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Brace for fight against Monsanto

By Vision Reporter

Added 14th December 2010 03:00 AM

SOME Ugandan scientists and lobbyists closely associated with the biotechnology giant Monsanto laughed us off as engaging in futile exercise in public education when we started the conversation on the threat that genetically modified (GMO) crops pose for indigenous plant species, organic harvests, U

SOME Ugandan scientists and lobbyists closely associated with the biotechnology giant Monsanto laughed us off as engaging in futile exercise in public education when we started the conversation on the threat that genetically modified (GMO) crops pose for indigenous plant species, organic harvests, U

By Opiyo Oloya

SOME Ugandan scientists and lobbyists closely associated with the biotechnology giant Monsanto laughed us off as engaging in futile exercise in public education when we started the conversation on the threat that genetically modified (GMO) crops pose for indigenous plant species, organic harvests, Uganda small farmers, and the health and welfare of everyone.

GMO crops, they argued, are universally accepted and it was inevitable that Ugandans will also fall in line with the rest of the world. But as we have demonstrated over the last month and a half, GMOs are not universally accepted, including in developed countries in Europe and North America. In fact, as we begin to look at the way forward, Ugandans must continue to educate themselves about genetically modified crops and, more importantly, how to fight big billion dollar companies like Monsanto that are hovering like hawks ready to swoop in for the kill.

Such a battle can only be cast in terms of David against Goliath, Monsanto being the latter with billions of dollars to pay an army of lawyers. But it can be done using legal and peaceful means. That is the tactic that environmentalists have adopted in the USA, the home of Monsanto. There are currently numerous lawsuits filed either directly against Monsanto, other biotech companies or against government bodies that regulate agriculture. Monsanto, for example, recently lost a court case filed by US environmental groups in September 2009 to stop the planting of Monsanto’s genetically modified Round-up Ready sugar beet.

Worldwide, sugar beet accounts for the production of 30 percent of sugar. In 2001 and 2002, 1.3 and 1.4 million acres of sugar beet were planted in the USA. The court case was actually launched against the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as the main defendant. The environmental groups made up of the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Earthjustice and others argued, and the judge agreed in August this year, that USDA illegally approved the genetically modified (GMO) sugar beet crop technology five years ago without conducting a required environmental impact review.

Sugar beet is wind-pollinated, but insects like bees can also dispersed the pollen further afield. There was no way of knowing the damage the GMO sugar beet could cause to the environment and to human health. Although the court ordered a ban on further planting of sugar beet back in August, USDA gave permits allowing seed companies to produce Monsanto’s GMO sugar beet seedlings for future crops. The environmental groups went back to court which last week ordered that the Monsanto “seedlings shall be removed from the ground”.

Naturally, Monsanto was not amused and vowed: “We will spare no effort in challenging this ruling on the basis of flawed legal procedure and lack of consideration of important evidence." Well, chalk it up as a win for the little guy 1, Monsanto 0. Meanwhile, another ongoing legal tussle involves Monsanto genetically modified (GMO) alfalfa crop. Alfalfa sprouts are used in sandwiches or salads, but the crop is mainly used as hay for farm animals. In June this year, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in Monsanto’s favour thereby overturning a lower court’s decision that placed a temporary ban on GMO alfalfa. But the Supreme Court also ruled that farmers could not plant Monsanto’s GMO alfalfa until the US Department of Agriculture gives the okay that the crop is environmentally safe. This part of the ruling was seen by environmental groups as a victory.

In effect, according to environmental groups, the USDA must now establish how and where GMO alfalfa should be planted. In this case, the little guy scored 1, and Monsanto 1. The point of these legal stories is very simple. If America, the home base of Monsanto, can never sleep in the fight against the introduction of genetically modified crops, why should Uganda? The manner with which some Ugandan officials went shamelessly cap-in-hand to solicit Monsanto to bring GMO to 'save' “starving Africans” must be vigorously challenged, if necessary in Uganda's courts. Where are the environmental impact studies for Monsanto’s GM maize in Uganda? Who did the study, and where and how were these studies conducted, in which village?

Over the next several weeks, there will be opportunity for Ugandans to participate in open discussions. I know many environmental and small farmer groups forming to promote naturally organic agriculture harvests (NOAH). A number of them are working directly with law makers to ensure that good laws are enacted by Uganda’s Parliament that will protect Uganda’s small farmers, indigenous crops and NOAH. Moreover, over the next few weeks, we will continue to promote and encourage everyone who can to sign the online petition (http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/noah-uganda/) supporting NOAH in Uganda.

Meanwhile, those who initially thought that the introduction of GMO crops in Uganda was a slam-dunk affair are not laughing now. Now they know different, they know they have a fight on their hand. And we are just getting started.

Opiyo.oloya@sympatico.ca

Brace for fight against Monsanto

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