Gene Giants Exploit Climate Change

By skasuga from Flickr, CC license BY-NC-SA.

You gotta hand it to the giant biotech companies — they really know how to exploit a crisis to bolster their market advantage. As massive climate change looms, the world’s largest seed and agrochemical corporations are seeking broad patents on crop genes that will supposedly allow crops to survive environmental stress. The “gene giants” are poised to exploit widespread fears about a volatile climate in order to stampede desperate farmers and governments into adopting a proprietary biotech platform for agriculture.

The unfolding scenario is described in a recent report by the ETC Group, the Canadian public-interest research group that monitors biotech developments. The report, Patenting Climate Genes….And Capturing the Climate Agenda, documents how Monsanto, BASF, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow — and others — have filed 532 patent documents on genes related to environmental stress. The patent filings are not just in the United States and Europe, but in nations around the world, including major food producing countries such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Mexico and South Africa.

Hope Shand, research director for ETC Group, explains the significance of the patent stockpiling:

The companies hope to convince governments and reluctant consumers that genetic engineering is the essential adaptation strategy to ensure agricultural productivity. Monopoly control of crop genes is a bad idea under any circumstances — but during a global food emergency with climate change looming — it’s unacceptable and must be challenged.

Shand added that “the emphasis on genetically engineered, so-called ‘climate ready’ crops will divert resources from affordable, decentralized approaches to cope with changing climate. The patents will concentrate corporate power, drive up costs, inhibit independent research and further undermine the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds.”

If the future of agriculture in a warmer climate is dominated by “climate ready” GMO seeds, then it will be a world of a few large companies controlling proprietary forms of agriculture. Just as Microsoft dominates desktop computing, so Monsanto and a few giant companies will dominate seed sales. Farmers will be forced into a dependent relationship with the GMO companies.

Currently, two market leaders, Monsanto and BASF, have entered into a $1.5 billion partnership to engineer stress-tolerant plants. ETC says that the two companies own “nearly half of the patent families related to engineered stress tolerance.” Globally, the top 10 seed corporations already control 57% of commercial seed sales — a trend that will intensify if the patented “climate ready” seeds gain widespread acceptance.

Shand explains that the alternative is to let farmers and nature do what they have done for millennia — experiment with their own breeding of crops, foster the free exchange of germplasm, and manage and conserve a diverse set of crops over generations. GMO crops will not only entail greater costs to the world’s farmers, especially in the South, they will preclude the evolution of locally adapted crop varieties and responsible co-evolution with the environment.

The ETC Group is calling for a suspension of all patents on climate-related genes and traits, and for a full investigation of the potential environmental and social impacts of “transgenic abiotic stress-tolerant seeds.” The recommendation comes as governments meet at the UN Biodiversity Convention in Bonn, Germany.