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Context of 'October 9, 2006: Mexico Denies Permits to Biotechs to Plant GE Corn in Northern States'

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A number of agricultural biotech firms secure patents on genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs). GURT, more commonly known as “terminator” technology, involves genetically engineering seeds to grow into sterile plants. The motivation behind this technology is to provide a means for seed companies to protect their intellectual property rights. By making their seeds genetically sterile, seed companies can prevent farmers from saving and replanting proprietary seeds, thus forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every year. Critics say that biotech companies intend to use the technology to force their seeds on Third World farmers, most of whom engage in subsistence-level farming and plant only common seed. The seed industry sees these farmers as a huge untapped market. Seed savers number an estimated 1.4 billion farmers worldwide—100 million in Latin America, 300 million in Africa, and 1 billion in Asia—and are responsible for growing between 15 and 20 percent of the world’s food supply. [USPTO Patent Database, 3/3/1998; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998; Ecologist, 9/1998] In addition to GURT, companies are seeking to develop a similar technology, called T-GURT or genetic trait control. This technology would make plant growth or the expression of certain genes contingent on whether or not the seed or plant is exposed to certain chemicals. For example, AstraZeneca is developing a technology to produce crops that would fail to grow properly if they are not regularly exposed to the company’s chemicals. The Canadian-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) suggests that T-GURT could serve as a platform upon which certain proprietary traits could be placed. In order to turn positive traits (e.g., herbicide-resistance) on, or negative traits (e.g., sterility) off, the farmer would need to either apply proprietary chemicals to the crops as they grow or pay to have the seeds soaked in a catalyst solution prior to planting. Critics note that this technology, like terminator technology, would require that farmers pay every year to have functioning seeds. Farmers would, in effect, be leasing the seed. Companies developing GURT and T-GURT seeds include Novartis, AstraZeneca, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Rhone Poulenc, and DuPont. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 1/27/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 1/30/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 1/30/1999]
Critics Say: -
bullet Terminator seeds would either turn poor farmers into “bioserfs,” by requiring them to pay for their seed every year, or drive these farmers out of farming all together. Proponents counter that farmers would not be forced to buy the seed. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998]
bullet If biotech seed companies were to penetrate the markets of non-industrialized countries, their seeds would replace thousands of locally grown and adapted varieties resulting in a significant loss of the world’s agricultural biodiversity. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998]
bullet The use of terminator technology would allow the seed industry to expand into new sectors of the seed market, like those for self-pollinating crops such as wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans, oats and sorghum, according to the Canadian-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). “Historically there has been little commercial interest in non-hybridized seeds such as wheat and rice because there was no way for seed companies to control reproduction. With the patent announcement, the world’s two most critical food crops—rice and wheat—staple crops for three-quarters of the world’s poor, potentially enter the realm of private monopoly.” The organization notes that according to FAO, wheat, the world’s most widely cultivated crop, was grown on 219 million hectares in 1995. Rice, which was cultivated on 149 million hectares that year, produced the most crop by weight at 542 million tons. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998]
bullet Critics warn that terminator technology would threaten the farmers’ expertise in seed selection and traditional plant breeding. [India, 12/2/1998]
bullet Some scientists have warned that introducing terminator genes into the germplasm could result in the development of a virus that could disable all non-terminator seeds. “This is perfectly possible,” according to Dr. Owain Williams, of the Gaia Foundation. “Already bacteria have been developed for fixing nitrogen into corn roots, so why not a killer bacteria?” [Independent, 3/22/1998]
bullet Terminator technology is also likened to piracy. Anuradha Mittal and Peter Rosset of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy, write: “Patenting genes the same way you patent software robs Third World farmers. While they and their ancestors developed almost all important food crops, transnational corporations can now blithely patent those crops and make mega profits without in any way compensating traditional farm communities for the original research. Genetic resources taken freely from southern countries will be returned to them later as pricey patented commodities. ‘Terminator’ technology is a way of locking this ‘bio-piracy’ into the very genes themselves.” [San Francisco Chronicle, 3/1/1999]
Proponents Say: -
bullet Supporters of the technology say that farmers will not be required to buy the seed and therefore will not purchase it unless they perceive some benefit from using it. Critics say that this scenario is not realistic. In a market dominated by an ever diminishing number of seed companies, selection will be limited. RAFI notes: “Current trends in seed industry consolidation, coupled with rapid declines in public sector breeding, mean that farmers are increasingly vulnerable and have far fewer options in the marketplace.” [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998]
bullet Some proponents argue that terminator seeds would be no different than F1 hybrids, which produce lower quality seeds than their parents. [London Times, 11/4/1998]
bullet Advocates say that terminator technology will allow the industry to safely release genetically modified plants into the environment, without the risk of contaminating related crops or wild plants. [New Scientist, 2/26/2005] Critics say that alleged benefit is outweighed by the danger terminator seeds pose to food safety, farmers’ rights, and agricultural biodiversity. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998]

Timeline Tags: Seeds, Food Safety

Monsanto spends $8 billion acquiring, or establishing relationships with, several US and foreign seed companies. [Canadian Business, 10/8/1999; Center for Food Safety, 2005, pp. 9-10 pdf file] The list of companies includes: Calgene, Inc.; Asgrow Agronomics; Asgrow and Stine Seed; Agracetus; Holden’s Foundation Seeds, Inc.; Monsoy (a Brazilian soybean company); Cargill’s international seed divisions (with operations in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Central and South America); Plant Breeding International; and DeKalb Genetics (the world’s second largest seed company). Pioneer Hi-Bred is the only major US seed company that Monsanto does not buy out. However, Pioneer has purchased rights from Monsanto to use technology relating to Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn. A 2005 report by the Center for Food Safety will say that one of the factors contributing to Monsanto’s cornering of the GM market (see 1998 and later) is its control of these seed companies. “[T]hese companies (often owned or indirectly controlled by Monsanto) had to agree that 90 percent of the sales of herbicide-tolerant soybeans would contain Monsanto’s patented technology. This requirement was later dropped to 70 percent after Monsanto came under scrutiny from government regulators. Through this sort of ownership and control of seed companies, Monsanto has been able to ensure that competition [will] remain small and that its patented genetically engineered crop varieties [will] be the ones most readily available to the American farmer.” [Center for Food Safety, 2005, pp. 9-10 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Monsanto, Calgene, Inc, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., Agracetus, Asgrow and Stine Seed, Asgrow Agronomics, Holden’s Foundation Seeds, Inc, Monsoy, Plant Breeding International, DeKalb Genetics, Cargill

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Monsanto has become the world’s largest supplier of genetically modified seeds and the second largest seller of all seed types. Only Pioneer Hi-Bred, soon to be purchased by Dupont (see March 14, 1999), sells more seeds than Monsanto. Within the US, Monsanto directly or indirectly controls nearly half the corn germplasm market and most of the soybean market. Its dominant position in the market has been attributed to several factors: its two-year buying spree of other seed companies (see 1996-1998), its control of a large percentage of the biotech industry’s plant patents (see 1980s-2004), and the Technology Use Agreement (see 1996) it forces farmers to sign. According to a 2005 report by the Center for Food Safety (CFS), the availability of conventional seeds to farmers worldwide has been dramatically reduced as a result of Monsanto’s control of the market. “For many farmers across the country, it has become difficult if not impossible, to find high quality, conventional varieties of corn, soy, and cotton seed. Making matters worse, the direction of land-grant university research has been shifting away from producing new conventional seed varieties and toward biotech applications,” the report says. Indiana soybean farmer Troy Roush tells the Center, “You can’t even purchase them in this market. They’re not available.” Another farmer interviewed by the organization, a Texan, similarly states, “Just about the only cottonseed you can get these days is [genetically engineered]. Same thing with the corn varieties. There’s not too many seeds available that are not genetically altered in some way.” [Center for Food Safety, 2005, pp. 9-10 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Monsanto

Timeline Tags: Seeds

DuPont pays $7.7 billion for Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., making DuPont the world’s largest seed supplier. [Wall Street Journal, 12/22/1999]

Entity Tags: Dupont, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc.

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Agriculture Canada publishes a study on the contamination of conventional crops with proprietary genetically modified genes. The study says that scientists in Saskatoon tested 70 certified canola seed lot samples for the presence of genetically modified genes and found that almost half were contaminated with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready gene and 37 percent with Pioneer Hi-Bred’s Liberty Link. Fifty-nine percent contained both. The study warns that “unless canola pedigree seed growers take extra care to control canola volunteers in the years between canola pedigree production, such volunteers could raise the presence of foreign genes to unacceptable levels.” [Manitoba Co-operator, 7/4/2002; Natural Life, 10/2002]

Entity Tags: Agriculture Canada and Agri-Food Canada

Timeline Tags: Seeds

The Mexican Department of Agriculture turns down all seven requests filed by biotech companies to plant experimental fields of genetically engineered corn in northern Mexico. Companies that applied for permits included Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., and others. [Associated Press, 10/18/2006]

Entity Tags: Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., Monsanto

Timeline Tags: Seeds

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