in some areas like Toronto they have experienced some flash flooding already, but I’m thinking we might need to take some extra precautions when the big melt comes. Like build an ark or something.
I’m really hoping the County gets their road crews out to clear the road grates on time so we can have proper drainage. Because the melting snow pools at the corners and we don’t need people hydro-planing through our many roundabouts in Kemptville. 
At the farm, we already have our usual ice-puddle in the entrance to the cattle area. Every year it catches me by surprise and I slip and fall on it. Not this year. But it’s a little more noticeable this season, because it’s already a small pond.
On the mild days, snow slides off the barn roof and we quickly count calves and sheep to make sure no one is buried under the resulting drift. Soon all of that will melt and we will have to make sure the doghouses, lamp creep and hay feeders are high and dry.
The barnyard will become a mudfield for the next few months, until the summer sun finally dries it out. The mud will try to suck my rubber boots off my feet, pulling me off balance so I am in danger of falling and sitting in the sludge. It has happened more than once.
The animals pick out a path on the edges of the mud, and we often lay boards down for them to walk on so they don’t get stuck in the mire and the muck. There’s nothing sadder than a sheep who has lost her footing and fallen over. Imagine how hard it would be to get yourself back up if you were built like a barrel with pegs for legs. More than once I have had to run out and upright a toppled sheep. And then this weird thing occurs. It’s like the innards of the sheep have shifted, and she can’t walk straight for a while. You have to hold her still and steady until she is right again.
All that being said, I’m looking forward to the rainy season. I love all the four seasons, but the ultra-warm sunshine that will break through occasionally in spring just puts everyone in such a great mood.
We do have a lot of snow to melt, however, so if anyone has a direct line to Noah, dial him up. I’m just glad I bought myself a new pair of boots.