Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Infected from Outside
distributed 5/10/02 - ©2002

I think it is a record for me. I received six virus-infected e-mails in one morning, and around 15 through the course of this week. There's an energetic new virus on the loose!

Blocking those viruses from my computer helps justify the expense and hassles of buying anti-virus software, and keeping the virus definitions up-to-date. Those defensive costs are now an essential part of living in our electronically-connected world.

Unfortunately, there are lots of competent programmers who find a sense of power in being able to inflict damage on other's computers. And so there are thousands of computer viruses on the loose. Because of their actions, all the rest of us need to go to substantial lengths to protect ourselves from those malicious programs.

Once a virus is put in circulation, there's no way to call it back, no way to exterminate it. It will propagate and spread. Just like the biological viruses for AIDS or the flu, a computer virus can quickly spread to a whole population. All that we can do is protect our own systems, and try to keep from spreading the infection to others.

Thankfully, there are good programs that can help stave off the potential epidemics of computer viruses. The cost and the hassles are worth it -- for us as individuals, and for the broader electronic community.

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This week's snail-mail brought a report and a video from the Sierra Club on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). (A link to the on-line report is at the end of this message.)

Reading the Sierra Club report while fighting this week's surge in computer virus attacks helped me to see a parallel between these two pervasive parts of our high-tech world.

Just like a computer virus turned loose on the Internet, the genetic information of a modified plant is turned loose into a rural community when a crop is planted. Pollen and seeds are not -- and cannot be -- confined to a single field. Wind, insects, and seeds that fall from trucks spread the modified genetic information into neighboring fields, where it can mingle with the genetics of similar crops planted by a different farmer.

So what? That new genetic information can infect and corrupt the crops of a farmer. But the problem is larger than the creation of an impure field. The scope of the economic and legal issues emerge in a lawsuit filed against a Canadian farmer by agricultural giant Monsanto. Similar cases are being pursued in the US and other countries, too.

Monsanto has developed a genetically modified form of the canola plant that is resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. Monsanto patented their product, and claims total ownership of that unique genetic code. Farmers cannot buy the seed itself; they can only buy rights to plant it.

Canadian farmer Percy Schemeiser did not plant the Monsanto variety of canola, but some of the plants in his field were "Roundup resistant" because of contamination from other sources. Monsanto filed suit against Schemeiser, claiming patent infringement. The Canadian courts ruled in favor of Monsanto. The farmer was fined tens of thousands of dollars, and had to forfeit his entire harvest, for having a small amount of Monsanto's GMO in his field. (A link to the farmer's website is at the end of this message.)

Correction - 8/30/02: My "small amount" phrasing above was incorrect. Comments from a reader have led me to re-examine Canadian court documents which show that most of Schemeiser's crop contained the Monsanto genes.

While Schmeiser knowingly saved and used "Roundup resistant" seed from his fields over a period of several years, the court did not find any evidence to dispute Schmeiser's claim that the trait originally came into his fields from wind, truck losses, etc.

What happened to Schemeiser is like getting a computer virus, and then finding out that the programmer who created the virus can sue you for having the virus, and can also claim ownership of all the data on your computer. The parallel breaks down, though, because there's nothing that corresponds to your computer's anti-virus software to keep the GMOs out of a field. There is no way to defend against the GMO infection.

Like a computer virus, once those new genes are introduced into the world, it is impossible to call them back. They will propagate and spread. Farmers cannot protect themselves from a GMO infection, and yet they are held liable by the seed companies when the new plant varieties appear in their fields.

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The technology for creating new genetic strains has moved much more quickly than the legal, scientific and ethical capacity to answer the complex issues that are raised.

There are many complicated and controversial issues involved in the development and spread of GMOs. They touch on religious questions about the creation of new life forms, environmental concerns about the impact of those life forms on habitats and ecosystems, issues of human health, consumer rights to information about food ingredients, and legal questions about the ownership of patents to genetic information.

Churches can play an important role in addressing these issues through study and advocacy. Please contact Eco-Justice Ministries if you would like to explore ways of working on these issues in your congregation or community.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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