Mr President, stop Monsanto maize trials

By Dr Opiyo Oloya | New Vision Online

DEAR President Yoweri Museveni,I am writing to categorically reject the latest effort by Monsanto and others to start testing genetically modified maize in Uganda.

I first wrote to you on the issue on September 17, 2003, outlining my concerns about introducing genetically modified (GM) crops to Uganda. My fears then, as now, centre not on the science of GM which is quite advanced and could be useful in sub-Sahara Africa to boost food production, but rather on the potential enslavement of the end-users, namely, the poor farmers that are eventually forced by multinational giants in America and Europe to relinquish all controls over indigenous seeds that are genetically altered and then re-introduced as new crops.

Despite promises of “no royalty fees”, the multinational companies expect and will enforce the collection of annual fees from the poor farmers now forced to plant the “new crop”. Mr. President, one of the companies behind this maize research is Monsanto, the US-based bio-tech company. Now, without being dramatic about it, the aggressive business model of marketing GM seeds around the world was pioneered by Monsanto. This is the same company that sued a Canadian farmer named Percy Schmeiser in August 1998 because the farmer’s crop became cross-pollinated by Monsanto’s genetically modified canola. Monsanto contended that Schmeiser did not pay to use their GM seeds, while Schmeiser argued that he was the victim because Monsanto’s GM canola contaminated his field of indigenous canola. Two lower Canadian courts sided with Monsanto, ruling that Schmeiser owed the big multinational over $200,000 in damages for property infringement.

When the case reached the Supreme Court of Canada in May 2004, five out of nine judges sided with Monsanto saying that indeed the company had every right to protect its property rights, in this case, the GM seeds. But in a carefully-worded ruling, the Supreme Court also ruled that Schmeiser did not have to pay anything because he did not profit from the GM seeds. In 2008, Monsanto agreed to pay the cost of cleaning up Schmeiser’s contaminated field.

Mr. President, Monsanto is in it for the money not to help little poor Uganda farmers make abundant harvests of maize. The case of what became known as the “chapati scandal” illustrates my point very clearly.

In early 2004, Monsanto was awarded American and European patent rights to India’s century-old wheat variety known as Nap Hal which is particularly suited for making delicious chapatis that Indians have enjoyed from the beginning of time. In fact, Monsanto bought the rights to patent Nap Hal from Unilever in 1998, thereby staking its rights to having “invented” part of Nap Hal.

The people of India understandably could not take this lying down, and quite rightfully challenged Monsanto in court, and in every forum. In May 2004, with the possibility of losing face, Monsanto sold its Nap Hal rights to a French company named RAGT Genetiques SA. In September 2004, the European Patent Office (EPO) pulled the plug on the whole thing, revoking the patent rights on Nap Hal wheat, thereby returning the rights to plant Nap Hal back to the people of India who had cultivated it for centuries.

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