Bruce Bisset: Standing up to patent bullying

By Bruce Bisset

While Hastings District Council's intention to prohibit genetically modified crops is a momentous step toward cementing Hawke's Bay as a "gold standard" food producer, the downside is that it will put our region on the front lines of an increasingly bitter global conflict over who "owns" food.

And when the opposition is as moneyed and well-connected as the big boys of food research - like Monsanto and Syngenta - defending such provisions could prove difficult and costly.

Particularly when the secret text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement opens the door for corporations to file restrictive practice suits; heaven forbid we should govern ourselves to our own liking.

But HDC must not back down; the potential premium to be gained from being officially GE-free is enormous, especially as many formerly-premier growing areas are now compromised via GMOs.

So a little hardship en route to victory for the integrity of our products is surely no great sacrifice.

Unfortunately, the challenges for producing pure food do not end with legislating against GE. We may also have to go to war to prove we own what we grow.

Monsanto and its ilk are not content with trying to enslave the world's farmers with a GE-monoculture that brooks no competition.

They are also busy targeting conventional methods by patenting as many species as possible.

Alarmingly, in Europe around half of all varieties of vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli are now exclusively owned by transnational corporations, thanks to the absurdities of international patent law.

These are not genetically modified varieties; they are conventionally bred. And it's not just plants: animal "varieties" such as dairy cows bred for higher milk production have also been patented.

This despite the European Parliament stating that conventionally bred plants and animals should not be subject to patent.

The European Patent Office has ignored the call even while a crucial test case is pending, and is in the process of issuing a dozen new patents for conventionally bred staples.

There is something of a parallel with New Zealand in this: the head of the EPO is pro-corporate, much as the deputy head of Federated Farmers is pro-GE - so individual farmers get compromised instead of protected because the door is deliberately left ajar.

Meanwhile in the US, where the Secretary of Agriculture is outspokenly pro-GMO, the new "Monsanto Protection Act" has given genetics companies robust new tools with which to "defend" their practices, in essence making it nigh-impossible for anyone (such as a state government) to prevent GMO cropping.

This anti-democratic measure was "slipped through" as part of much wider tax laws, via the curious US practice of adding "minor" bills into larger mostly unrelated legislation; many members of Congress claimed they did not even know what was contained in what they were passing.

Inevitably this law will, via the TPPA when it takes effect, imperil HDC's honest attempt to protect the Bay's farms; even if our Government was to belatedly rally and impose a moratorium on GMO food production, it would be open to challenge via an international trade tribunal.

My intent in sounding these alarms is not to derail the local process, but rather to urge it be well-supported.

Because unless growing regions around the globe start standing up strongly to the bully-boys wanting to usurp control of our food supply, then soon it will be illegal to grow anything not owned or sanctioned by a patent-wielding corporation.

Want your home vege garden torn up because you're growing "illegally"? Yes, it could come to that.

So kia kaha, Hastings District! Stay strong; do not bow to these intolerable corporate threats; and let our growers benefit from producing the pure whole foods that people really need to thrive.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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