Some of the world's major agri-biotech companies are applying for hundreds of patents on genetically engineered 'climate crops', carrying out what amounts to an "intellectual property grab" in the lucrative market, according to a recent report.
BASF, Monsanto and Syngenta have applied for patents to control almost two-thirds of gene families resistant to environmental stresses that will increase with climate change, according to the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) Group, a Canada-based civil society organisation.
About 530 patents have been applied for worldwide, with a few dozen granted and hundreds pending. They include traits such as drought, flooding, high salt level, high temperatures and ultraviolet radiation — all of which endanger food security.
The report says that this move could hinder farmers in the developing world. Patents demand that farmers purchase new seeds every year, rather than saving seeds for subsequent re-plantation.
Control of the seed industry by only a few multinationals may undermine publicly- funded creation of freely available crop varieties, the report says, as well as using the dominance of the crops to tap into previously resistant markets.
Spokespeople from the companies said that they should be acknowledged for developing climate-change resistant crop varieties — which would not have occurred without patent protections.
But others say that both sides have oversimplified the argument. Richard Jefferson, from Cambia, an organisation that helps companies work together on patents, says it's not patents but the lack of competition that is the problem.
"We don't have the economic ecology that lets other companies compete with [the large multinationals]… the big guys end up in a place like a cartel".