HYBRIDS AND PATENTS—THE ANTITHISIS OF SUSTAINABLITY
The term "hybrid," as it is technically used, refers to the first-generation progeny of crosses between two different varieties of parent plants, each of which breeds true in its own right when pollinated freely by insects. A hybrid is usually produced artificially to accomplish a particular agricultural objective, such as increased yields. Although hybrids do occasionally occur in Nature, both natural hybrids and those artificially produced, rarely breed true when pollinated freely by insects and thus effectively lose their first-generation hybrid integrity.
In the first half of the twentieth century, some of the characteristics of these introduced, genetically identical hybrid plants were extremely beneficial because they induced greater yields in crops with increased vigor. Companies that developed these new plants kept their parentage secret, which meant that seed companies benefited financially because farmers and gardeners had to purchase new seeds every year since hybrid plants do not, as I've already said, breed true when pollinated freely by local insects. The increased cost of seed was at first offset by increased yields; farmers could grow fifty percent more corn on 25 percent less land, as well as four times more potatoes and almost three times more tomatoes per acre. But then the biological downside of such specialization began to show up, as it always does, sooner or later.
Using genetically identical hybrids in large-scale agriculture carries with it the risk of major losses in yields due to disease. Because all the plants are exactly the same genetically, in addition to which they are planted in homogeneous monocultures, genetic diversity, structural diversity, and functional diversity are lacking within a given crop. If, therefore, a crop is susceptible to a disease, it can spread widely in short order and destroy the entire crop, as happened in the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 to 1847, which brought widespread starvation within Ireland, and the corn blight in the 1960s that cost farmers in the United States fifteen percent of their crops.
Nevertheless, both the average consumer in the United States and the average farmer appreciate and prefer the uniformity of the hybrid crops, which are both easier to harvest with machinery on a large scale and more attractive in the grocery store. Hence, there are large monetary profits to be made in the production of hybrid seed-propagated plants. To protect the economic investments of plant breeders who develop and patent these new varieties of seed-propagated plants, the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 was passed. This law, although less stringent than such laws in other countries, is nonetheless restrictive.
You can, for example, grow seeds from patented varieties of crop plants as a home gardener, but you can neither sell the seeds nor reproduce the plants vegetatively, which means by cuttings. You may use the patented plants to crossbreed your own varieties, but you cannot sell the new varieties commercially.
To protect the patents of European plant breeders, the European Community has established an official list of legal varieties of plants, and anyone who sells unlisted varieties can be prosecuted, which in effect prevents amateurs from getting their new varieties recognized and sold on the market. But the list supposedly does not prevent them from exchanging seeds.
As mentioned earlier, however, the downside of such specialization (in this case, commercial specialization) is showing up, as it always does—only this time it is hidden in the grocery store. I say this because many of the "improvements" made today by plant breeders who produce new hybrid varieties are either minor alterations or are made with the large corporate-style farmers in mind. These latter "improvements" include such things as tougher skins to better handle shipping from the field to the market and longer usable life of the crop in storage and on grocers' shelves. These "improvements" have little or nothing to do with better flavor or higher nutrition. In fact, flavor is too often sacrificed on the altar of cost efficiency, in the ease of shipping, and the longevity of shelf life in the marketplace.
The problem with growing these commercially standard hybrids is twofold: (1) as a home gardener, one gives up one's independence by forfeiting the ability to produce one's own seeds, and (2) there is a growing loss of genetic—and thus biological and functional—diversity as artificially produced, patented hybrids increasingly replace local populations of crop plants that are freely pollinated by insects. The latter is particularly troublesome because it poses greater risk over time of epidemics in populations of local crop plants. But then, according to food historian Colin Spencer, "Big corporations have debased food into commodities and balance-sheets," beginning with the "seed barons."²
"The seed, for the farmer [worldwide], is not merely a source of future plants and food," writes Indian author Vandana Shiva; "it is the storage place of culture and history. Free exchange of seed among farmers has been the basis of maintaining biodiversity as well as food security; it involves exchanges of ideas and knowledge, of culture and heritage. It is an accumulation of tradition and of knowledge of how to work the seed."
This point is clearly made when you realize that Indian farmers have developed 200,000 varieties of rice, from Basmati rice to red rice, brown rice, and black rice. They have bred rice that grows to eighteen feet tall for planting in floodwaters and saline-resistant rice that can thrive in brackish coastal water. But now, centuries of collective innovation, experimentation, cooperation, and sharing by farmers and peasants the world over is being hijacked from the heritage of future generations of farmers by corporations that claim intellectual property rights over the plants.
"Corporations like Cargill and Monsanto," says Shiva, "see nature's web of life and cycles of renewal as 'theft' of their property." These corporations are the seed barons who are stealing the harvest from the mouths of children, now and in the future.
Spokes persons for the Monsanto corporation maintain that biotechnology will help prevent human starvation in the future. That said, agro-biotechnology firms are today straddling and consolidating everything from seed production and marketing to herbicides, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals, as well as penetrating food processing. And Monsanto, in particular, has been consolidating its octopus-like grip on the entire food chain.
What characterizes this new agro-biotechnology in the marketplace is the way people and fair-market practices have been abused both to maximize corporate control of agriculture from the field to the table and to squeeze the maximum possible profit from those who must eat—everyone. The seed barons, such as Monsanto, are now revealing their true nature in that a farmer must enter into a Faustian contract, as Andrew Simms calls it, in order to grow seeds protected by Monsanto's patents. What is this Faustian contract?
First, a farmer must agree not to save any seed from their crop; nor can they "sell, give, transfer, or otherwise convey" the seed to anyone else for planting.
Second, the farmer must pledge to forego harvesting any crops that may have seeded themselves.
Third, the farmer must purchase only Monsanto's own herbicide under a Technology Use Agreement.
Fourth, the farmer must sign over to Monsanto for three years the right to "inspect, take samples and test" all for the farmers fields, which includes the right to "monitor" the farmer's storage bins—even if the farmer is not at home.
Fifth, Monsanto retains the right to destroy all crops and seeds and to demand "compensation" if the particular Roundup-Ready gene is found in any other plants on the farmer's land, even if they are there through an act of Nature.
If a farmer was to contest the terms of the contract, the typical corporate response is: "If you don't like it; you don't have to buy it."
Monsanto is tracking down a farmer who save seeds, referred to as "seed pirates," because, says Kenny Perry of the Kentucky Seed Improvement Association, "Monsanto owns that technology and they basically are being robbed each time a farmer saves and uses that seed [with the Roundup-Ready gene in it]." Although tracking down seed pirates appears on the surface to be a defensive move, "in truth," contends author Jennifer Kahn, "it's a display of corporate sovereignty, Monsanto's way of staking the flag of empire upon the land."
For example, Monsanto successfully forced Percy Schmeiser (a seventy-year-old, fifth generation, Canadian farmer who has been saving seed from his own crops for over fifty years) to pay $85,000 in March of 2001 for growing its patented, genetically modified canola plants, despite Schmeiser's insistence that the seeds he saved from his own crop were a result of cross-pollination from neighboring fields—and he may well have been correct.⁴
DNA from genetically engineered corn has shown up in samples of indigenous corn in four fields in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca in southern Mexico. This finding is "particularly striking" say Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, because Mexico has had a moratorium on genetically engineered corn since 1998.⁵
The fact is that corn, genetically engineered to resist herbicides or to produce their own insecticides, threatens to reduce the variety of plants in that region of Mexico because they may be able to out-compete the indigenous species. "The probability is high," says Chapela, "that diversity is going to be crowded out by these genetic bullies." This type of unwanted genetic transference is termed "genetic pollution." In addition, the herbicide resistance could jump into weedy relatives and create "superweeds" that are beyond control, and plants that have been genetically engineered to produce their own insecticide can have serious deleterious effects on insects and microbes in the soil that would also affect indigenous plants.⁵
The study in Mexico is favorable to Schmeiser's contention that his crop was genetically polluted because Monsanto's Roundup Ready Canola was introduced into his region in 1997, and genetic transference subsequently contaminated his canola crop. The point I am making, however, is that Monsanto hired Robinson Investigation to secretly collect canola samples from—trespass on—Schmeiser's fields. On this basis, Monsanto sued Schmeiser for stealing its patented seeds. On March 29th, 2001, Judge Andrew Mackay ruled that it made no difference how the patented genes came to be in Schmeiser's field: he had infringed on Monsanto's patent No. 1,313,830. This ruling says, in effect, that the unwanted genetic pollution of Schmeiser's fields amounts to theft by Schmeiser, the upshot of which is that Schmeiser's property rights get no protection while Monsanto's intellectual rights are sacrosanct.
"I've been using my own seed for years, and now farmers like me are being told we can't do that anymore if our neighbors are growing [genetically modified] crops that blow in. Basically, the right to use our own seed has been taken away," laments Schmeiser.⁴ Indeed, it seems that Monsanto is capitalizing on genetic pollution to increase their control of what farmers can and cannot plant and harvest.
According to the Rural Advancement Foundation International, a handful of corporations control more than a third of the world's commercial seed market. Among them, Monsanto, which Kahn characterizes as the most aggressive, despite the fact, or maybe because of the fact, that it is the third-largest agro-chemical and second-largest seed corporation in the world. Although such control of the world's seed market, along with bioengineering, causes biologists to worry about the loss of biodiversity associated with corporate farming, Monsanto euphemistically refers to these fears as "fantasies." But are they fantasies when seeds are genetically engineered to self-destruct in suicide fashion and thus steal the sustainable harvest?
STOLEN HARVESTS—THE ANTITHISIS OF SUSTAINABLITY
In days gone by, virtually all farmers were "seedsmen" who always saved enough of this year's seed to plant next year's crop, a practice that has been ongoing since the inception of agriculture, some 12,000 or more years ago. Surplus was sold or traded on the open market.
With time, their seeds of rice, millet, maize, wheat, barley, and so on, became adapted to local conditions. While such local adaptations may have done poorly in the global market, they grew in myriad places, survived myriad conditions, and fed the peoples of the world in such a self-sufficient way that human dignity, as well as the genetic code, was stored in the seed.
But there are few seedsmen now compared to olden times, at least those in farmer's clothes covered here and there with bits of soil from their fields. Gone, too, are most small independent seed companies, raked in like checkers by large corporations who say "king me" each time they subsume another company.
Today, it seems most "men of seed" are dressed in expensive suits, sit in executive suites, and dictate to underlings in laboratories choked with expensive equipment. And the fields of brown soil have been replaced with the monetary green of global markets in which the modern man of seed plots and schemes, always searching for new, more efficient ways to own a larger piece of the agricultural soul—a soul of self-sufficiency once shared as a global humanitarian commons. All the while, these modern men of seed are smiling as they intone the corporate mantram : "Nature is not good enough. Trust us to manipulate Nature, and we'll make it better for you. It's for your own good."
The latest maneuver to steal self-sufficiency—and thereby real choice—from farmers and consumers on a world-wide basis lies in "Genetic Use Restriction Technologies," the results of which is called "Terminator Technology." This technology is build around "suicide-gene" sequences that would force farmers to purchase new seeds at the beginning of each growing season ad infinitum because the seeds they sow produce plants that are genetically incapable of producing seeds themselves.
The patented technology enables a seed company to genetically alter seed to make the plants grown from it sterile; thereby biologically eliminating seed that farmers could save for their next year's crops. The patent is broadly encompassing in that it covers plants and seeds of all species, including both those that are genetically engineered and conventionally bred.
The purpose of these suicide sequences is to develop genetic traits, called "tags" that can be switched on and off by spraying the crop with an external stimulant mixed in with the company's own pesticide, herbicide, or fertilizer, which explains the third point of the Faustian contract spoken of earlier. If the corporations gain legal patents to such seed, farmers could soon be sowing seeds that will only germinate and grow if they are regularly sprayed with one of the company's patented chemicals. As more genetic characteristics are tagged onto a gene sequence, such as size or color, their "added value" could be switched on in the same way, depending on what a farmer could afford.
If traits or "tags," are matched for a particular commercial venue, such as size, color, flavor, shape, life in cold storage, or transportability, crop plants—and the heart and soul of farming—will be reduce to mere conveyor-belt of products for the supermarket food chain. Farmers, on the other hand, will increasingly become contractual functionaries or "serfs" of a few power-hungry transnational corporations out to strangle the world's food supply by making farmers, and ultimately whole nations, dependent on annual shipments of seeds and the chemical activators to guarantee their harvests.
The irony is that the genetic engineering of suicide seeds is bedecked with an environmental alibi that is much touted. Genetic Use Restriction Technologies—which restricts choice for farmers and consumers—is steeped in the corporate argument that it will help limit the problem of "horizontal gene transfer," which is a fancy way of saying that, because the plants with suicide genes are sterile, it will prevent engineered genes from escaping into nearby wild relatives of the genetically modified crops.
Two employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have furthered these euphemisms: Willard Phelps and Melvin J. Oliver. Phelps explains that the goal of "suicide technology" is "to increase the value of proprietary seed owned by US seed companies and to open up new markets in second and third world countries [who can least afford this kind of technology]." Oliver, a molecular biologist and primary inventor of this technology, says: "Our mission is to protect US agriculture and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition. Without this, there is no way of protecting the technology [patented seed]." Already, Delta & Pine Land, a subsidiary of Monsanto, has indicated that it will apply for patents in 87 countries around the world.
Advocates of suicide technology argue that it will be a boon to food production in poor, non-industrialized countries because now seed companies will have an economic incentive to invest in crops they have heretofore ignored. Seed companies, on the other hand, are strictly self-centered and thus not interested in developing seed for poor farmers who can't pay, which includes half of the world's farmers.
In the final analysis, suicide technology aimed at the production of sterile plants threatens to extinguish the traditional right of farmers to save seed, trade seed, and develop new varieties of crops that are locally adapted. The corporate stranglehold of the seed industry that assumes "one genetically engineered seed fits all environmental circumstances and cultural needs" is arrogant at best and threatens the ability of nearly a billion and a half people to feed themselves.⁶
You might wonder how this could happen. Much of the answer lies in the sad fact that a chronic disease of our society is that vacant posts at the top of public agencies are seldom filled with true visionaries. Why not? Because visionaries are seen as dissenters within a rigidly established order wherein the people who seek safety within its confines are too psychologically immature to tolerate the open-ended view of systems thinking. After all, by its very nature, systems thinking is dynamic and thus might subvert the established order.
Through this chronic lack of political will, the global agribusiness is forcing farmers throughout the world into monocultures with seed they must purchase ever year. Although monocultures may initially increase crop production, they destroy biodiversity, genetic diversity, and functional diversity, which may actually decrease overall production of food in the long term. It also makes farmers increasingly dependent on a distribution network that transfers farm profits to the dealers in seeds, herbicides, and pesticides, while eroding the price of farm produce. Herbicides and pesticides, in turn, destroy the native pollinators and their food supply, which continuously reinforces the feedback loop that binds farmers—through dependency—to the global agribusiness machine and thus expropriates the people from the land on which they live and of which they are an inseparable part. In this sense, the global agribusiness is raiding the commons of seed and soil that has for millennia nurtured the human spirit.
Alex Goldner. 2006. Seed saving banned in Iraq. Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis OR. 25 April.
The preceding discussion on hybrids and patents is based on: (1) Lester R. Brown. 1997. Can We Raise Grain Yields Fast Enough? World•Watch 10:8-17 and (2) Kelly Wiseman. 1998. Get Ready for Bioengineered Foods. the Thymes, February 7.
The preceding discussion on seed barons is based on: (1) Vandana Shiva. 2001. Stolen Harvest. Resurgence 205:12-13; (2) Andrew Simms. 1999. The Seed Barons. Resurgence 196:8-10; (3) Janet Patton. 1998. Monsanto goes after 'pirates.' Knight Ridder Newspapers. In: Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. November 16; and (4) Jennifer Kahn. 1999. The Monsanto Machine. Resurgence 195:21-22.
The discussion of Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer, is based on: (1) Vandana Shiva. 2001. Caring in Agriculture. Resurgence 208:42-43 and (2) Seldon Ito. 2001. Monsanto Wins Suit Against Farmer. Washington Post. In: Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures. Summer:9-10.
- The discussion of transgenic DNA introgression is based on: (1) David Quist and Ignacio H. Chapela. 2001. Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico. Nature 414:541-543; (2) Anita Manning. 2001. Gene-altered DNA may be 'polluting' corn. USA Today. November 29; (3) Mark Stevenson. 2001. Mexicans angered by genetically modified corn. The Associated Press. In: Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. December 30; and (4) Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures. 2001. Monsanto Wins Suit Against Farmer. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures.Summer:9.
The preceding discussion on suicide seeds is based on: (1) Michael Viney. 1999. Suicide Seeds. Resurgence 197:38-39, (2) Hope Shand and Pat Mooney. 1998. Terminator Seeds Threaten an End to Farming. Earth Island Journal. Fall:30-31, (3) the Thymes. 1998. Right of farmers to save seed endangered. the Thymes. November, page 7, and (4) Roger Scruton. 2000. Herbicide, Pesticide, Suicide. Resurgence 197:30.
This essay is excerpted from my 2004 book, "The Perpetual Consequences of Fear and Violence: Rethinking The Future."
©chris maser 2006. All rights reserved.