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After Monsanto patent ruling, Indian farmers hope for next-gen GM seeds

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MUMBAI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – A court ruling in India this week that upheld a Monsanto patent on genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds has raised hopes among farmers that the company would now launch its next-generation seeds, the application for which it pulled two years ago.

FILE PHOTO: Monsanto is displayed on a screen where the stock is traded on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S. on May 9, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

India approved Monsanto’s GM cotton seed trait in 2002 and an upgraded variety in 2006, helping transform the country into the world’s top producer and second-largest exporter of the fiber. But newer traits have not been available since the company withdrew an application in 2016 seeking approval for the latest variety due to a royalty dispute with the government and worries over patent claims. (reut.rs/2jbDq80)

Nevertheless, the new herbicide-tolerant variety seeped into Indian farms and many cotton growers openly sowed them last year, prompting a government investigation that is ongoing. Monsanto has said local seed companies have illegally attempted to “incorporate unauthorized and unapproved herbicide-tolerant technologies into their seeds”.

“We don’t understand legal issues but we want new technologies,” Shrikant Kale, a cotton grower in Yavatmal district in the western state of Maharashtra, said by phone. “If the court verdict helps seed companies in bringing new technology, then it would be good for us as well.”

Nearly a dozen other farmers in three Maharashtra districts said they planted the illegal cotton variety in June after buying seeds from the gray market, and that they would be happy to use it legally if Monsanto launched it.

“Illegal sales mean that there’s always a risk of buying spurious seeds and we buy such smuggled seeds as there is no alternative,” said Vijay Niwal, another cotton farmer in Maharashtra.

“We don’t mind paying a few hundred rupees more for seeds if they help us in saving thousands of rupees on managing weeds.”

Monsanto owner Bayer (BAYGn.DE) welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision, saying it “prima facie validates our patent” and that it was confident of “defending any challenge to our patent by presenting solid scientific evidence”.

Asked about plans to launch new products in India, Bayer said in a statement: “Protection of intellectual property encourages innovation that is essential to providing India’s farmers with access to breakthrough technologies”.

But two industry sources aware of the company’s plans said that a dispute over royalties paid by local companies that license its technology remained a hurdle to seeking fresh approval to sell a new variety of cotton seeds. India’s agriculture ministry has twice slashed royalties in the past two years, apart from cutting cotton seed prices.

“The government could step in again to decide the rate of royalty, which could be really miniscule in comparison with the cost of developing a really good product,” said one of the sources, declining to be named as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

“Biotechnology research is very expensive and if the government arbitrarily fixes the rate for expensive, cutting-edge technologies then that becomes a major hurdle in launching new products.”

The agriculture ministry did not respond to an email seeking comment.

“SELF-RELIANCE” GROUP

The court ruling has been criticized by a nationalist group that has links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and favors non-GM technologies and “India first” economic policies. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which loosely translates to National Forum for Self-Reliance, said the government needs to amend the country’s patent law to negate the court verdict.

Industry executives say several foreign agrichemical companies had to scale down projects, fire scientists, or pull applications to sell products in India because of government-mandated cuts in royalties and a lower court’s order in April that rejected Monsanto’s patent claim.

They said the Supreme Court verdict overturning the lower court order could set a precedent for any future patent dispute and encourage fresh investments in one of the world’s biggest farm markets, whose seed industry is worth around $3 billion a year.

“The entire biotechnology space has been liberated,” said Ram Kaundinya, director general of the Federation of Seed Industry of India that represents foreign and local seed companies including Monsanto and Syngenta (SYENF.PK).

“There was uncertainty in this area for the last three to four years, which led to a reduction in investments. There are still some issues regarding price control but those are not as big as validity of patents.”

Many biotechnology companies working on corn and other GM crops will now push hard to get government approvals for their seeds, he said, declining to name the companies.

DowDuPont (DWDP.N), which in August last year told the Indian government it was putting off trials needed for approval to sell a GM corn variety, did not respond to a call seeking comment.

A public relations firm for Syngenta directed Reuters to Kaundinya for comment.

But permitting GM food crops is a big call for India, which so far only allows genetically modified cotton seeds.

The country spends tens of billions of dollars in importing food, as dated technologies, poor yields, shrinking farms and unreliable weather patterns afflict the country of 1.3 billion people. But opponents of GM crops say they threaten the country’s biodiversity and are too expensive for Indian farmers.

Annual sales of GM cotton seeds is estimated at $500 million, and Monsanto-developed seeds now control 90 percent of India’s cotton acreage.

($1 = 70.58 rupees)

Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav; Editing by Krishna N. Das and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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Future of Ottawa: Coffee with Francis Bueckert

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Francis Bueckert: When it comes to the current landscape of coffee-roasting companies and independent cafes in Ottawa, I think we are at a really interesting moment in time. There are more local roasters that are doing artisanal small-batch production—with more attention to the quality and origin of the beans.

With larger corporations such as Starbucks closing locations, it has opened a bit of space for local players to grow. We have been lucky to work with many folks in the coffee-roasting community, and we have found that there is a willingness to collaborate among different coffee roasters. For example, when Cloudforest started back in 2014, we were roasting our coffee at Happy Goat and it was the expertise of their head roaster Hans that helped me learn how to roast. Other companies such as Brown Bag Coffee have also lent a hand when we needed extra roasting capacity. There are others, such as Lulo, Mighty Valley Coffee, Bluebarn, The Artery, and Little Victories that are also part of the growing local coffee community. It’s small roasters like these who have shown me what a coffee community can look like, and that we can help to elevate each other, rather than being locked in competition.

If you care to make a prediction… What’s happening to the local café industry in 2021?

We believe that there is hope and that 2021 can be a big pivot year for small roasters and cafes.

This year will not be ideal from a business point of view. However, it could create a shift in people’s attitude toward where they get their coffee. We are holding out hope that people will support the roasters and cafes that are local to help them economically survive what is in all reality a very difficult time.

It all depends on where consumers decide to go this year. People are starting to recognize that supporting large corporations at this moment will be at the cost of the local roasters and cafes. There is the growing realization that a future where there is only Amazon, Walmart, and Starbucks would be pretty bleak. So we have an opportunity this year to support the kind of local businesses that we want to see thrive.

In your wildest dreams, what will the landscape for local coffee roasters and cafés look like in your lifetime?

In my wildest dreams, all of the coffee roasters and cafés would be locally owned and independent. They would all be focused on direct trade and artisanal coffee. Each different coffee roaster and café would know exactly where their coffee came from. Ideally, each company would be a partnership between the farmers who grow the beans and the people here selling them. There would be a focus on how to cooperate and collaborate with the farmers in the countries of origin to share the benefits around. We would all work together and share orders of cups, lids, and other packaging so that we could get better bulk pricing. In this way, we would make our local coffee community so efficient that the large corporate coffee companies wouldn’t even be able to compete.

We would also like to see people use coffee as a way to create social good. For example, we started Cloudforest as a way of helping support farmers in Ecuador who were taking a stand against large mining companies. This remote community stood up to protect their environment, so that they could have clean drinking water and soil for the next generation. They started an organic coffee cooperative to help show that there are other models of development, and we are doing our part year after year to help support their vision. They have a vision of development that does not include mass deforestation and contamination, and organic coffee is a key (among others) to show that another way forward is possible.

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Special events in the Ottawa Valley dominate annual OVTA tourism awards

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The Ottawa Valley Tourist Association hopes that its annual tourism awards will provide a little sunshine during what is a dark time for local tourism operators because of the pandemic.

The Ottawa Valley Tourism Awards are presented annually by the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association (OVTA) to individuals, businesses, and events that recognize the importance of working together for the growth of the local tourism industry, as well as offering exceptional visitor experiences.

“After a year that saw a lot of businesses in the hospitality and tourism industry being challenged like never before, the annual Ottawa Valley Tourism Awards represent a bit of light on the horizon” said Chris Hinsperger, co-owner of the Bonnechere Caves.

The Ottawa Valley Tourist Association’s (OVTA) Awards Committee co-chairpersons, Meghan James and Chris Hinsperger, said they were very pleased with the recent nominations received, especially in the Special Events category. Submissions were received for The Farm to Fork Dinner Series at the Whitewater Inn; Light up the Valley; The Eganville Curling Clubs’ Rock the Rings; The Ontario Festival of Small Halls ; The Bonnechere Caves On-line Underground Concert Series; The Opeongo Nordic Ski Clubs’ Ski Loppet; The Tour de Bonnechere — Ghost de Tour 2020; and The Bonnechere Caves Rock ‘n Roll Parking Lot Picnic.

“During a time when communities were challenged, it is nice to see that people still made an effort to get together and celebrate, albeit under certain conditions. It just shows the creativity and resiliency of our tourism Community here in the valley” said Meghan James, director of sales at the Pembroke Best Western.

There are three Award categories: The Marilyn Alexander Tourism Champion Award, The Business of Distinction and The Special Event of the Year.

Hinsperger, is excited about this year’s awards.

“During this pandemic the hospitality and tourism industry was the first to be hit, was the hardest hit and will be the last of our industries to fully recover. As Valley entrepreneurs we owe it to ourselves, to our businesses and to our communities to be an active part of that recovery. Our livelihood and economic recovery depends on our efforts. And we will get back to welcoming people from all over the world to share a little bit of the place we are privileged to call home. This awards process leaves myself and others fully optimistic about our positive outcomes.”

Award winners will be announced at the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association’s virtual annual general meeting on Monday, May 31.

The OVTA is the destination marketing organization for the Upper Ottawa Valley and proudly represents more than 200 tourism businesses, comprised of attractions and outfitters, accommodation, food, beverage and retail establishments, artists and galleries, municipalities, as well as media and industry suppliers. The OVTA is supported by the County of Renfrew, Renfrew County municipalities and the City of Pembroke.

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Future of Ottawa: Farming with Jeremy Colbeck

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Jeremy Colbeck: Well first, let’s talk about what we mean by farming. Although farms, and farming as an occupation, are in decline across Canada, they are still a major part of our rural landscape. That’s even more true for a strange city like Ottawa which includes a LOT of rural areas and whose urban boundary takes, what, three hours to cross? About 40 per cent of the rural land in Ottawa is farmland. Most of that farming is corn and soybean cash-crop, as well as some dairy and livestock farming. That’s mostly conventional farming (the kind that is profitable but not exactly where you take your kids on a Saturday).

There are also a lot of agri-tourism businesses in Ottawa, which give you that oh-so-good Saturday spot for family donkey-petting and apple-picking. And it’s totally understandable from a business perspective, but sometimes surprising to find out, that even though they grow some of the Christmas trees they sell, they might also be reselling some that come from much larger farms far away. The farmland around Ottawa is also inflated in price because of its proximity to the city, where it is in demand by would-be hobby farmers—folks who want to do some farming on their property in their spare time but make their money (to subsidize their small-scale farming habit) elsewhere. Unfortunately, many of these properties will have large mansions built on them, which will then make them completely unaffordable for the average farmer

There’s also a segment of small-to-medium-sized Ottawa farms that grow “premium” (artisanal, unique, extra-fresh, ecologically- or organically-grown etc…) products that they sell directly to local eaters via farmers’ markets or other direct marketing channels, including on-farm stores and farm stands. That’s where BeetBox fits in.

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