US News and World Report

Science & Technology 1/28/02

Bad seeds in court: when genetically modified plants

contaminate their crops, organic farmers fight big biotech


Imagine you're in Denver. Now drive north for 20 hours straight.

Welcome to Maymont, Saskatchewan, a place sort of like North

Dakota–only colder. Dale Beaudoin, 55, runs an organic farm

here on the Canadian prairie. "It's fairly nice, I guess, when it isn't

dry," he says. Dry, however, is a good word for his farm's cash

flow. Beaudoin got premium prices for keeping his crops free of

pesticides and other controversial trappings of modern

agriculture. But his 1999 canola harvest tested positive for

genetically modified (GM) strains, and its value dropped by a third.

So earlier this month Beaudoin joined some 1,000 other farmers in

a suit against GM canola makers Monsanto and Aventis, alleging

the firms' seeds have contaminated organic fields. The farmers

want restitution for lost profits and to block the introduction of GM


Are genetically engineered crops–which contain genes from

other species that let plants produce their own pesticides, among

other things–actually dangerous? Perhaps more to balance

sheets and to the environment than to people. StarLink GM corn,

for instance, was at the center of an uproar two years ago that

prompted 300 food products to be yanked from grocery stores. A

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study later found no

evidence that StarLink actually made anyone sick. But in

November 2001, scientists reported finding genes from GM corn in

Mexican "criollo maize," a source of modern corn varieties. Plant

breeders worry such cross-pollination could flood out genetic

diversity, making it impossible to breed new strains. And along with

contamination from GM seeds blowing into organic fields, farmers

in western Canada fear GM-enhanced "superweeds"–problem

plants they can't kill with herbicides. "You really can't contain

these genes," says Allison Snow, a plant ecologist at Ohio State

University. With biotech companies working on plants that produce

drugs and industrial chemicals, she says, "we have to ask if we

want those genes getting around."

Weeding out genes. The seed developers tend to argue that

individual farmers who buy their GM seeds are responsible for any

adverse effects on their neighbors. But a recent Monsanto law-

suit might come back to haunt the biotech companies, says

Universi- ty of Saskatchewan law Prof. Martin Phillipson. In 1998,

Monsanto accused Percy Schmeiser, a Saskatchewan farmer, of

growing its herbicide-ready canola without permission. The

company won a lawsuit by asserting that it retains intellectual

property rights over its seed in the field. "They've established that

they have a lot of rights," says Phillipson, "but no one's ever

tested whether they also have responsibilities."

Beaudoin and his fellow farmers' new lawsuit may force that test. If

it succeeds, the suit would throw a wheat-field-size wrench into the

biotech giants' plans and encourage similar GM-blocking legal

action elsewhere. Beaudoin says the farmers are scrambling for

donations to fund their cause against deep-pocketed

corporations, but he doesn't see any options. "Losing canola was

tough," he says. "But if they ever got GM wheat on us, it would

pretty near be the end."