Seed giants see gold in climate change
By Hope Shand
First the biotech industry promised that its genetically engineered seeds would
clean up the environment. Then they told us biotech crops would feed the world.
Neither came to pass. Soon we'll hear that genetically engineered climate-hardy
seeds are the essential adaptation strategy for crops to withstand drought,
heat, cold, saline soils and more.
After failing to convince an unwilling public to accept genetically engineered
foods, biotech companies see a silver lining in climate change. They are now
asserting that farmers cannot win the war against climate change without
According to a new report from ETC Group, the world's largest
seed and agrochemical corporations such as Monsanto, BASF, DuPont, Syngenta,
Bayer and Dow, along with biotech partners such as Mendel, Ceres and Evogene,
are stockpiling hundreds of patents and patent applications on crop genes
related to environmental stress tolerance at patent offices around the world.
They have acquired a total of 55 patent families corresponding to 532 patents
and patent applications.
In the face of climate chaos and a deepening world food crisis, the gene giants
are gearing up for a public relations offensive to rebrand themselves as
climate saviors. The companies hope to convince governments and reluctant
consumers that genetic engineering is the essential adaptation strategy to
insure agricultural productivity.
In the words of Keith Jones of CropLife International, an industry-supported
non-profit organization, "GM foods are exactly the technology that may be
necessary to counter the effects of global warming." But rather than an
effective way to confront climate change, these so-called "climate-ready" crops
will be used to drive farmers and governments onto a proprietary biotech
Human-induced climate change is triggering climate shocks in all ecosystems. It
will profoundly affect crops, livestock, fisheries and forests and the billions
of people whose livelihoods depend on them. Agriculture and food systems in the
South, especially in South Asia and southern Africa, will be the first and most
negatively affected. Extreme climate events (especially hotter, drier
conditions in semi-arid regions) are likely to slash yields for maize, wheat,
rice, and other primary food crops.
For instance, Asian rice yields will decrease dramatically due to higher
night-time temperatures. With warmer conditions, photosynthesis slows or
ceases, pollination is prevented, and dehydration sets in. A study by the
International Rice Research Institute reports that rice yields are declining by
10% for every degree Celsius increase in night-time temperatures. Such declines
will affect, for example, South Asia’s prime wheat-growing land, the vast
Indo-Gangetic plain that produces about 15% of the world's wheat crop, with
losses that will place at least 200 million people at greater risk of hunger.
For the world's largest agrochemical and seed corporations, genetic engineering
is the technofix of choice for combating climate change. It is a proprietary
approach that seeks to expand an industrial model of agriculture, one that is
largely divorced from on-the-ground social and environmental realities. It is
also an approach that fails to learn from history.
Many of the problems with saline soils and soil degradation, for example, have
been exacerbated by the use of intensive production systems. The gene giants
are now focusing on the identification and patenting of climate-proof genetic
traits (genes associated with abiotic stresses), especially related to drought
and extreme temperatures. "Abiotic" stresses refer to environmental stresses
encountered by plants, such as drought, temperature extremes, saline soils and
The monopoly game
Monopoly control of crop genes is a bad idea under any circumstances. But in
the midst of a global food crisis with climate change looming, such control is
unacceptable and must be challenged. Patented gene technologies will
concentrate corporate power, drive up costs, inhibit independent research, and
further undermine the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds. Globally,
the top 10 seed corporations already control 57% of commercial seed sales. A
handful of transnational seed and agrochemical companies are positioned to
determine who gets access to patented genes and what price they must pay.
Many of these patent claims are unprecedented in scope because a single patent
may claim several different environmental, or abiotic, stress traits. In
addition, some patent claims extend not just to abiotic stress tolerance in a
single engineered plant species, but also to a substantially similar genetic
sequence in virtually all engineered food crops.
The corporate grab extends beyond the United States and Europe. Patent offices
in major food producing countries such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada,
China, Mexico, and South Africa are also swamped with patent filings. Monsanto,
the world’s largest seed company, and BASF, the largest chemical firm) have
entered into a US$1.5 billion partnership to engineer stress-tolerant plants.
Together the two companies account for nearly half of the patent families
related to engineered stress tolerance.
Farming communities in the developing world, those who have contributed least
to global greenhouse emissions, are among the most threatened by climate chaos
created by the world's richest countries. Will farming communities now be
stampeded by climate profiteering? The focus on genetically engineered,
so-called climate-ready crops will divert resources from affordable,
farmer-based strategies for climate change survival and adaptation.
In a bid to win moral legitimacy for their controversial GM seeds, the gene
giants are also teaming up with philanthro-capitalists to introduce
climate-tolerant traits in the developing world. Monsanto and BASF, for
instance, are working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
and national agricultural research programs in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and
South Africa to develop drought-tolerant corn. The program is supported by a
$47 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In March this
year, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation announced that Monsanto
and BASF have agreed to donate royalty-free drought-tolerant transgenes to the
Market-based philanthropy aims to open African markets for high-tech seeds that
will undoubtedly be accompanied by intellectual property laws, seed
regulations, and other products and practices amenable to agribusiness. To
African farmers, this is hardly philanthropic.
As the climate crisis deepens, governments may well offer corporate subsidies
by encouraging farmers to adopt prescribed biotech traits that are deemed
essential adaptation measures. The US government's Federal Crop Insurance
Company announced in October 2007 that it would begin a pilot program that
offers a discount to farmers who plant Monsanto’s "triple-stack" corn seeds on
non-irrigated land, reportedly because the biotech corn, engineered for
herbicide tolerance and two kinds of insect resistance, provides a lower risk
of reduced yields when compared with conventional hybrids. The decision was
especially controversial because USDA relied on Monsanto’s data to substantiate
Staying the corporate hand
In the face of climate chaos and a deepening global food crisis, the corporate
grab on so-called climate-tolerant genes is business as usual. Governments must
respond urgently by:
Recognizing, protecting, and strengthening farmer-based breeding and
conservation programs and the development of on-farm genetic diversity as a
priority response for climate change survival and adaptation.
Suspending all patents on climate-related genes and traits and conducting a
full investigation of the potential environmental and social impacts of
transgenic abiotic stress-tolerant seeds.
Adopting policies to facilitate farmers' access to and exchange of breeding
materials and eliminate current restrictions on access to seeds and germplasm
(especially those driven by intellectual property, agribusiness-inspired seed
laws, trade regimes, and corporate oligopoly). In the midst of climate crisis,
spiraling food prices and food scarcity, restrictions on access to seeds and
germplasm are the last thing that farmers need in their struggle to adapt to
rapidly changing climatic conditions.
Genetically engineered "climate-tolerant" seeds are a technological fix that
distracts from the root causes of climate change and the imperative to cut
greenhouse gas emissions and reverse consumption patterns - especially in the
Hope Shand is the research director of the ETC Group (www.etcgroup.org)
and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.