GM crops and the Gene Giants: Bad news for farmers

BASF subjects rice plants to environmental stresses like salty soils or drought Copyright: BASF

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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.

Bad news

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.

Beyond biotech

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.