The following letter is a response to claims made by the pro-GM lobbyist and former Syngenta man, Dr Shantu Shantharam, in India's science and environment magazine, 'Down to Earth'.
Prof Phil Bereano and GM Watch editor, Jonathan Matthews, take issue in particular with Shantharam's claim that GM contamination is irrelevant to the case of Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer sued by Monsanto.
Shantharam had claimed in Down to Earth that 'gene contamination is a bogus issue' - 'a concoction of the anti-gm lobby', and that court records clearly established Percy Schmeiser had not suffered any such contamination of his canola crop but had actually "purchased illegally" the GM canola found on his farm.
The response by Bereano and Matthews makes clear that Shantharam's account of the Schmeiser case is not just misleading but demonstrably false.
It is more than ironic that in Dr Shantharam's frequent contributions to the Indian media, he likes to characterise resistance to GM crops as due to people being 'fed' bogus, concocted and otherwise inaccurate information by the 'anti biotech lobby'.
One wonders how Dr Shantharam regards his own communication activities.
Misleading claims by Shantharam
(The following letter was submitted to 'Down to Earth'. The magazine has just published it in a slighly amended form as 'Pick of the Postbag': http://www.downtoearth.org.in/new_letter.asp?foldername=20041231&sec_id=1 )
We were concerned to read in your correspondence column ('Patent Problem', Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 9, September 14, 2004*), a series of misleading claims by S Shantharam about gene flow from GM crops and the case of the Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser.
Shantharam claims that GM contamination was not an issue in the Schmeiser case because, "Court records clearly establish that Schmeiser had planted gm canola which he had purchased illegally." In fact, the trial court records establish the exact opposite. Aaron Mitchell, the lead investigator for Monsanto in the case, told the trial court under oath that, "We have no proof that anyone sold seed to Mr Schmeiser." (June 8, 2000, p.87)
When the case later came to the Supreme Court, no reference was made to any illegal purchase of GM seed by Percy Schmeiser. Of course, the reason Shantharam is so anxious to explain away the GM seed found on Percy Schmeiser's farm as the result of a deliberate purchase is because the most likely alternative is gene contamination from fields operated by Monsanto licensees, something Shantharam dismisses as "a concoction of the anti-gm lobby". In fact, gene drift is the only probable explanation for the GM seed found originally on Schmeiser's farm. No evidence has been produced to support any credible alternative.
It is also important to note that Schmeiser did not lose his case, as Shantharam claims, because he "was unable to prove to the court that his large tract of gm canola owed itself to pollen drift from neighbouring gm canola fields". He lost because the court decided that he knowingly replanted the genetically modified seed. Replanting knowingly, the court ruled, constituted an infringement of Monsanto's patent.
Significantly, however, the Supreme Court also said that farmers suffering GM contamination without making knowing use of the resultant seed would NOT be guilty of infringing Monsanto's patent. They also ruled that only genes, and not the modified plants themselves, are patentable. Both of these points are substantial losses for Monsanto and the industry.
As a former employee of gene giant Syngenta, Shantharam's overlooking of these important points in the Court's decision is perhaps understandable. But his letter to you is, nonetheless, significantly incorrect.
Professor Philip Bereano
University of Washington
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