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State should lead the fight against GM food
The province of Saskatchewan, in western Canada, is one of the country’s main producers of wheat and canola, Canada’s most important export crops. Compared with other provinces, it is also home to a large number of organic farmers, many of whom produce grains and canola for export markets. But the large-scale introduction of GM crops is threatening their ability to produce certified organic crops.

Soon after Monsanto introduced GM canola into the province in 1996, organic farmers began having their crops rejected by organic buyers because tests were showing GM contamination. Today, with even the conventional seed supply completely contaminated by GMOs, it is virtually impossible to grow certified organic canola in the province. This has been a big loss to organic farmers, for whom canola is an important crop in their rotations. But the importance of canola is nothing compared to that of wheat, which is grown by nearly every organic farmer in the province. So in 2001, when Monsanto came forward with an application to introduce GM wheat, Saskatchewan’s organic farmers decide to take a stand. They warned that the contamination that would surely ensue from the release of GM wheat would wipe out organic agriculture in the province.

In Canada, there are no regulations to make the corporations that profit from GM seeds liable for the damage that their introduction causes to others. The only possible avenue is to seek damages in the courts. In 2001, the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate (SOD), the umbrella group for Saskatchewan’s organic farmers, decided to take collective legal action for an injunction against the introduction of GM wheat and for compensation for losses stemming from the introduction of GM canola. In early 2002, SOD formally launched a class action suit against Monsanto and Bayer. A class action is a lawsuit filed by a group of people, in this case all certified organic grain farmers in Saskatchewan, against an entity such as a corporation. It is supposed to facilitate access to justice for common people, to provide a way for people to be heard in court even if they don’t have the resources of a big corporation. It allows people not only to pool their resources but also to reduce risks, b  ecause, if you lose a class action, costs are not awarded against you, which means that you don’t have to pay the legal bills of the other side, which can add up to millions of dollars.

While their case was before the courts, SOD was also active with a broad coalition of groups at the local and national level fighting the introduction of GM wheat. Together they were able to generate a lot of public pressure, to the point where, in May 2004, Monsanto withdrew its application. At this point SOD dropped the injunction against GM wheat from its class action but continued with its claims for compensation for the contamination caused by GM canola.

In Saskatchewan, a class action suit has first to pass through a hearing to determine whether it is legitimate before it can go before the courts. For the SOD case, the judge at the hearing ruled that the class action was not valid. SOD then appealed against the judgement, both at the provincial level and at the Supreme Court of Canada, only to have both appeals denied. The only legal option left was to pursue the claims through an individual action, but it was felt that the risks were too high and the chances of victory too narrow, given their experiences with the class action.

“We don’t feel it was a complete loss”, says SOD director, Cathy Holtslander. “We did a lot of really good work during the time that the legal action was active. The uncertainty that our case created in the corporate sector may have caused GM corporations to hold back from further introductions. People learned a lot about the issue of contamination and the issue of liability. They way things are now, because nobody is liable, the weakest players in the chain – the farmers – bear the costs.”

Now the corporations are pushing ahead with the introduction of GM alfalfa, another essential crop to organic farming in Saskatchewan, and GM wheat is back on the table with the rise of biofuels. The SOD and its allies are preparing for a new round of struggle.

1 - See video interview conducted by GRAIN with Meriem Louanchi in November 2008 about the situation regarding GM contamination in Algeria, grain.org/videos/?id=195

2 - GM Contamination Register Annual Report, 2008, http://tinyurl.com/79osjp

3 - The section on Canada is based on an interview conducted by GRAIN with Cathy Holtslander in November 2008. This video interview can be viewed on GRAIN’s website, grain.org/videos/?id=195

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