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Corporations stockpile "climate gene"

Never mind that polar bears face extinction, or that bio-fuels production is driving food scarcity and rising prices, the corporations will always find novel ways to create new sources of profit out of the climate crisis. This time it is the patenting of “climate genes” that are top of their agenda.

A report from the Canadian-based ETC Group, “Patenting the ‘Climate Genes’ ... And Capturing the Climate Agenda”, reveals that the world's largest seed and agrochemical corporations are stockpiling hundreds of monopoly patents for genes in plants. The plan is to market genetically-engineered (GE) crops that will, they claim, withstand the environmental stresses associated with climate change.

The report reveals how transnational corporations (like Monsanto, BASF, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, Mendel, Ceres, Evogene and so on) are gearing up to re-brand themselves as climate saviours, to convince governments and reluctant consumers that GE is an essential adaptation strategy for climate change. Already these companies have filed over 500 patents related to environmental stress tolerance genes around the world.

As the report shows, these patents are about concentrating power in the hands of transnational corporations to drive up profits, by further undermining the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds. The top 10 seed corporations already control 57% of commercial seed sales and now 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 they “own” nearly half of the patents identified in the report. Partnerships with biotech companies like Ceres and Mendel, will mean they control almost two-thirds of the so-called “climate-ready” seed collection.

Rather than securing food production for the world’s poor, recent studies in the US have shown that genetically-modified soya actually produces less food than conventional method of farming. While areas like Sub-Saharan Africa produce less food per person now than 30 years ago, studies for last year’s UN Food and Agricultural Organisation’s report, Organic Agriculture and Food Security, found organic farming methods had doubled yields in the arid and degraded soils of Tigray, Ethiopia.

ETC’s call on governments at the current UN Biodiversity Convention meeting in Germany to immediately suspend “climate gene” patents will, no doubt, fall on deaf ears. World governments will not investigate the social and environmental impacts of these patents, challenge restrictive seed laws or the intellectual property regimes, contracts and trade agreements that create barriers to farmers saving seeds, breeding and exchanging plants. As with New Labour, their primary objective is the management of the market to protect global corporations so they can increase their profits, rather than protecting the weak and the poor.

Transnational corporations see the current crisis in food and agriculture as an opportunity to pressure governments to overlook bio-safety regulations and to accept high-risk technologies. For transnational corporations, patents for “climate ready” crops are just an opportunity to create new profits by pushing their previously rejected genetically-engineered crops. What is needed is less genetic modification and more development of co-operative, not-for-profit organic farming techniques that can supply the world’s food needs without harming the environment.

Philip Wade
15 May 2008

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