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From: The eUpdate, 6.4.13
Seed, The Ultimate Weapon
Commentary on how use of biotechnology and genetic engineering in agriculture impacts the global food supply—all from control of the lowly seed
by Maurine C. Evans
Over the past 30 years, the seed industry has experienced considerable consolidation. Now, according to The Farmer to Farmer Campaign on a Genetic Engineering, only 10 U.S. companies account for over two-thirds of the world’s seed for major crops, including corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton. The same study notes that economists have determined an industry loses its “competitive character when the concentration ratio of the top four firms...is 40 percent or higher.” The top four biotechnology or biotech companies in the industry alone account for approximately 43 percent of the global seed market, which notably includes both genetically modified (GM or GMOs) and conventional seeds. With this decrease in competition, seed prices are rising and conventional seeds are quickly being replaced by reduced varieties of GM versions.
Over the past two decades, biotech companies have acquired hundreds of patents for seeds throughout the world, the majority of which have been genetically engineered to be resistant to certain herbicides and pesticides also sold by those same companies. The genetic modification of seeds is not a change that can ever occur in nature because, unlike naturally evolving organisms, non-organic matter is spliced into the seed gene. The risks to human health and the environment from this approach are unknown and unpredictable. It is known, however, that these GM seeds reproduce with non-GM plants. The resulting crossbred plants have quickly begun erasing the world's natural resource in seed. Plant variety, too, is reduced. By crossbreeding with non-GM plants in the wild, genetically engineered traits are changing nature at an increasing rate. Once GM seeds are released into the environment, it is impossible to retrieve them.
Conventional seeds provide a source of sustenance on which all people depend. As the world’s seed supply slowly becomes infected with GM seeds, the ancient practice of natural seed saving has a level of heightened importance. The free exchange of seeds and seed saving has been the traditional way farmers share knowledge and collectively craft seeds specifically developed for their local agriculture. These practices are accomplished through observing seeds grown each year and manually selecting the seeds of the strongest, most desirable plants to save for the future crops. Each year farmers prune away the weak, thereby preserving the plants with increased yield and the ability to resist disease.
Through utility patents, court decisions, and various technology agreements, however, biotech companies are currently “legally” preventing the individual farmer from saving seed. Utility patents provide a great protection and security for patent-holders (like biotech companies) by permitting patent infringement claims when, according to The Farmer to Farmer Campaign on a Genetic Engineering, “any person without authority makes, uses, offers for sale, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent." When our court system began allowing the patents for gene sequencing in the early 1990s, biotech companies raced to patent their GMO seed and to purchase independent seed companies to promote the commercialization of GM seed. This combined approach has resulted in these companies becoming virtually the only source of seed. Farmers have been transformed from producers to mere consumers of GM seed at prices and quantities dictated by profits rather than nature.
Previously, regional breeding programs promoted niche varietal crosses for production in specific geographic areas. However, with the seed market now under the control of only a couple of distributors, region-specific seeds are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
According to data from the International Seed Saving Institute, out of the 80,000 existing seed varieties available today, approximately 150 edible plants are being cultivated for food, but only eight are traded globally.
Ecosystems need strong biodiversity for defense against disease, pests, and climate changes. As shown throughout history, the ramifications of using only one variety of seed can be disastrous. For example, studies show the Irish potato famine in the early 1800s could have likely been averted had several varieties of potatoes been planted. By reducing the world's seed supply to only a handful of varieties, biotech companies are rapidly and irreversibly destroying seed and crop diversity, putting the world's food supply at risk.
Bottom line: The seed marketplace now offers fewer options. Because the primary global seed distributers are also the world’s leading producers of GM seeds, conventional seeds are becoming increasingly difficult to locate. According to Mike Duffy, an Iowa State University economist, many farmers are struggling to find corn seed in Iowa that is not genetically engineered. Seeds stacked with multiple patented, GM traits now dominate the seed marketplace, yet little attention is paid to this emerging trend.
Independent seed companies have begun to die out or are being bought out by the large biotech companies. Over the past 13 years, the number of independent seed companies has dropped from approximately 300 to approximately 100. After an independent seed company is purchased by one of the primary biotech companies, the new subsidiary invariably promotes its parent company’s products, despite the negative effects the products may have on a seed grower's crop. The subsidiary’s focus quickly becomes realigned to meet the benefit of the parent biotech company. Consequently, independent varietal seeds that do not have the profit margin of mainstream GM seeds are promptly discontinued. In the words of Monsanto executive Robert Fraley, “[w]hat you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it's really a consolidation of the entire food chain.”
As conventional seed options become more difficult to locate, farmers are often left with little or no choice but to plant GMOs. However, farmers who stop using GM seed are threatened with patent infringement allegations should any of the previously used GMOs grow “volunteers” (or seeds in the ground from previous plantings) in newly converted non-GM fields. Under the law, a farmer who accidentally grows “volunteers” is technically using a biotech company’s technology, despite not having purchased GM seed that year. It’s this threat of liability and costly legal battles over patent infringement that provides motivation to continue subsidizing the GM seed market.
In addition to halting the seed-saving resources of farmers who willingly plant GM seed, biotech companies have negatively impacted organic and non-GM farmers through cross-pollination. “We want to be free,” were the emotional words of Percy Schmeiser as he described his fight to defend his right to have a canola crop free of Monsanto’s GM seeds. Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer, was sued by Monsanto in 2001 for patent infringement. However, Schmeiser had not saved, stolen, or bought Monsanto’s GM seeds; his crop had, in fact, been polluted by unintentional cross-pollination between his GMO-free canola crop and his neighbor’s GM crop. Unbeknownst to Schmeiser, nature had dusted his crop with pollen from his neighbor’s GM canola, making him liable to Monsanto for patent infringement.
Studies show GM DNA may pollute a farmer’s crop in a number of ways. Insects, wind, pollen, birds, and trucks all present potential distributers of GMOs. However, “genetic drift” contamination occurs solely through the transfer of pollen. These airborne particles drift from a field containing GM seed onto an adjacent property with a non-GM crop, causing contamination through cross-pollination. Biotech companies often conduct rigorous investigations to weed out this seed “theft." Small farmers like Schmeiser are then required to pay royalties.
Equally devastating is the reality that a former non-GM farmer cannot sell a polluted crop in markets requiring non-GM crops. In 2000, StarLink corn was discovered in taco shells and other food products. StarLink, a GM seed engineered by a biotech company, had not been approved for human consumption by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In response to the contamination resulting from both conventional planting and cross-pollination, the company instigated a buy-back program to compensate farmers for their lost markets, but farmers still encountered problems trying to get rid of the StarLink-contaminated corn, experienced delays in repayments, and faced potential litigation from neighbors and grain elevators due to unintentional contamination.
The power of natural cross-pollination is also affecting plants in the wild. A startling discovery made in 2010 found that, for the first time, GMOs were thriving in the wild. Transgenic canola has been growing freely in parts of North Dakota. Cynthia Sagers, an ecologist at the University of Fayetteville, led the research team that found the canola, stating “[t]he extent of the [GMO] escape is unprecedented.” She emphasized the escape, itself, was indicative of poor monitoring and control of GM seeds. “[P]revious discoveries in other countries of transgenic canola populations growing outside of cultivation were often in or near fields used for commercial transgenic canola production. By contrast, [Sager's] research team found feral populations of herbicide-resistant canola growing along roads, near petrol stations and grocery stores, often at large distances from areas of agricultural production.”
Two varieties of canola were discovered: The first variety was resistant to Monsanto's RoundUp and the second was resistant to Bayer CropScience's Liberty herbicide. However, the team made an even more startling discovery: GM plants resistant to both herbicides, which indicated these canola plants had been growing in the wild for several generations. This discovery exposes a GM seed’s ability to easily blend with conventional seed without any difficulty. As more of the wild is quickly infected with GMOs through cross-pollination, more and more crossbreeding will occur, a trend that could have devastating effects on the world’s remaining natural resources, as each plant is slowly polluted with unnatural genetic traits.
The Terminator Seed
Through the use of Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs), more commonly known as terminator technology, a seed is designed so it will not germinate a second time. This genetic feature, which causes sterility after the first crop, allows biotech companies to force the farmer to repurchase seeds annually. Considering very few independent seed companies remain, an increasing number of farmers are forced to turn to biotech companies for their seed supply. If these companies sold only seeds with terminator technology, then an individual farmer would be entirely dependent on the company for his or her food and seed supply. From a business perspective, this technology is a wonderful profit-increasing mechanism as it ensures all farmers are unable to save seed. However, the moral and ethical implications stemming from the mass production of these terminator seeds in conjunction with the disappearance of independent seed sources is startling. As discussed above, GM crops are springing up in the wild and crossbreeding with non-GM plants. If these terminator seeds are produced and cross-pollinate with non-GM seeds on a global scale, then the world’s food supply could only be available for only one generation. Everyone then would be forced to turn to biotech companies for seed and food at prices dictated rather than negotiated.
These threats pose new questions that remain unanswered: Should pursuit of private enterprise permit a corporation to literally capture the foodstuff of the world? What is the correct balance between protecting legitimate scientific investment and the unalienable right to nature’s bounty? Should our patent laws trump human sustenance?
Currently, the use of GM seed is virtually unregulated in the U.S. where the corporate owners of these “seeds” have received judicial protection to such a degree that their market dominance controls a substantial percentage of our food production. This is reflected in numerous Supreme Court decisions and the recent oral arguments for Bowman v. Monsanto Co., where the Court seemed to favor the position that a patent infringement claim can be maintained against a farmer who bought and used GM seeds from a grain elevator containing unlabeled seeds from other farmers.
Here in the U.S., no labeling requirement exists so enlightened consumers might know if food items contain GMOs. A push for labeling of food sold in retail outlets would lead to informed consumerism and promote the general awareness of the overwhelming prevalence of GMOs in our food supply. Such labeling is not a foreign concept. Over the past few decades, we as a society have become dependent on the information gleaned from calorie and nutritional value labels placed our foodstuffs. The need, desire, and use of these labels are founded on the principle that we want to know what is in our food. Food created through the use of GMOs should not—and cannot—be held to a lesser standard. Labeling is the first step to societal awareness of the contamination of our food supply, and only through this awareness will change follow.
Surely uncontaminated food should be seen as crucial to our survival just like clean air and water, which we have only recently begun to protect. The widespread use of GM seeds has reduced biodiversity and made all crops more vulnerable to climate fluctuations, thus endangering the global food supply. Enforcing control of these patented devices has cut off recourse to ancient and proven farming methods for sustenance, and by controlling both GM seeds and access to conventional and organic seeds, prices for seed and food have risen worldwide.
“At the present time, there is a massive disconnect between the sometimes lofty rhetoric from those championing biotechnology as the proven path toward global food security and what is actually happening on farms in the U.S. that have grown dependent on [GM] seeds and are now dealing with the consequences,” said Charles Benbrook, author of The Magnitude and Impacts of the Biotech and Organic Seed Price Premium. With increasing world population and the greater pressure on world food supplies, manipulation and control of seeds cannot be justified.
Evans is an attorney with Burr & Forman LLP (Birmingham, Ala.). She can be reached at 205-458-5461 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE: Reference materials from a number of publically available sources, including The Farmer to Farmer Campaign on a Genetic Engineering and The International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture, Manifesto on the Future of Seeds, were used in research for this piece.