Letter from Langdon: Shot and Stacked

Have higher yields been due to genetic modification? Monsanto would have us think so, and now wants to patent more seed with "stacked traits."

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In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was given U.S. Patent No. 174,465 for his version of the telephone. Bell took an existing technology and improved it to allow actual voice transmission through undulatory electric current instead of the intermittent electric pulses used by telegraphers as “dots and dashes.” The patent itself calls Bell’s invention “improvement to telegraphy.”

Even though Bell’s invention used some key components of older technology, it was revolutionary in that he discovered a way to vary electrical current actually to reproduce the sounds of human speech over great distances. The validity of Bell’s original patent has been challenged (some say an inventor named Elisha Gray beat him to it) but the value of telecommunications to rural America – and the rest of the world — is undisputed.

More recently the gene gun, invented and patented by John C. Sanford, has introduced “improvements” to rural America, changing food production, crops, and access to basic farm inputs like seeds.

Sanford’s invention involved a Crossman air gun used to “shoot” plant cells with alien gene implants. In the case of corn and soybeans, his gene implants were mostly bacterial. The idea that a gene from an animal could exist inside a plant and bestow certain traits of the animal to the plant seemed other-worldly. But the gene gun has become a regular tool of plant breeders who’ve used it to give plants immunity to chemical herbicides or lethal defenses against certain insects.

Gene implantation is more chance than science. It’s a big casino. Because there is no accurate way to control implants, it takes a number of attempts to generate a single success. Newly implanted cells are grown in Petri dishes, and resistance to antibiotics or other chemicals is the gauge of that success. Any cells that survive treatment with those chemicals are replicated to see exactly what the creation will become and if it has value.

The main difference between Bell’s telephone and Sanford’s gene gun isn’t originality; both used existing technology to create new totally different applications. But while Bell’s telephone never generated other new patentable creations, Sanford’s invention has  created plants for large seed companies, companies that have now convinced courts that their ‘hit or miss creations’ should be protected by patent laws.

At left, Monsanto’s share of global biotech crop production. At right, the company’s profits from Roundup (black line) and seed (orange line)

The greatest beneficiary of patented genes has been chemical company Monsanto with over $4.5 billion profits in 2007. In its 2008 report to shareholders, Monsanto predicted those profits would double in five years, to more than $9.5 billion by 2012. Most of this profit will be achieved by randomly placing borrowed, naturally-occurring genes into commonly grown grains, oilseeds, and cotton, but Monsanto has also been acquiring the rights to garden seeds.

Prior to the gene gun’s  invention, the seed business was highly competitive, though not as profitable as it is now (at least for some). Monsanto and the few other corporations involved with gene implantation say that random gene shots are time consuming and expensive. Patent protection is what enables them to recover costs, but if they can end up with $10 billion after paying Hugh Grant and all the other Monsanto employees, their dealers, and their lawyers, then it must be a pretty good business to be in. When you factor in that since 1995, Monsanto has purchased about 50 seed companies, the reason for those escalating profits is plain to see.

They’ve been eliminating the competition.

Arguably the largest competitor Monsanto faces is Pioneer Hi-Bred. Once a stand-alone, farmer-owned seed house, PHB allowed itself to be purchased by chemical company E. I. Dupont de Nemours.

Challenged by Monsanto for survival in the marketplace, PHB merged with Dupont mainly to assure access to funds and legal resources needed for new product development, and to be able to withstand the Monsanto onslaught. In its quest for supremacy, Monsanto bought out such U.S. agricultural seed mainstays as DeKalb, and Delta and Pine Land Company. The list of Monsanto’s other acquisitions is very long.

The newest patent application has been for “stacked traits.” That’s where companies put all their eggs in one basket by selling seeds, mostly corn seed, with nearly every trait developed to date. Stacked traits offer resistance to corn borers, corn earworms, corn rootworms, and various sundry other nibbling insects responsible for corn farmer headaches. By asking the courts to give exclusive domain over stacked traits, Monsanto is saying that two or more patented traits combined into one constitutes a totally new creation.

So Monsanto is trying to stack the deck against PHB and its other few remaining  competitors with Smart Stax hybrids, a combination of previously patented Monsanto and Dow genes. (They’ve entered into an exclusive agreement with Dow.) In a lawsuit filed against Pioneer, Monsanto lawyers assert that earlier licensing agreements do not permit mixing Monsanto patented genes with those owned by other companies like PHB, effectively denying the same type of stacked product marketing to the competition.

Smart Stax promises to help Monsanto do more than just kill bugs and the competition. Big M is also petitioning the EPA to lessen insect refuge requirements that require farmers to co-mingle GMO fields with conventional plants, lessening the likelihood of insect resistance. Current requirements are that farmers must plant a refuge (non- GMO crop to prevent insect resistance) equal to 20% of their total acreage. Under Monsanto’s plan, refuges would be cut to 5%. Presumably, Monsanto’s sales of GMO seeds would rise accordingly by at least 15%.

That alone is a pretty clever marketing strategy.

Perhaps even more popular with farmers than insect resistance was the ability to treat corn fields with Roundup herbicide, because it provided a nearly foolproof and inexpensive way to eliminate tough weeds. While the effectiveness of refuges in preventing insect resistance is unproven, weed resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is being reported in a wide variety of fields. Those fields are not just in the United States but in South America as well. In addition to applying more chemical herbicides to counter glyphosate resistance there is a growing dependence on foliar applied fungicides, and seed-applied insecticides and fungicides.

The argument that biotechnology has resulted in fewer farm chemical applications simply is not true. Now, with Smart Stax, the modified gene content of our seeds is expected to increase also.

Enhanced yield is the motivation behind using pesticides, and a good part of the yield Monsanto takes credit for is really just better management by producers.

Daily Yonder
‘Aschelons and Hercules’ by Thomas Hart Benton (detail), Smithsonian Institution,  National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.


The real reason for corn yield improvement over the last 80 years hasn’t been genetic modification, better disease control, or management, but instead good old fashioned plant breeding.

Over the last 90 years corn yields increased nearly five-fold, with most increases coming before genetic modification came to the fore. In fact yield records from key corn producing counties in Iowa show a high degree of variability in corn yield, with state average yields increasing by about 20 bushels per acre (or 13% ) in the 10 years from 1999 to 2008. Most of the increase could be attributed to improved genetics, higher plant populations, and improved fertility, none of which were the results of genetic implantation. In addition to that are the aforementioned foliar fungicides and seed applied insecticides known to enhance yield. Most of those, like Poncho, an insecticide seed coating developed by Bayer Crop Sciences, were first used just a few years back on both GMO and non-GMO seed. Today, nearly every corn seed is treated with these types of seed coatings.

So what is plant patenting and Smart Stax really about?

Well, it’s about control… control of seed markets, control of hybrid ownership, control of farms, and power in the marketplace. As premier corn breeders in the nation, seed companies like PHB were constantly on the lookout for seed varieties pirated from their own stock. In the days prior to patented GMOs, conventional seed varieties were copyrighted. It was easy then just as it is now to pirate copyrighted materials, even seeds. And when a copyright thief was discovered the penalties were too lenient to discourage further attempts. For a seed company like Monsanto who had few qualms about taking customers to court, the quick solution was a patent, because patents are more easily and stringently enforced than copyrights.

Monsanto, a relative newcomer to the seed business, has effectively used seed patents as
weapons against anyone, big or small, who resists paying them whatever royalty
they demand. That weapon has been used against other seed companies just as it has been deployed against farmers. While Monsanto points to yield improvement as justification for aggressive tactics, the data suggests that corn yield would have increased through conventional plant breeding with or without added genes that are mostly just pesticides.

Seed patents have forced seed company consolidation giving those on top the lion’s share of profits and an unprecedented control to drive profits ever higher.

Keep in mind that corn and soybean production are already controlled in many ways by the Federal government. Producers report their plantings to the government and are dependent on the government for price support and insurance against crop failures. It has been a normal practice for the government of this country to make acreage allotments to feed grain producers. Now farmers like me find themselves between a rock, Monsanto, and a hard place, the government.

Sometimes there’s just no place to hide.

Among seed companies, Monsanto is unique in its willingness to bring suit not only
against competitors but against its own customers as well. That is a fair measure of the
power granted to Monsanto by courts that have affirmed their right to patent seeds.

Neither a gene gun nor a telephone can reproduce itself. For Alexander Graham Bell to profit he needed manufacturing to build and market his device. But seeds are living factories that reproduce themselves.

It is worth noting that the gene gun inventor Sanford, an atheist when he created the gene gun, now believes in intelligent design. He testified at hearings in Kansas that we were all created by God.

Now, not only does Monsanto have patent rights to intelligent design, it has been given exclusive control of the manufacture of life.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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