[hepr-vn] GM crops and the Gene Giants: Bad news for farmers
vern.weitzel at gmail.com
Tue Apr 21 22:33:59 EST 2009
GM crops and the Gene Giants: Bad news for farmers
Kathy Jo Wetter and Hope Shand
15 April 2009 | EN | 中文
BASF subjects rice plants to environmental stresses like salty soils or drought
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.
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.
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.
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