GM and patents: Bad news for farmers
2.New report - The Future of Seeds and Food
under the growing threat of patents and market concentration
1.GM crops and the Gene Giants: Bad news for farmers
Kathy Jo Wetter and Hope Shand
SciDevNet, 15 April 2009
*Unproven and patented GM fixes will not help farmers in the South adapt to climate change, say Kathy Jo Wetter and Hope Shand.
The global North's super-sized carbon footprint has already trampled the South's farmers, most recently in the form of energy crop plantations, which have been directly responsible for deforestation and farmer evictions in some developing countries, includingIndonesia and Tanzania.
Now the world's largest seed and agrochemical corporations are stockpiling hundreds of monopoly patents on genes in crops genetically engineered to withstand the environmental stresses associated with climate change, such as drought, heat, cold, floods and saline soils.
In 2008 the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration reported that the largest of these companies, including BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta, had already filed 532 patent documentson so-called 'climate ready' genes at patent offices around the world.
Beyond Europe and the United States, patent offices in major food-producing countries ”” including Argentina, Brazil, China, Mexico and South Africa ”” are also being swamped. Since last year's count, the 'Gene Giants' have filed at least 65 more patent documents related to the ability of plants to tolerate environmental stresses, as opposed to biological stresses such as pests or weeds. Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, and BASF, the world's largest chemical firm, have forged a colossal US$1.5 billion partnership to develop such crops, suggesting that the number of patent filings to date is just the beginning.
But the huge number of patent filings does not mean that these companies have found the key to unlocking how plants withstand environmental stresses ”” though they may be knocking on the right door. We do not yet know how these plants will perform in the field. What is clear is that their appearance in the marketplace will increase the concentration of corporate power, drive up costs, inhibit independent research, and, most alarmingly, undermine the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds.
There is a further danger that, as the climate crisis deepens, governments may strong-arm farmers into planting prescribed biotech seeds with traits deemed essential for adaptation. This is already happening in the United States ”” the government's Federal Crop Insurance Corporation gives a discount to farmers planting Monsanto's biotech maize seed because, according to data submitted by Monsanto, there is reduced risk of low yields compared to other varieties. It is common for US policies to serve as templates for developing countries, so we shouldn't be surprised to see other governments following suit.
Biotech companies insist they don't want to hamper farmers in developing countries who are struggling to eke out a living, nor do they want to take food out of the mouths of hungry people. They point to projects like the Water Efficient Maize for Africa collaboration as evidence. This brings together Monsanto and BASF among others with US$47 million in funding from charitable foundations to develop drought-resistant maize which they will give, royalty-free, to farmers in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
While such projects provide good publicity for the companies involved, suspicion is warranted. At the same time that companies appear to be engaging in no-strings-attached philanthropy, industry groups such as CropLife International are campaigning hard for governments in the South to enact tougher intellectual property laws to ensure that farmers pay royalties on proprietary seeds.
Kenya, for example, recently adopted the 'Anti-Counterfeit Act', which applies to "any intellectual property right subsisting in Kenya or elsewhere in respect of protected goods". Uganda and Tanzania are following Kenya's lead to draft their own anti-counterfeiting legislation. Kenya's law explicitly criminalises violators of plant breeders' rights. Even more recently, Kenya passed a biosafety law to allow production of GM crops. The influx of costly, proprietary seeds in the marketplace and stricter intellectual property laws are no help to farmers racing to adapt crops to changing climatic conditions.
Biotech proselytisers have been preaching that only genetic engineering can beget crops that will survive climate change. On the contrary, the genetic diversity of plants and animals and the diverse knowledge and practices of farming communities are the most important resources for adapting local agriculture to a changing climate.
Farmer-led strategies for adapting to climate change ”” such as efforts to diversify crops and bring them to the marketplace ”” must be recognised, strengthened and protected by society as a whole and by governments in particular. Farming communities must be directly involved in setting priorities and strategies for adaptation. Where appropriate, scientists can work with farmers to improve conservation technologies, strengthen local breeding strategies, and assist in identifying and accessing seeds held in banks.
This may involve strengthening and expanding farmer-to-farmer networks for exchanging and enhancing crops through organisations such as La Via Campesina. It may also involve facilitating access to new sources of genetic material for farmers to experiment with breeding, and implementing Farmers' Rights under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
Kathy Jo Wetter is a programme manager at ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) and Hope Shand is its research director.
2.Who do baby food, beer and trees belong to?
No Patents on Seeds, 24 April 2009
*New report shows dramatic scale on which patents are currently being granted
Lucerne/Munich - The European Patent Office is despite growing protests granting further property rights on foodstuffs, plants and seed which have been conventionally grown. This emerges from a report being presented today in Lucerne in Switzerland by Greenpeace, No Patents on Life, the Berne Declaration, Swissaid, the Development Fund and Misereor. Besides maize and lettuce, trees, baby food and beer are claimed in the 500 patent applications researched by the No Patents on Life organisation and in roughly 70 patents already issued. The organisations involved are calling for the flood of patents to be stopped by clear political guidelines. Only last week Greenpeace and Misereor filed an opposition to the breeding of pigs at the EPO.
"Some agricultural corporations want global monopolies on human food," says Christoph Then, a consultant to Greenpeace and one of the authors of the report. "In this way just ten corporations now control two-thirds of the global seed market. These patents are theft of what farmers' achievements in breeding. We need clear legal regulations prohibiting patents on seed and farm animals."
The report, 'The future of seeds and food under the growing threat of patents and market con cen t ration', gives a comprehensive overview of the scale of the patenting of seed, plants and food in Europe. While patent applications for genetically modified plants have been on the decrease in the last few years, applications for plants that are conventionally grown are now booming. Should this practice be supported in an imminent decision by the EPO's Enlarged Board of Appeal, it is to be expected that farmers will be hugely impeded in their work in breeding in the future and will become more heavily dependent.
"Such patents make food more expensive and can be a new cause of global food crises," says Tina Goethe at Swissaid. "They affect farmers and consumers in the industrialised world just as much as people in developing countries."
The organisations have founded a global alliance, to which over 50 agricultural associations belong (http://www.no-patents-on-seeds.org/ ), to see their demands met. In the political arena, too, a reform of patent laws is on the agenda again. The state governments of Hesse and Bavaria have already declared they want to support a ban on the patenting of plants and animals.
The report in English or German can be downloaded from here.