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Aimin' at the public's stomach

Also on CropChoice

Aimin' at the public's stomach

By Stan Cox
The Land Institute

"I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach" - Upton Sinclair, referring to his novel The Jungle (1906) and the subsequent passage of meat inspection laws.

(April 23, 2002 – CropChoice guest commentary) – Opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), unlike Sinclair, often aim squarely at the public’s stomach by highlighting biotechnology’s threat to public health. This has helped turn the tide against GMOs in North America and has routed them in Europe. But we should be making even more of an uproar about biotechnology’s power to turn the code of life into a commodity.

So far, GMOs have proven to be a much better tool for enforcing genetic property rights than for saving the family farm or producing more food. From the moment when biotechnologists insert a single gene from, say, a bacterium into the genetic code of a crop plant to produce a GMO, or "transgenic" variety, they have staked their claim on the plant and all of its descendants.

A farmer who buys a bag of Monsanto’s transgenic seed signs a contract that prohibits the saving of any seed harvested from the resulting crop. And if a plant breeder makes a cross with that variety to produce a new one – transgenic or not – Monsanto has a claim on it. It is as if an author compiled a thick novel entirely from the writings of other authors, added one original word, copyrighted the book, and then claimed ownership of each sentence individually.

I am picking on Monsanto because of its iron-fisted, often ham-handed, pursuit of farmers whom it suspects of saving "its" seed. Its lawsuits against family farms in Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and Indiana send a clear message to farmers across the continent: It's a lot easier and cheaper to buy Monsanto's seed than it is to prove that you didn't pilfer it and don't even want it. (The company has dropped its suits in North Dakota and Indiana but has filed a new one against a New Jersey farmer.)

Monsanto is not unique; it’s just the worst. All biotech companies, and now most research universities, are claiming genes as intellectual property. The German company BASF is at least giving a nod to the importance of gene exchange while protecting its patented genes. It allows wheat varieties carrying its Clearfield ® herbicide-resistance gene to be entered in some U.S. government-organized yield trials, implicitly allowing competing companies or public breeders who have entered the same trials to use the varieties as parent lines (if they eliminate the herbicide resistance gene in selecting offspring).

But farmers who buy Clearfield wheat or rice seed must sign a "Stewardship Agreement". The agreement is supposed to help farmers behave responsibly and prevent the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds. But, conveniently for BASF, the measures it requires – no seed-saving, no use in crop breeding, and no use of any imidazolinone herbicide other than a BASF-branded one – all result in a bigger profit for the company.

In fact – and here’s the dark secret – no company would bother developing genetically engineered crops if the only results were improved field performance, better weed control, or high crop quality. Biotech companies invest in grain crops because they want economic control of all seed planted by the farmer, and of succeeding generations of seed.

Before the biotech era, companies or universities could protect their self-pollinating crop varieties (e.g, wheat, rice, soybeans) by obtaining Plant Variety Protection certificates. In doing so, they claimed ownership only of a specific variety - not of the genes in its pollen or egg cells. Likewise, corn genes could be obtained freely through cross-pollination, even though corn hybrids would not breed true or yield as much if re-seeded.

In those days, public or private breeders who did the best job of utilizing a free and open gene pool saw more farmers grow their varieties. But corporate capital hates to see anything go unowned, and in the 1980s, the privatizers found a lock that fit the gates of the gene pool: biotechnology.

The widespread patenting of GMOs that followed was bad enough, but by legitimizing the vision of genes as property, biotechnology has fostered the patenting of non-transgenic varieties as well. Go look at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website. You’ll find claims on naturally occurring DNA sequences that act as bookmarks on the plant’s chromosomes, as well as the sections they mark. You’ll find natural mutations that confer herbicide resistance like that of Clearfield varieties. You’ll find dozens of non-transgenic soybean varieties and corn hybrids.

Worst of all, varieties developed by the world’s farmers through centuries of selection have been patented by American corporations or public institutions: yellow beans from Mexico, blue-fiber cotton from Central America, quinoa from South America, basmati rice from India, and many others. Andean farmers shamed Colorado State University into dropping the quinoa patent. The basmati patent, issued to a Texas company called RiceTec, was eventually overturned; however, RiceTec has since obtained patents on individual basmati varieties.

All crop varieties - transgenic or not - owe their existence to plant breeders and farmers who were able to glean genes from a global pool of crop varieties, breeding populations, and wild species. By using patents to gain control of nature’s genetic code, corporations and even publicly funded universities are attempting to dominate the market by shutting other plant breeders out of the gene pool, not by breeding a better product.

The gene hijackers got a legal boost when, in December 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a patent on 17 of Pioneer Hi-Bred International’s non-transgenic corn hybrids. Justice Clarence Thomas, brushing aside legal and genetic logic, wrote the majority opinion. Presumably, Justice Thomas would also support patent number 6,368,227, granted by the USPTO on April 9 to a Minnesota child for "a method of swinging on a swing." [Robert – the "swing" link is http://uk.news.yahoo.com/020417/12/cwy6k.html ]

With the Supreme Court decision, the gene rush is expected to accelerate. Those of us who want to keep the genes of plants and animals (including those of our own species) in the public domain have been in sore need of a rallying point, and now we have one. Organizations from more than 50 nations are advocating a Treaty Initiative to Share the Genetic Commons. The document, unveiled at the World Social Forum in February, states:

"The nations of the world declare the Earth's gene pool, in all of its biological forms and manifestations, to be a global commons, to be protected and nurtured by all peoples and further declare that genes and the products they code for, in their natural, purified or synthesized form as well as chromosomes, cells, tissue, organs and organisms, including cloned, transgenic and chimeric organisms, will not be allowed to be claimed as commercially negotiable genetic information or intellectual property by governments, commercial enterprises, other institutions or individuals."

This is a straightforward declaration of principle that should be firmly planted in international law – and soon. This morning, some of the DNA that landed in our stomachs at breakfast belongs to Monsanto. I don’t know about you, but it’s giving me indigestion.

Stan Cox (cox@landinstitute.org) is senior research scientist at The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas and a member of The Prairie Writers Circle.