Gene Giants Grab 'Climate Genes'

Amid global food crisis, biotech companies are exposed as climate change profiteers

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A report released recently by Canadian-based civil society organization ETC Group reveals that the world's largest seed and agrochemical corporations are stockpiling hundreds of monopoly patents on genes in plants that the companies will market as crops genetically engineered to withstand environmental stresses associated with climate change – including drought, heat, cold, floods, saline soils and more. ETC Group's report warns that, rather than a solution for confronting climate change, the promise of so-called "climate-ready" crops will be used to drive farmers and governments onto a proprietary biotech platform.

"In the face of climate chaos and a deepening world food crisis, the gene giants are gearing up for a public relations offensive to re-brand themselves as climate saviors," says Hope Shand, research director of ETC Group. "The companies hope to convince governments and reluctant consumers that genetic engineering is the essential adaptation strategy to ensure agricultural productivity. Monopoly control of crop genes is a bad idea under any circumstances, but during a global food emergency with climate change looming, it's unacceptable and must be challenged."

According to ETC Group's report, Patenting "Climate Genes" ... And Capturing the Climate Agenda, Monsanto, BASF, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow – along with biotech partners such as Mendel, Ceres, Evogene and more – have filed 532 patent documents on genes related to environmental stress tolerance at patent offices around the world. A list of 55 patent families (subsuming the 532 patent grants and applications) is appended to the report.

"The emphasis on genetically engineered, so-called 'climate-ready' crops will divert resources from affordable, decentralized approaches to cope with changing climate. Patents will concentrate corporate power, drive up costs, inhibit independent research and further undermine the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds," Shand says. "Globally, the top 10 seed corporations already control 57 percent of commercial seed sales. This is a bid to capture as much of the rest of the market as possible."

ETC Group called on governments at the UN Biodiversity Convention (CBD) earlier this year in Bonn, Germany to suspend immediately all patents on so- called "climate ready" crop genes and traits. They also called for a full investigation, including the social and environmental impacts of these new, un-tested varieties. The group also asked governments at the meeting to identify and eliminate policies such as restrictive seed laws, intellectual property regimes, contracts and trade agreements that are barriers to farmer plant breeding, seed-saving and exchange.

"The world has already recognized that we are in a food crisis and a climate 'state of emergency,'" says Pat Mooney, ETC Group's executive director. "In this 'state of emergency,' farmers must be given all the freedom and resources they need to get us through this crisis."

According to ETC Group, many of the patent claims are unprecedented in scope because a single patent may claim several different environmental (abiotic) stress traits. In addition, some patent claims extend not just to abiotic stress tolerance in a single engineered plant species but also to a substantially similar genetic sequence in virtually all engineered food crops. The corporate grab extends beyond the United States and Europe. Patent offices in major food producing countries such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Mexico and South Africa are also swamped with patent filings. Monsanto (the world's largest seed company) and BASF (the world's largest chemical firm) have entered into a colossal $1.5 billion partnership to engineer stress tolerant plants.

"Together," says Kathy Jo Wetter of ETC Group, "the two companies account for nearly half of the patent families related to engineered stress tolerance identified by ETC Group. If we include their smaller biotech partners like Ceres and Mendel, Monsanto and BASF have a part in almost two-thirds of the so- called 'climate-ready' germplasm."

"Technological silver bullets – especially patented ones – will not provide the adaptation strategies that small farmers need to survive in the face of climate change," says ETC Group's Jim Thomas. Climate scientists predict that marginalized farming communities in the global South – those who have contributed least to global greenhouse emissions – are among the most severely threatened by climate chaos created by the world's richest countries.

"The South is already being trampled by the North's super-sized carbon footprint. Will farming communities now be stampeded by the Gene Giants' climate change profiteering?" Thomas says.

For the gene giants, the focus on "climate genes" is a golden opportunity to push genetically engineered crops as "green" and climate-friendly. Biotech seeds will no longer be marketed as a choice, but as a necessity. Given the state of emergency in food and agriculture, governments will be pressured to overlook biosafety regulations and to accept dangerous technologies such as Terminator that have been rejected by the international community. Despite a U.N. moratorium on Terminator seeds, the biotech industry argues that genetic seed sterilization will make biotech crops safer by containing gene flow from engineered crops and trees.

"There's a danger that governments will give corporate gene giants carte blanche to use genetically engineered, 'climate-ready' Terminator seeds as the best shot and last resort for surviving climate change," says ETC's Kathy Jo Wetter, "rather than fund alternative research that supports breeding work with under-utilized crops, and encourage farm-based conservation, breeding and exchange of germplasm."

The Secretary-General of the United Nations hopes to have a comprehensive plan to tackle the global food crisis this summer when an emergency meeting of prime ministers, agriculture ministers, and the heads of major agencies gather in Rome. Pat Mooney of ETC Group says indigenous and local farming communities have developed, managed and conserved crop diversity for generations. "Farmers' leadership in developing strategies for climate change survival and adaptation must be recognized, strengthened and protected by governments," says Mooney, who will be attending the conference, the UN and FAO High-Level Conference on World Food Security, Climate Change and Bioenergy.

ETC Group's report, including a listing of more than 500 patent applications and patents (55 patent families) on climate-related genes and traits is available at the Web site, www.ETCGroup.org/en/materials/publications.html?pub_id=687