Corporations Grab Climate Genes

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 genetic engineering. 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 PR offensive to re-brand 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 platform.

Climate Change and Food Crisis

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. South Asia’s prime wheat-growing land – the vast Indo-Gangetic plain that produces about 15% of the world’s wheat crop – will shrink 51% by 2050 due to hotter, drier weather and diminished yields, a loss 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 which 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, low nitrogen, etc.

The Game of Monopoly

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 world’s largest chemical firm) have entered into a colossal $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.

Misguided Philanthropy

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 (CIMMYT) 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 & Melinda Gates Foundation. In March 2008 the African Agricultural Technology Foundation announced that Monsanto and BASF have agreed to donate royalty-free drought-tolerant transgenes to the African researchers.

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 U.S. 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 to conventional hybrids. The decision was especially controversial because USDA relied on Monsanto’s data to substantiate this claim.

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 North.

Hope Shand is the research director of the ETC Group (www.etcgroup.org) and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).