Patenting the “Climate Genes”

May/June 2008
Issue # 99

Patenting the “Climate Genes”…
And Capturing the Climate Agenda

Issue: 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 such as drought, heat, cold, floods, saline soils, and more. BASF, Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dupont and biotech partners have filed 532 patent documents (a total of 55 patent families) on so-called “climate ready” genes at patent offices around the world. In the face of climate chaos and a deepening world food crisis, the Gene Giants are gearing up for a PR offensive to re-brand themselves as climate saviours. The focus on so-called climate-ready genes is a golden opportunity to push genetically engineered crops as a silver bullet solution to climate change. But patented techno-fix seeds will not provide the adaptation strategies that small farmers need to cope with climate change. These proprietary technologies will ultimately concentrate corporate power, drive up costs, inhibit independent research, and further undermine the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds.
The Gene Giants are staking sweeping patent claims on genes related to environmental stresses – not just those in a single engineered plant species – but also to a substantially similar genetic sequence in virtually all engineered food crops. Beyond the U.S. 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 forged a colossal $1.5 billion partnership to engineer stress tolerance in plants. Together, the two companies account for 27 of the 55 patent families (49%) of those identified by ETC Group.

Impact: Farming communities in the global South – those who have contributed least to global greenhouse emissions – are among the most threatened by climate chaos created by the world’s richest countries. The South is already being trampled by the North’s super-size carbon footprint. Will farming communities now be stampeded by climate change profiteering? The patent grab on so-called climate-ready traits is sucking up money and resources that could be spent on affordable, farmer-based strategies for climate change survival and adaptation. After decades of seed industry mergers and acquisitions, accompanied by a steady decline in public sector plant breeding, the top 10 seed companies control 57% of the global seed market. As climate crisis deepens, there is a danger that governments will require farmers to adopt prescribed biotech traits that are deemed essential adaptation measures. Will governments be pressured to give biotech companies carte blanche to use genetic engineering – and sidestep biosafety rules – as the last resort for tackling extreme climate?

Policy: Governments meeting at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn (May 19-30) and at the joint United Nations-FAO High-Level Conference on World Food Security and the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy (3-5 June 2008) must recommend that governments suspend the granting of all patents on climate change-related genes and traits. There must be a full investigation, including the social and environmental impacts of these new, un-tested varieties. Given the global state of emergency, ETC Group urges inter-governmental bodies 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. Restrictions on access to germplasm are the last thing that farmers need in their struggle to adapt to rapidly changing climatic conditions. Farmer-led strategies for climate change survival and adaptation must be recognized, strengthened and protected.

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