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Threats to Food Safety

Project: Threats to Food Safety
Open-Content project managed by Derek

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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

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) passes conference resolution 3/2001, approving the Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, popularly known as the International Seed Treaty. The vote is almost unanimous with only two countries abstaining: the United States and Japan. [The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 11/3/2001 pdf file; Financial Times, 11/6/2001] The treaty—under negotiation for seven years [Financial Times, 11/6/2001] —requires countries to share the genetic resources of all seed varieties from 35 food crops and 29 forage crops, officially designating them as part of the global commons. The seeds will be deposited in a network of seed banks for use by all member countries, free of charge, for research and experimental plant breeding. The treaty prohibits using the seeds for chemical or pharmaceutical research. Companies using the seed for commercial purposes are required to pay an equitable share of the resulting profits to a trust fund, which will finance efforts to improve the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources in developing countries. A multilateral system will be set up to facilitate countries’ access to the 64 selected crops. [Australian, 10/31/2001; Reuters, 11/5/2001; Financial Times, 11/6/2001; Food and Agriculture Organization, 6/29/2004] The treaty also affirms farmers’ rights “to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed and other propagating material, and to participate in decision-making regarding, and in the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from, the use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture… .” [Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,, 11/3/2001 pdf file] The US refusal to sign the treaty was based on its concern that the treaty does not do enough to respect intellectual property rights. Specifically, the US wanted “WTO rules on intellectual property rights [to] be applied without modification to the new treaty,” according to the Financial Times. It also wanted any references critical of intellectual property scrubbed from the text. But the Chair, Ambassador Fernando Gerbasi of Venezuela, would not permit it. The US, along with countries like Australia, expressed concerns during negotiation that there would be little incentive for biotech companies to invest in crop research if they were required to share their patented GM genes. [Australian, 10/31/2001; Financial Times, 11/6/2001] Additionally, the US wanted a provision in the treaty that would have allowed for germplasm embargos against Cuba or other “enemies” of “enduring freedom.” [ETC Group, 11/4/2001] The treaty will enter into force 90 days after the 48th country ratifies it. [Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,, 11/3/2001 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Australia, Japan, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Bush administration (43), United States

Timeline Tags: Seeds

In Nebraska, USDA inspectors discover that 550,000 bushels of soybeans have been contaminated with a small amount of leaves and stalks from corn plants genetically modified to produce a pig vaccine. [Washington Post, 11/14/2002; Inter Press Service, 6/9/2004] The soybeans were grown in a field that had previously been planted with the experimental pharma corn. The biofirm developing the corn, ProdiGene, neglected to remove volunteer corn plants that had sprouted up alongside the soybeans. [Washington Times, 12/30/2004] These soybeans were then harvested and shipped to a storage facility where they were mixed with 500,000 bushels of soybeans. Upon discovering the contamination, the USDA orders the company to purchase and destroy all the contaminated soybeans. In December, the company will agree to pay a $250,000 fine, plus an estimated $2.8 million to dispose of the soybeans. [Reuters, 12/9/2002] This is the second incident this season involving the contamination of conventional crops with ProdiGene’s GM corn (see September 2002).

Entity Tags: ProdiGene, US Department of Agriculture

Timeline Tags: Seeds

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) releases a report warning that the use of genetically modified plants—especially corn and soy—to produce drugs, vaccines, and industrial chemicals poses a grave risk to the world’s food supply. The report takes a close look at the current system for producing and distributing food- and feed- grade corn and soybeans and warns that there are a number of potential entry points where plant-produced chemicals might contaminate the food supply. According to the report’s authors, the US Department of Agriculture should “halt the outdoor production of genetically engineered pharma and industrial crops immediately until a system is put in place that can produce drugs and industrial substances without putting our food system and food industry at risk.” They also recommend that the USDA fund an effort to explore safer alternatives. The report was written by scientists at Iowa Sate University, University of Central Florida, University of California at Davis, University of Illinois, and University of Minnesota, and an agricultural management expert based in Hudson, Iowa. [Inter Press Service, 6/9/2004; Andow et al., 12/2004; Union of Concerned Scientists, 12/15/2004; Washington Times, 12/30/2004]

Entity Tags: Union of Concerned Scientists, US Department of Agriculture

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace announces that it is joining the Council of Canadians in a campaign against the patenting of genetically modified (GM) seeds. Roger Dubois, the organization’s president, says one of the reasons the group opposes seed patenting is because it undermines food security and the rights of farmers, especially in the Third World. “Food security for the world’s hungry requires decentralizing control, yet biopatenting centralizes control,” says Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais. The group says that many farmers have stopped using traditional seeds as a result of government programs providing free patented seeds or advertisements promising higher yields. Once hooked, the farmers are prohibited from seed saving, a practice that is thousands of years old, unless they agree to a contract and pay a special fee. Moreover, they are required to use expensive pesticides and fertilizers. Their adoption of GM crops results in the contamination of non-GM plants, thus leading to the loss of traditional seed varieties. The organization is also opposed to the development of genetically modified seeds because it threatens biodiversity and is known to cause adverse environmental consequences. It notes that GM plants that produce their own pesticides harm beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies and that herbicide resistant varieties of plants can pass their traits to their wild cousins, thus creating “superweeds.” [Canadian Press, 10/3/2002; Canada NewsWire, 10/3/2002]

Entity Tags: Council of Canadians, Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace

Timeline Tags: Seeds

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