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US Farmers Union Calls for
Moratorium on GMO Patents

National Farmers Union sets its agenda with a Minnesotan at the helm
Joy Powell Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)

Mar 5, 2002

IRVING, TEXAS -- The National Farmers Union said Monday that it is
asking Congress to investigate possible manipulation of grain and livestock
markets by big investors and multinational companies.

The organization, which represents nearly 300,000 farmers and ranchers in
26 states, also is asking for a moratorium on the issuing of patents for
genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in crops and animals.

Those declarations came as the group concluded its four-day convention in
Irving, Texas, and approved its list of priorities for the next year. That
list is topped by the organization's desire for a new farm bill, which has
some controversial provisions and currently is under consideration in
Congress.

The farm bill fight will be led by Dave Fredrickson, the Minnesotan who
was elected president of the farmer's union on Sunday.

Though it is not the organization's biggest concern, the call for a
congressional investigation is serious. Farmers say that when supplies are
tight, prices should rise, and that when supplies are in surplus, prices
should fall. But the market doesn't always follow those signals, and
farmers want to know why.

The implication is that the market is being distorted by large investors to
their own advantage, causing prices to rise and fall in a very short amount
of time. That can hurt farmers' ability to market their commodities.

The Farmers Union is asking Congress to examine the grain and livestock
markets for possible collusion and the sharing of information between
commodity funds and big businesses and investors. Such information-sharing
and collusion could unfairly drive down prices.

The union also wants Congress to look into the adequacy of the overall
regulation of the commodity exchanges by the Commodities Futures Trading
Commission.

"It's a situation where the level of competition is declining very
dramatically and the level of transparency -- the level of people to be
able to view what is really going on in these markets -- is also declining
significantly," said Jim Miller, chief economist for the Farmers Union.
"That puts farmers at a severe disadvantage, allows for discriminatory
treatment by these companies across their markets, which are multinational,
and, I believe, has very similar effects ultimately on the consumer.".

Miller said that with less competition, consumers will have fewer choices
and probably a lower level of knowledge about the products they buy.

Some of the same multinational companies that farmers feel could be
unfairly influencing the markets also may be those that are attempting to
patent genetically modified agricultural products such as seeds, Miller said.

Farmers also are asking the government for a moratorium that would
temporarily discontinue granting patents on GMOs. The organization wants
to prevent large companies from gaining control of genetically modified
products from seed to the dinner table, said the group's outgoing
president, Leland Swenson.

Potential seed problems

"The industry has consolidated significantly, so now you have a limited
number of companies that are engaged in seed production," Miller said.

The danger, he said, is that farmers could become unable to legally keep
seeds and plant them each season. Instead, the company could claim
ownership of those seeds and charge the farmers. An increasing number of
lawsuits filed by companies against farmers illustrate the growing problem,
he said.

Miller said some of the multinational companies are further concentrating
the market by involvement in genetics research and patenting.

"Many of those same companies are also the leading companies globally
engaged in the development of crop-protection products. And you have either
direct and indirect alliances and linkages between those companies and the
companies that are engaged in processing and merchandising around the world."

Major companies often share the cost of genetic-modification technology
with universities that are using tax dollars for the research, said Dennis
Wiese, president of the South Dakota Farmers Union and secretary of the
National Farmers Union.

The companies then patent the research and charge tax-paying farmers for
access to those technologies, Wiese said. He and Swenson, the outgoing
president, call those practices unfair and unethical.

The Farmers Union supports legislation that, if approved, would exempt
farmers from paying royalties on patented farm animals and technical fees
on seeds that have been genetically modified.

"If we have to pass legislation to help deny those companies the right to
manipulate the farmer and the rural communities in this, then we ought to
be doing that," Wiese said.

The farmers also contend that GMOs have created a series of ethical,
environmental, food-safety, legal and market issues that must be addressed.

A new farm bill

While farmers spent time discussing those issues, they also talked about
their top priority: getting a new farm bill.

"The top need is to get a farm bill passed in time for farmers as they make
their planting decisions," said Fred rickson, the organization's new
president. "It is so important for farmers, as they go to the field, to
know where the safety net will be for them."

Fredrickson has served since 1991 as president of the Minnesota Farmers
Union and is a former state senator.

Many of the Farmers Union's provisions are included in the Senate version
of a federal farm bill that is now before a House-Senate conference committee.

Fredrickson said a top priority is higher loan rates. They set the minimum
price that farmers can receive for their commodities when they use their
crops as security for government loans.

The group also supports a ban on meatpacker ownership of livestock, an
antitrust measure, Fredrickson said.


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