Letter from Langdon: Forbidden Fruit

A handful of corporations control the genetically modified seeds on which U.S. production agriculture depends. These patented plants help feed the world – and raise troubling questions about who “owns” life.

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Everyone should have an apple tree to pull ripe red fruit from, just to eat it on the spot. Here on the farm outside of Langdon, when I was growing up, we had more than apples. There were pears, peaches, cherries, strawberries, rhubarb… gooseberries, too.

We ate fresh picked food for free.

Under today’s laws if someone had placed a foreign gene, different DNA, into the apple tree and patented it (as a Genetically Modified Organism–GMO), the fruit would no longer have been free.

That’s because patent holders could demand payment before the apple was ours to eat. Selling seeds or seedlings could have cost everything we owned in infringement penalties rewarded to the patent holder by a court of law.

Consumers never pay directly for GE food. Usually its farmers who pay patent fees when they buy seed. But a few years ago in South America, when farmers refused to pay tech fees on seed, Monsanto got the right to collect a ‘seed tax’ at shipping ports before soybeans could be exported overseas.

Photo by Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters
In 2011, Peru signed a 10-year ban on Monsanto.

Genetically modified organisms, GMOs, are the result of genetic engineering, GE, the practice of transferring DNA from one organism to another. In the United States today, most of the corn and soybeans grown are genetically engineered for resistance to certain weed killers, or to make them toxic to specific groups of insect pests. In most cases, the desired trait has been isolated, extracted from a bacteria, and inserted into cells of plants to be modified. That’s how soybeans became resistant to the non-selective herbicide Glyphosate, and corn is able to kill root and stalk nibbling insects. Other GE crops have been created, like Flavr Savr tomatoes containing a freshness gene, and Golden Rice with enhanced levels of beta carotene.

Early criticisms of GE crops centered on the ability of big business to dominate and control food access directly for profit as well as plants having resistance to antibiotics. That’s because antibiotic resistance was implanted into plants so that successfully modified cells could be identified through treatment with antibacterials; modified cells survived treatment, those that weren’t, died.

Photo courtesy A.J. Conner
A Flavr Savr tomato on the left, a regular tomato on the right. Both were picked when nearly ripe and held at room temperature for four weeks. The Flavr Savr lacks polygalacturonase, which contributes to the rotting process.

Later on, resistance to non-selective herbicides served the same purpose as antibiotic resistance, diffusing controversy over concerns. That’s why insecticidal crops are also resistant to glyphosate or gluphosinate herbicides. At first, in some of those, herbicide resistance went unlabeled and was considered a ‘free bonus trait’–something patent holders couldn’t advertise because they hadn’t fulfilled government requirements for labeling–but also useful to seed buyers who treat fields ‘off label’.

A selling point for herbicide resistance and insect killing abilities of plants was that it removed reliance on environmentally unfriendly pesticides. Chemical companies became “life science companies” with alternative modes of control.

In the beginning of its long marketing life, Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide Roundup was said to degrade quickly without harming the environment. Genetic resistance in crops favored use of the fully biodegradable herbicide. We now know that’s not exactly true. Independent research shows increasing amounts in soil and water, but the amount of money devoted to environmental discovery is paltry compared to amounts dedicated to marketing products like glyphosate.

There are unintended consequences like this.

Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
A seed corn kernel after being run through a chipping machine, which removed a small piece of the seed for testing, inside a Monsanto Co. lab in St. Louis, Missouri.

Disbelieving critics of biotechnology worry that government relies solely on research by patent holders in determining safety of GE plants and animals. That’s similar to the way new drugs are brought to market with approval based on pharmaceutical company research.

Genetically engineered grain and oil seeds have become a huge profit engine for the handful of large corporations that sell them. For one thing, patent holder’s ever larger earnings have been used to buy out competitors. Of all the players in this industrial food drama Monsanto has been the primary beneficiary of plant patents with seed and licensing revenue this year of over $10 billion.

They now own close to a third of the entire global seed business thanks in part to the purchase of at least 60 independent seed companies.

Prior to seed patents plant breeders were able only to copyright plants. Companies that did the best job of selective breeding were rewarded with business from farmers who liked their seeds. At one time there were hundreds of seed companies, big and small.

Even tax funded land grant universities performed research and bred new plants called public varieties. Both farmers and seed companies could use those to grow crops–or seed–without permission.

In most cases penalties for violating copyright aren’t stringent enough to prevent unauthorized use on a small scale. Some farmers stole varieties for personal use, as did a few seed companies by selling seed without paying for the right. Litigation to enforce seed copyrights was expensive, and a win in court was not as rewarding as patent infringement because judgments were much smaller.

That’s why seed pirates were a drain on profits before gene patents. Seed companies spent time and money developing new crops through selective crossbreeding to develop new more productive hybrids. Pirating those was easy. In many cases, penalties weren’t worth the cost of going to court so pirates got a pass.

Initially, modified genes in grains and oilseeds weren’t readily detected because there was no quick reliable test. Even though many export markets denied access to them, GMOs found their way to Latin America, Europe, and Asia because no one could say for sure they were there.

Before long, quick litmus tests were devised that identified traits in a few minutes.

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
People hold signs during one of many worldwide “March Against Monsanto” protests against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and agro-chemicals.

Export markets suffered when importers used tests to identify unapproved content, and reject those cargos of GE grains. In one case a trait not approved for use anywhere but as feed in the United States cost exporters and farmers billions of dollars in lost markets when it was detected domestic food, and in shiploads of exported corn. That unapproved release caused American corn prices to plunge, and remain low, for years, and may have helped steel farmers in other countries against growing genetically modified crops.

The company responsible for the corn varieties existence paid farmers a paltry indemnity equal to a tiny fraction of the cost of lost markets. But farmers who planted the grain, and cross pollination with other corn varieties, were partially responsible. 

Attempts to require labeling of GMOs in American food have faltered as food and seed corporations spend heavily to defeat ballot initiatives in a few states like Washington.

In spite of almost 20 years acceptance in the US and millions of dollars in promotions by multinational corporations, Europe continues to ban planting of genetically engineered crops. 

Resistance to glyphosate has been recorded in a growing number of weeds, and resistance by some insects to the BT gene. That means farmers now pay not only for implanted genes but also for more chemical weed killers and insecticides as those modifications to plants become less effective. And the newest soybean varieties containing the Roundup Ready 2 gene licensed by Monsanto come with the requirement that all seed be treated with a fungicide, just as genetically modified corn is treated with varying amounts of insecticidal seed coatings to protect both seeds and emerged plants. Farmers are encouraged to do more treatment with plant applied fungicides.

Little is said about evidence that glyphosate encourages the growth of certain molds and fungi.

Many farmers cite improved yields as a reason to plant genetically modified corn and soybeans even though implanted traits offer only insect resistance and/or herbicide resistance. To date no “high yield” gene has been identified. Conventional plant breeding remains the only route to improved yield. Newly developed hybrids are produced in limited quantities before patented genes are inserted, which means farmers have little access to any seeds other than the engineered variety. One widely publicized gene search, for a “drought gene” that allows plants to survive and replicate with little or no rainfall, continues. Seed companies like to say that through their efforts crops are more drought tolerant than ever before.

If so that is doubtless a triumph of breeding, a trait easy to copyright but difficult to patent.

But seed companies would like to blur the line, making more food plants and seeds eligible for ownership through patent law.

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images
A research biologist takes samples from genetically modified corn plants in a climate chamber at Monsanto agribusiness headquarters in St Louis.

Most modern farms rely on pesticides in the course of producing a crop. Organic, renewable,  and sustainable methods remain on the fringe of food production, albeit with a growing and better informed clientele. But organic production is unlikely to stem the tide of ever larger farms, while the latter two terms can be claimed by any size farm as they have less well defined criteria and no enforcement of facts.

A majority of profits by some of the largest food corporations in the world continue to be directed toward consolidation and control of food from its origins until leaving store shelves in the hands of consumers. Even some notable authorities support consolidation of food production as the most efficient method to feed billions–though they may not be in in full possession of the facts.

In our money driven society, it’s thought biotechnology could play a big part in helping accomplish that.

But little is being done to address growing monopolies in food, from seeds to who owns farm animals, and markets used to determine worth. Patented plants are old hat these days, but patented animals remain on the fringe in US meat and poultry industries already under various stages of corporate control.

Biotechnology also threatens to play a large part in those industrial food markets as government enforcement of laws against corporate greed in farm and food appears non-existent. An extension of that seems to be that patent applicants aren’t required to prove real benefits, but only the unique nature of creations.

There is no protection from patent driven domination of food by a few large companies, maybe only one or two.

That’s why I’ll be planting another apple tree this spring.

Before it’s too late.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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