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Context of 'March 18, 2006: Andean and Amazon Indigenous Groups Call on Syngenta to Abandon Patent on GM Potatoes'

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Berkeley grad student David Quist and Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist, publish the results of a study (see October 2000) finding that native Mexican maize has been contaminated with genetically modified genes. The study—published by the British journal Nature after an eight-month long peer-review process—presents two arguments. In addition to reporting the discovery that some of Oaxaca’s maize contains transgenic material, the paper says they found transgene fragments scattered throughout the plants’ modified DNA. [Quist and Chapela, 11/29/2001 pdf file] The study’s second conclusion causes a controversy because it contradicts the assertions of the biotech industry that genetic engineering is a safe and exact science, and that the technology is capable of controlling precisely where the modified sequences are positioned, how they will be expressed, and whether or not they will be passed on to successive generations. One of the main arguments of the technology’s detractors is that the methods used to insert trangenic genes into an organism’s DNA cannot be done with accuracy and therefore are liable to produce unpredictable and undesirable effects. Following the publication of Quist and Chapela’s article, other Berkeley biologists—who work in a Berkeley University program partially funded by Syngenta, a major biotech firm—criticize the study, leading Quist and Chapela to acknowledge that the analyses of two of the eight gene sequences in their paper were flawed. However they stand by their conclusions that the remaining six sequences contained scattered modified gene sequences. Critics of the article also note that both Quist and Chapela strongly oppose the genetic engineering of crops and participated in an unsuccessful effort to block the Berkeley-Syngenta partnership. The issue soon grows into a very large controversy that some suggest is fueled by the efforts of the biotech industry, and in particular, the Bivings Group, a PR firm on Monsanto’s payroll. Forum postings at AgBioWorld.org are reportedly traced to a Bivings’ employee. It is also noted that another person posting on the forum makes “frequent reference to the Center for Food and Agricultural Research, an entity that appears to exist only online and whose domain is [allegedly] registered to a Bivings employee.” Bivings denies that it is in any way connected to the forum postings. In spite of the controversy surrounding the article’s second finding, the other conclusion, that Mexico’s maize has been contaminated, is largely uncontested, and is buttressed by at least three other studies (see January 2002; February 19, 2003-February 21, 2003). [Associated Press, 4/4/2002; East Bay Express, 5/29/2002; BBC, 6/2/2002; Mother Jones, 7/9/2002]

Entity Tags: Monsanto, Bivings Group, David Quist, Ignacio Chapela, Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources

Timeline Tags: Seeds

St. Louis Federal District Judge Rodney W. Sippel allows an antitrust case against Monsanto Company, Bayer, Syngenta, and Pioneer seed companies to proceed. According to the lawsuit, which was filed in 1999 (see March 15, 2001), documents show that the companies conspired during the late 1990s to fix prices and control the seed market. The second part of the lawsuit—which blames the companies for the huge losses suffered by farmers because of global opposition to genetically modified crops—is dismissed. [New York Times, 9/24/2003] Judge Sippel was once listed as one of three lawyers defending Monsanto in a similar case. [Guardian, 1/10/2004]

Entity Tags: Rodney W. Sippel, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., Syngenta, Monsanto, Bayer

Timeline Tags: Seeds

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Agriculture announce a decision to approve the unrestricted sale of the pesticide atrazine. Manufacturers of the chemical will be responsible for monitoring atrazine residue levels in only a small percentage of the watersheds vulnerable to atrazine contamination and ensuring that they do not exceed the Clean Water Act’s total maximum daily load (TMDL). Other vulnerable waterways will not be monitored by the manufacturers or the EPA. For example, Syngenta—the major manufacturer of the chemical—agreed in private meetings with the EPA that it would monitor atrazine pollution in 20 of 1,172 watersheds labeled as high risk beginning in 2004. The number would double the following year. Atrazine has been linked to cancer and is potentially harmful to endangered fish, reptiles, amphibians, mussels, and aquatic plant life. [Environmental Protection Agency, 10/31/2003; Natural Resources Defense Council, 10/31/2003]

Entity Tags: Syngenta, George W. Bush, US Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

About 70 indigenous leaders representing 26 Andean and Amazon communities meet in the Peruvian mountain village of Choquecancha for two days to draft a report on the potential impacts terminator seeds would have on their communities if the international moratorium on the technology were to be lifted. The report will be submitted to a UN working group which has been tasked with examining “the potential socio-economic impacts of genetic use restriction technologies on indigenous and local communities.” The UN working group will submit recommendations to the next conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity which will decide whether or not to continue its de facto ban on terminator seeds. The meeting of indigenous leaders is held under the auspices of the Quechua-Aymara Association for Nature and Sustainable Development (ANDES) and the International Institute for Environment and Development. The indigenous leaders say in their report that they are concerned that pollen from terminator seeds could transfer sterility to and effectively kill off other crops and plant life. Another worry is that use of the technology would increase their dependence on the seed industry, a conclusion that was also reached by the UN Agriculture and Food Organization’s Ethics Panel in 2000 (see September 26, 2000-September 28, 2000). The group says the expansion of monocultural farming and the use of terminator technology could put the region’s 3,000 varieties of potato at risk. The indigenous leaders say they are especially concerned about a patent that has been obtained by Syngenta on technology that would be used to produce sterile potato seeds. Syngenta’s seeds would only grow if treated with chemicals. “Terminator seeds do not have life,” says Felipe Gonzalez of the indigenous Pinchimoro community. “Like a plague they will come infecting our crops and carrying sickness. We want to continue using our own seeds and our own customs of seed conservation and sharing.” [Development, 9/27/2005 pdf file; Inter Press Service, 10/11/2005; International Institute for Environment and Development, 10/6/2006]

Entity Tags: Aymara, Quechua-Aymara Association for Nature and Sustainable Development, Quechua, International Institute for Environment and Development

Timeline Tags: Seeds

More than 40 indigenous leaders from the potato producing regions of Peru meet in Cusco to sign a letter calling on Syngenta to discard its patent (US Patent 6,700,039) on a technology that would be used to develop potato seeds that would be sterile unless treated with chemicals. Andean and Aymara farmers fear that such seeds would destroy their centuries-old tradition of saving and sharing seeds, and with it their cultural and social way of life. They also say the technology could result in the disappearance of several of the 3,000 different varieties of potatoes that are grown in the region. [Indigenous Coalition Against Biopiracy in the Andes, n.d. pdf file; International Institute for Environment and Development, 3/21/2006]

Entity Tags: Aymara, Syngenta, Quechua

Timeline Tags: Seeds

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