The Food Crisis Spurs Gene Patenting Race

Big Biotech is gearing up to substantially increase their market share in the face of a global food and climate crisis -- in hopes of cashing in on desperation. The patenting office has never been so busy.

Do you remember the pulitzer prize-winning photo that shocked the world back in 1994? You know, that macabre shot of an emaciated child struggling hopelessly towards a feeding station a kilometre away, with a vulture waiting patiently, and wistfully, behind. With that single image, the photographer, Kevin Carter, brought the Sudan famine into stark relief for an astonished public.

Well-framed images can evoke sympathy and outrage, so I am thus left almost desperately wondering how to frame what I see happening with the current international food crisis -- as sympathy and outrage are needed now like never before.

The vultures

The vultures, as I see it, are biotech and agribusiness corporations with an insatiable appetite for profit that paint themselves in a philanthropic veneer, whilst competing with -- no, racing -- their peers for complete control of the world's food supply, which is, along with the privatisation of water, one of the last frontiers for a capitalist system run amuck. Instead of the grotesquery of a vulture, however, disaster is enabling these industries to take on a new and insidious form -- clothing themselves as saviours, in the form of pure white doves, glinting gloriously in the sun, flying towards us upon wings of hope, prosperity and health. Poverty and distress, for these companies, are simply vehicles for an increased market share. It is hypocrisy and deception at its best, and the worst thing is that people are falling for it.

A recent report by the ETC Group (an organisation that has for the last 25 years been advocating for the conservation of agricultural biodiversity and food security and examining the impacts of new technologies on the rural poor) outlines the latest developments -- the industry race to ramp up the patenting of life and push 'climate change ready' (please read this!) crops onto the world.

Courtesy: Real News

 

Issue: The world’s largest seed and agrochemical corporations are stockpiling hundreds of monopoly patents on genes in plants that the companies will market as crops genetically engineered to withstand environmental stresses such as drought, heat, cold, floods, saline soils, and more. BASF, Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dupont and biotech partners have filed 532 patent documents (a total of 55 patent families) on so-called “climate ready” genes at patent offices around the world. In the face of climate chaos and a deepening world food crisis, the Gene Giants are gearing up for a PR offensive to re-brand themselves as climate saviours. The focus on so-called climate-ready genes is a golden opportunity to push genetically engineered crops as a silver bullet solution to climate change. But patented techno-fix seeds will not provide the adaptation strategies that small farmers need to cope with climate change. These proprietary technologies will ultimately concentrate corporate power, drive up costs, inhibit independent research, and further undermine the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds.

[...]

Impact: Farming communities in the global South – those who have contributed least to global greenhouse emissions – are among the most threatened by climate chaos created by the world’s richest countries. The South is already being trampled by the North’s super-size carbon footprint. Will farming communities now be stampeded by climate change profiteering? The patent grab on so-called climate-ready traits is sucking up money and resources that could be spent on affordable, farmer-based strategies for climate change survival and adaptation. After decades of seed industry mergers and acquisitions, accompanied by a steady decline in public sector plant breeding, the top 10 seed companies control 57% of the global seed market. As climate crisis deepens, there is a danger that governments will require farmers to adopt prescribed biotech traits that are deemed essential adaptation measures. Will governments be pressured to give biotech companies carte blanche to use genetic engineering – and sidestep biosafety rules – as the last resort for tackling extreme climate? -- ETC Group

As should be obvious, if you control seeds, you control everyone. Food (life) is granted on condition of payment. But, if the PR machine is to be believed, money has nothing to do with it -- their stated goal is to help the poor grow crops that are 'climate change ready'.
Ranjana Smetacek, a spokeswoman for Monsanto, said companies deserve praise for developing crop varieties that will survive climate change.

"I think everyone recognizes that the old traditional ways just aren't able to address these new challenges. The problems in Africa are pretty severe," she said, noting that Monsanto and BASF are participating in a project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop drought-resistant corn that would be made available to farmers in four southern African countries royalty-free. "We aim to be at once generous and also cognizant of our obligation to shareholders who have paid for our research," Smetacek said. -- Washington Post (link added)

Note that there is no guarantee the royalty-free situation is permanent -- and they also remain cognizant of their "obligation to shareholders who have paid for" their research.

The problems in Africa are indeed 'pretty severe', but not because of a lack of genetically modified crops (for a full backgrounder on the root causes of our current crisis, head here), just as cancer is not caused by a lack of radiation treatment.

Big Biotech's apparent warm, fuzzy plans for Africa begin to crystalise in our minds when look at the effects of GMOs on other nations that have already been 'enjoying' them:

Iraq:

Consider Bremer Order 81. It covered patents, their duration and stated: “Farmers shall be prohibited from re-using seeds of protected varieties or any variety” the edict covered. It gave plant varieties patent holders absolute rights over farmers’ using their seeds for 20 years. They’d be genetically engineered, owned by transnationals, and Iraqi farmers using them had to sign an agreement stipulating they’ll pay a “technology fee” as well as an annual license fee.

Plant Variety Protection (PVP) was the core of this order. It made seed saving and reuse illegal. Even using “similar” seeds could result in severe fines and imprisonment. GMO seeds got protection to displace 10,000 years of developed plant varieties.

Iraq’s fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is ideal for crop planting. Since 8000 BC, farmers used it to develop “rich seeds of almost every variety of wheat used in the world today.” They were erased through a GMO modernization and industrialization scheme so agribusiness can get a foothold in the region and supply the world market. While Iraqis suffer and starve, GMO giants run the country’s agriculture for export. Iraqi farmers are now agribusiness serfs and are forced to grow products foreign to the native diet like wheat designed for pasta. -- Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation (Part III)

Argentina:
Within the past decade in Argentina, 160,000 families of small farmers have left the land, unable to compete with large farmers. GM soya has served to exacerbate this trend towards large-scale, industrial agriculture, accelerating poverty.

… Argentina is currently the second biggest producer of GM Soya in the World. The countryside has been transformed from traditional mixed and rotation farming, which secured soil fertility and minimized the use of pesticides, to almost entirely GM soya.

Financial problems for farmers are set to worsen with Monsanto now starting to charge royalties for their seeds, where before, it was allowing farm-saved seeds. Twenty-four million acres of land belonging to bankrupted small farmers are about to be auctioned by the banks. -- Orchestrating Famine: A Must-Read Backgrounder on the Food Crisis

India:

It shouldn't be necessary to dwell on the 'fruits' of Big Biotech in India, as it is well known. It has been beyond a disaster, with many thousands of farmers committing suicide as a result of crop failures and indebtedness. You can get the full scoop with this documentary. The documentary also contrasts the failure of those sucked into input-intensive industrialised agriculture with the success of those who have reverted to organic methods.

United States:

There have been many implications for American farmers and consumers, but I'll spotlight just one event to give you an idea of the global implications of the continued release of GM crops into our environment:

Did you know that, in 2006, the conventional rice crops of U.S. farmers in several states were discovered to be contaminated with genes from a genetically modified rice (called LL601)? And, what's more, despite import bans in place for genetically modified food in many countries around the world, LL601 began to turn up in incoming rice shipments in more than thirty countries (as well as in farmers' fields of several of them)? And the clincher? Genetically modified rice had never been approved for commercial use. It had escaped from biotech test plots.

The company that developed the rice, Bayer CropScience, subsequently, somehow, blamed farmers and an 'act of God' for the unintended release of the untested, unapproved strain. Farmers lost millions of dollars, and vast quantities of rice were destroyed.

The rice, like Monsanto's Roundup Ready GM crops, was designed to withstand applications of the company's proprietory weedkiller. Because it's impossible to stop the process of horizontal gene transfer, these traits inevitably end up in surrounding plants, creating superweeds. This means that the companies in question end up making boatloads of money, as farmers must purchase more of their chemicals -- to not only pour onto our food, but also onto surrounding weeds, in ever increasing amounts.

This aspect alone -- the complete inability of Big Biotech to contain their 'products' -- should be enough to keep all such genetic tinkering in the lab, and in the lab alone. Why should they have the right to corrupt the crops of farmers, let alone the environment that is our common heritage? ... Although ... I guess they have paid for the right....

It should be noted, at this point, that Biotech companies are also racing each other to produce 'Pharma Crops' -- plants that produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals. These would, in the same way, be impossible to contain, with even more dire consequences -- imagine your cornflakes being contaminated with drugs, or bio-plastics. Or, imagine contraceptive corn hitting our supermarket shelves? While we need to reduce the world's population, please, let it not be like this.

For more on recent GM crop failures, head here.

Big Biotech ignores science

There are a few issues that Ms. Smetacek, the above-quoted Monsanto representative, has conveniently overlooked -- the first being: science. Biotech companies are being left behind in this area -- they're so fully focussed on the genes they examine through the microscope, and their quarterly reports, that they cannot see the big picture, or they just don't want to see it. That they don't want to see real science, and real security and development for the poor, was made clear with their recent rejection of the far-reaching 400-scientist strong, three year international study by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) that concluded that fostering the 'old traditional ways' of farming is exactly what is needed at this point in time.

Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have as yet not signed on to the final report. After watering down the formulation of several key findings during the meeting in Johannesburg, the US still claimed the assessment was unbalanced. The exact same allegation came some months earlier from the agrochemical and biotech industry. However, the report’s lack of support for the further industrialization and globalization of agriculture as well as for genetically engineered plants in particular, was based on a rigorous and peer-reviewed analysis of the empirical evidence by hundreds of scientists and development experts. These experts had been selected, together with other stakeholders, by the very same governments and companies that are now calling the assessment “unbalanced.” — Civil Society Statement from Johannesburg, South Africa (PDF)
Another ignored issue is that, in addition to the engineering itself seeming to actually 'cripple' plants, Big Biotech are always trying to play catch up with natural plant breeding methods. It takes years, and millions of dollars, to develop a bio-engineered plant -- a single seed strain that is expected to, but cannot, perform well in every specific locale and climate. Naturally bred varieties can be developed faster, and in thousands of locations worldwide, producing seed strains optimised for local conditions and markets. This was well observed in a recent University of Nebraska study:
Genetic modification actually cuts the productivity of crops, an authoritative new study shows, undermining repeated claims that a switch to the controversial technology is needed to solve the growing world food crisis.

... The Nebraska study suggested that two factors are at work. First, it takes time to modify a plant and, while this is being done, better conventional ones are being developed. This is acknowledged even by the fervently pro-GM US Department of Agriculture, which has admitted that the time lag could lead to a “decrease” in yields.

But the fact that GM crops did worse than their near-identical non-GM counterparts suggest that a second factor is also at work, and that the very process of modification depresses productivity. The new Kansas study both confirms this and suggests how it is happening. — Independent

With our varied landscapes, soil types and climates, a one-size-fits-all approach is impossibly absurd.

We need to get serious about the GM issue

Far from helping with our current food crisis, the biotech industry would become an obstacle to real solutions. The poor have never benefitted from GM crops, so why should it be any different today? People are wondering if the food crisis can get worse -- it likely will as peak oil, biofuel usage and market demands continue as they are, but be assured it certainly will if these industries get a foot in the door.

Biodiversity is a serious issue Click for full cartoon Courtesy: Throbgoblins
There are solutions, and they're not complicated. People need tools, knowledge, a fair market, and they need to return to small land-holdings. The key element is diversity. With plant diversity, nature, and our food crops, blossoms.

The following clip is a typical example of biodiversity working for the good of man. Watch below as Geoff Lawton, Director of the Permaculture Research Institute walks in a 300 year old garden in Vietnam. With good husbandry, little work and very little or no money is required to maintain land in a highly productive state -- providing chemical-free and nutrient-rich food. And, as the clip shows, and entire civilisations (like the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans who had fed high populations on the same land for millennia) have evidenced, we can feed ourselves whilst building soil fertility, thus significantly reducing the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere, and eliminating the need for toxic chemicals.

 

Not only can working with nature produce bountiful sustainable results on good land, but it can also transform dead land to do the same.

Continuing with the plans of Big Biotech will see ourselves walking an ecological plank. Aside from all the known and unknown implications of letting tampered genes waft across our landscape, we should eschew any attempts to further shrink our genetic seedstock. Remember the Irish potato famine? Approximately one million people died (20-25% of the then Irish population), simply because they were so wholly dependent on one crop. This is our globalised market -- monocrops, intended for export. With this model, a single crop failure can starve a nation (if they don't have the crop to export, they have no money to purchase imports...).

Biotech -- to feed the world?

Ask former Monsanto employee, Kirk Azevedo, about the motivations of the industry. He started with the company, with idealistic visions of helping the world:

Kirk was bright, ambitious, handsome and idealistic - the perfect candidate to project the company's "Save the world through genetic engineering" image.

It was that image, in fact, that convinced Kirk to take the job in 1996. "When I was contacted by the headhunter from Monsanto, I began to study the company, namely the work of their CEO, Robert Shapiro." Kirk was thoroughly impressed with Shapiro's promise of a golden future through genetically modified (GM) crops. "He described how we would reduce the in-process waste from manufacturing, turn our fields into factories and produce anything from lifesaving drugs to insect-resistant plants. It was fascinating to me." Kirk thought, "Here we go. I can do something to help the world and make it a better place."

He left his job and accepted a position at Monsanto, rising quickly to become the facilitator for GM cotton sales in California and Arizona. He would often repeat Shapiro's vision to customers, researchers, even fellow employees. After about three months, he visited Monsanto's St. Louis headquarters for the first time for new employee training. There too, he took the opportunity to let his colleagues know how enthusiastic he was about Monsanto's technology that was going to reduce waste, decrease poverty and help the world. Soon after the meeting, however, his world was shaken.

"A vice president pulled me aside," recalled Kirk. "He told me something like, 'Wait a second. What Robert Shapiro says is one thing. But what we do is something else. We are here to make money. He is the front man who tells a story. We don't even understand what he is saying.'" -- from the introduction to Genetic Roulette, by Jeffrey Smith

Nature is not a factory. It is a complex system to be studied, appreciated and imitated. Health and prosperity comes without a price tag, and are based on cooperation with nature's unchangeable laws.

A far better use for the buildings of Big Biotech would be to see them bulldozed -- so we will have space to erect monuments that celebrate the greed and stupidity of man.

Further Reading:

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  • Posted on May 30, 2008. Listed in:

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