Frontlines

The seeds of discontent

André McNicoll October 1 1979
Frontlines

The seeds of discontent

André McNicoll October 1 1979

The seeds of discontent

When the Manitoba government announced in July that it was selling off yet another Crown corporation—McKenzie Steele Briggs Seeds Ltd., of Brandon—the rush to “privatize” did more than outrage many Manitobans. It raised again the spectre of multinational corporations taking over the seed business not only in Canada, but around the world—a trend that has gained momentum in recent years. The prospect of such a take-over, and the possible consequences, are not simply the politically motivated cavils of Manitoba Premier Sterling Lyon’s opponents. The possibility of crop failures and infestations on a catastrophic scale—resulting from the tinkering of multinationals—has been invoked by many experts in the field, most recently in the report Seeds of the Earth (published by the Ottawa-based aid organization Inter Pares), released at last month’s World Food Council meeting in Ottawa.

McKenzie Seeds was put on the auction block because of Lyon’s 1977 election promise to “get the government out

of business.” Detractors say that the Crown corporation was sold simply because its financial success grated on the Conservatives’ free-enterprise sensibilities—McKenzie accounts for 75 per cent of the packaged seed market in Canada, contributes about $150,000 a year to Manitoba’s dwindling coffers and employs up to 240 people (at peak season) in a town where maintaining zero economic growth seems like progress. Winnipeg Tribune columnist Frances Russell calls the move a “textbook illustration of political ideology triumphing over common sense, of political dogma overriding the interests of the economy and people.” The government says that the company needs refinancing, and that a private company, not the taxpayers, should bear that expense.

Provincial government guarantees that the company will remain in Brandon may assuage some local concern. But a larger threat remains, at least in the minds of people such as Seeds of the Earth author Patrick Mooney, a 32year-old Manitoba farmer who says that two giant multinationals—Swiss-

based Ciba-Geigy and International Telephone and Telegraph—are trying to buy the corporation.

The impact of multinational corporations in the world seed trade is measurable in its economic scope, since the dozens of take-overs of seed companies around the world are on the public record. (Royal Dutch/Shell, Sandoz and Pfizer are some of the larger firms.) However, the impact on the quality, availability and price of seeds produced by multinationals is an area of raging controversy, and it is the predictions in this area that gives Seeds of the Earth its sting. Disaster, the book says, could soon come to world agriculture in the name of “genetic uniformity”—a uniformity of seed types that would result from the increasing control over the breeding process by a small number of companies. By selling their new hybrid seeds to Third World countries, companies could eradicate wild species of grains and vegetables that are now found mainly in developing countries; but once these species are gone, it will

be impossible to breed their hardy traits into commercial crops. That, argues Mooney and others, would leave agriculture defenceless against new pests and diseases, and would invite apocalyptic devastation of crops.

North America has already placed heavy reliance on the genetic resources of the Third World. For instance, about 75 per cent of Canada’s prairie bread wheat is of a variety at least partially derived from an East African species. Virtually all the corn planted in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and France comes from hybrid seeds supplied by a handful of multinationals, says U.S. journalist Dan Morgan. In his book Merchants of Grain, which examines the operations of the world’s grain cartels, Morgan also says that these companies are only a year or two away from developing hybrid wheats—an elusive breakthrough long sought in seed research. That is a prospect of alarm throughout the Canadian West, for hybrids do not pass on their vigor to the next generation, and must be bought anew each year from the multinationals.

Behind the push to develop hybrid wheat is the impetus of plant breeders’ rights (PBR) legislation, which the Canadian government is planning to introduce. By granting patents and royalties on seed hybrids, PBR offers potentially huge profits to seed companies. The legislation was chosen as the carrot after the federal department of agriculture tired of paying for the research and development of seeds and sought to unload the expense onto private industry. And although such legislation would likely make seed research attractive, it has become one of the most fiery political issues on the Prairies this year. Groups such as the National Farmers Union and the New Democratic Party have already vowed to fight the legislation. Supporters of PBR laws, on the other hand, point out that the U.S. and European countries already have such legislation and that the competition between companies will produce more plant varieties, better yields and more opportunity for farmers to diversify.

But the Patrick Mooneys and Dan Morgans of the agricultural world disagree, and take their lead from Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer-poet who symbolizes the fight to de-technologize farming. He says the fundamental problem is our “determination to use the life of the soil as if it were an extractable resource like coal, to use living things as if they were machines and to impose scientific (that is, laboratory) exactitude upon living complexities that are ultimately mysterious.”

André McNicoll