Top Scientists Speak Out
On Genetically Modified
Crops And Food
Part II in a series on GM Seeds and Foods
By Geri Guidetti <>
Food Supply Update - September 2000
Copyright (c) 2000 Geri Guidetti
The Ark Institute
PO Box 142 Oxford, Ohio45056
In Part I of this Food Supply Update (July), I told you about the decision by Seminis, the world's largest vegetable seed corporation and controller of 40% of the US vegetable seed market, to eliminate 2,000 varieties of food seeds from its commercial offerings as part of a "global restructuring and optimization plan." Though no longer available commercially, the 2000 varieties would remain available to the company's own breeders, according to a company spokesperson. You may also remember that Seminis is a leader in genetic engineering of vegetables and owns, at last count, 79 patents on the vegetables it modified, so the fact that the 2000 pulled varieties would remain available to Seminis's own breeders is no comfort. In fact, many consider it alarming. (Read Part I at )
Our ongoing discussion of genetic modification of food crop seeds and the potential for the virtual control of the global food supply is not meant to single out any one company. The global, corporate frenzy to patent genes of food and fiber plants as proprietary, that is, as a company's legally defensible "intellectual property, continues at warp speed despite mounting international protest from individuals, organizations, scientists and governments who are aware of the potential for abuse of such ownership. This is a global, ultra-high-biotech-lubricated race to herd as many economically important food and fiber genes as possible into individual corporations, intellectual property corrals. Witness one of the latest:
PRNewswire, September 7, 2000: "Ceres, Inc., a dedicated plant genomics company, and Genset, a leading human genomics company, announced today that they have completed a major gene sequencing project characterizing several tens of thousands of genes in corn (Zea mays). Corn is economically the most important crop in the United States with over 77 million acres planted last year and a market value at the farm level of over $18 billion.
Ceres president, Walter De Logi, states, "...Having access to the sequences as well as the full-length physical clones of so many corn genes will speed up our product development efforts in this economically valuable crop.....Ceres continues to pursue an aggressive intellectual property strategy and has filed patent applications covering several tens of thousands of full-length genes, their regulatory regions and their functions in various plant species. (Underlined for emphasis.)
Wow! Patent applications on tens of thousands of full-length plant genes and the regions that control them. That's a lot of intellectual property! Note, too, his reference to their "functions in various plant species and "their regulatory regions. Regulatory regions of genes can be selectively manipulated to turn them on or off, effectively dictating whether and when they will direct the synthesis of the proteins they code for, how much, etc., and because many plants share the same or similar genes, what you own and patent in corn could very well extend your control of these same genes to other crops. If granted, it appears the ownership and control of tens of thousands of corn and other plant genes will legally change hands--from Creation to corporation.
Legally, such patents would remove these plant genes from the public domain. No longer would they be available for research by public or private science laboratories bent on producing drought resistant or higher yield crops for hungry regions of the world. It will be very interesting to read all of these patent applications. Did they make a proprietary molecular change to each full-length gene it sequenced in order to claim each a unique, patent-worthy, manmade "invention, or did they simply apply for a patent on God's own version of all "tens of thousands of genes? Either way, the legal control will amount to the same thing.
It is quite clear that there is a new global business paradigm at work here. In the early part of the last century, the ultra-wealthy became rich and powerful by the ownership and sales of tangible property--land and oil. Cheap land provided the foundation, and oil the energy and lubrication for building the most materially rich, industrialized societies the world has ever known. Today's and tomorrow's super-rich and powerful are building their empires on the ownership and sales (or lease) of intangible intellectual property. Instead of building fences encompassing massive tracts of cheap land, or pumping millions of gallons of black crude into corporate tanks, biotech wizards corral the details of molecular structure and function and seek to control elements of Nature's genius within the legal fences of patents. DNA is the code, the software of life, itself, and we all know how profitable it can be to own software with nearly universal application.
Intellectual properties in the world of agriculture--genes and the technologies designed to manipulate and control them, and chemicals to kill weeds and stimulate or repress them--provide the financial incentive, the motivation, the "lubrication of protected future profit engines in return for the development of new crops. These crops are and will be marketed as genetically improved, proprietary "inventions with higher yields to feed current and future billions of mouths; crops to produce vitamin A enhanced grains that could end diet-based blindness; crops to produce more economical, easy to administer vaccines and drugs; crops to produce new bio-fuels to replace dwindling oil supplies. The growing list and possibilities, are nearly endless, and their stated intents altruistic, even noble.
Yet, we see in the Terminator, Verminator and other genetic use restriction technologies (GURTS), the potential dark side of the genetic intellectual property picture. These technologies boil down to genetically programmed control of seed germination and/or chemicals that must be used to ensure growth. Others involve a willful destruction of a plant's natural disease resistance that can only be reactivated by buying a corporation's chemicals. Inevitably they control people, especially the poor. The self-admitted targets of most of the patent owners are 78 countries worldwide, especially developing countries where seed is often saved by farmers and replanted, making purchases unnecessary for years at a time. (If you aren't familiar with Terminator and GURTs, see archived Updates at . Also note there that The Ark Institute is still giving away its non-hybrid seed. )
Science, the same marvelous science that brings us medical and technological miracles every day, also made these technologies possible. How do the world's top scientists weigh in on the explosion of the corporate intellectual property and genetically modified food issues? In my last Update I promised you a report on July's high level working meeting of scientists from seven top science academies, including five from developing countries. The academies and the numbers of scientists who represented the Councils of each Academy, the latter in parentheses, follow:
Brazilian Academy of Sciences (4) Chinese Academy of Sciences (3) Indian National Academy of Sciences (2) and (8) reviewers Mexican Academy of Sciences (3) Royal Society of London (5) Third World Academy of Science (1) United States National Academy of Sciences (5) and (1) Staff Officer to the NAS Delegation
Among the U.S. delegation were Harvard educated molecular biologist and president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts, Nobel Laureate chemist, F. Sherwood Rowland, and a wheat researcher, R. James Cook. Yes, it was a top-notch working group. Here are some relevant excerpts from the white paper released by all of the global scientists at the conclusion of the conference:
"It is essential that we improve food production and distribution in order to feed and free from hunger a growing world population, while reducing environmental impacts and providing productive employment in low-income areas....Goods can be produced through the use of GM technology that are more nutritious, stable in storage, and in principle health promoting bringing benefits to consumers in both industrialized and developing nations. On intellectual property and patents, they said:
"Private corporations and research institutions should make arrangements to share GM technology, now held under strict patents and licensing agreements, with responsible scientists for use for hunger alleviation and to enhance food security in developing countries. And.....
"An important consideration regarding such intellectual property rights in inventions and discoveries resulting from genomic research and from other applications of biotechnology is that overly broad intellectual property rights should not be is important to consider the impact of intellectual property rights on developing countries. To benefit the growing populations of the developing world, new plant varieties will have to be developed through a variety of sources, including: (i)farmers who select plants that succeed best in their particular locality for the retention of seed for future use or sale; (ii) public or pro bono research institutions financed out of taxes or charitable grants that provide improved varieties to appropriate users free or at cost; and (iii) for-profit companies interested in creating new products and markets that develop new varieties financed through profits from seed sales.... (underlined for emphasis)
I think it is interesting to note that our own tax-funded, public research institution, the USDA, has collaborated with a private, for-profit company to patent Terminator technologies for mutual profit (see original article at our web site) from seed sales, not to "provide improved varieties to appropriate users free or at cost as suggested by the scientists. We, the people of the United States, have literally funded the creation of intellectual property holdings that can be used to deprive farmers both here and abroad of public domain seed stocks. Do you think this is an exaggeration? Here is a press release dated June 18, 2000:
"Bolivia's National Association of Quinoa Producers (ANAPQUI) is asking two professors at Colorado State University to abandon their controversial patent on one of the country's most important food crops, quinoa, a crop that feeds millions throughout the Andes, including many Aymara and Quechua Indigenous People.
"Our intellectual integrity has been violated by this patent, said Luis Oscar Mamami, ANAPQUI's President. "Quinoa has been developed by Andean farmers for millennia, it was not invented, by researchers in North America...We demand that the patent be dropped and that all countries of the world refuse to recognize its validity. The president was scheduled to appeal to a Special Session of the General Assembly of the United nations and presented the quinoa patent as a violation of Human Rights before the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and the Environment.
US Patent No. 5,304,718 grants CSU professors Duane Johnson and Sarah Ward "exclusive monopoly control over a traditional Bolivian variety know as Apelawa,.....the patent, issued in 1994, is valid until the year 2011... According to the patent, this might include many traditional varieties grown by peasant farmers in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile as well as varieties important in Bolivia's quinoa export market....Though little known outside of the Andes, quinoa is becoming increasingly popular in North America and Europe as an exceptionally nutritious food crop. Johnson and Ward believe that their technique for hybridizing quinoa will increase the crop's yield, making it better suited for commercial production in the North.
"The quinoa patent is a shocking example of bio-piracy, RAFI's Executive Director Pat Mooney was quoted as saying. "Bolivian farmers and researchers were stunned to learn of its existence. After all, they freely shared their quinoa seeds and knowledge with the Colorado State professors. (Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, is that state's land-grant institution and, as such, is funded by government for agricultural research.)
Edward Hammond of RAFI was quoted, "There's something terribly wrong when patent offices grant monopoly patents on food crops...This is a dangerous and disturbing precedent, and it must not be allowed to stand. Access to food and the universal Right to Food should not be left in the hands of those who control patents on technology and germplasm. (emphasis mine)
The meeting of global academies of science also addressed the issue of genetically modified food safety. They said there was a need for "concerted, organized efforts on a global scale to quickly identify potential health and environmental risks from GM crops. They said, "...public health regulatory systems need to be put in place in every country to identify and monitor any potential adverse human health effects of transgenic plants, as for any other new variety.
When I read this, "quickly identify potential health....risks, I immediately thought of recent news concerning our current food inspection programs. From this week's September 11th issue of Business Week....
"There are only 126 USDA inspectors handling the import of 16.7 million animals, mostly livestock and poultry, annually; and only 91 U.S. Fish & Wildlife inspectors for some 21 million wild animals200 million including fish. Also, USDA lab facilities are in dire need of repair. According to a recent report, virtually every critical system, including bio-containment, is antiquated....Could disaster strike here? Experts say it's a matter of when, not if, pointing to several recent catastrophes around the world.... They go on to cite mad cow disease in Great Britain among a growing list of international food crises.
Do you have faith that the USDA, with its now obvious vested interest in the marketing of genetically modified seed and food, will effectively monitor the entire national food supply--and any changes in the health of the U.S. population--for "potential adverse human health effects of transgenic (GM) plants? As I write this, CNN just reported that genetically modified corn not approved for human consumption has just been found in Taco Bell meals. The report claims the genetic modification renders the corn difficult to digest in humans and could cause allergic reactions. If accurate, this is the first in what may soon be thousands of similar reports and, perhaps, lawsuits following GM food supply "accidents. How will the USDA and even the FDA monitor all of these modified foods? Here is a very recent example of current monitoring for already proven risks of bacterial contamination ......
(New York Times, August 27, 2000) "Agriculture Department officials say they are discussing the possibility of loosening their new standards for preventing salmonella contamination in ground beef used for the nation's school lunch program.....Since June, the department, which provides 70 percent of the ground beef used in schools, has required that every batch it buys be free of salmonella. Before that there were no standards for any pathogens, including salmonella, bacteria responsible for about 600 deaths and 1.4 million illnesses last year... Meat processors have been claiming that the standards are too difficult to meet and that proper cooking kills the Salmonella anyway. "Faced with industry criticism, department officials began to reconsider salmonella rules, according to the NY Times article. Here's one more:
Wednesday, September 6th, Reuters: "Americans face a growing risk of eating feces, vomit and metal shards in meat and poultry because the US Agriculture Department is allowing companies to perform more of their own food safety inspections, two consumer groups and a labor union said on Tuesday. Their survey of 451 federal inspectors showed many were concerned that too much contaminated meat and poultry was slipping through company production lines under the government's new safety procedures....Federal inspectors check paperwork, not food, and are prohibited from removing feces and other contaminants before products are stamped with the purple USDA seal of approval, said Felicia Nestor, food safety director for the Government Accountability project.
It is obvious that we have problems with the contamination and safety of our current food supply "just in terms of foreign substances and bacterial contamination. Yet, U.S. supermarkets are already stocked with a dizzying array of unidentified, genetically modified foods despite our frightening lack of knowledge of their potential health hazards, and our government's frequent failure to successfully monitor and regulate them.
The biotech genie is out of the bottle, and it is doubtful it will ever be put back. It is far too powerful, and its potential for good and for profit are far too great for man to ignore. Like the "oil genie before it, it is lubricating whole industries, granting wishes for soaring stocks and rich bottom lines. It might even be compared to nuclear energy with its theoretical potential for both good and evil, but which proliferated before we knew how to control it, dispose of its waste and limit its spread. We still don't know!
Biotechnology is a whole new power, creating a whole new set of capabilities and worries. It is time our legislators and leaders know that we demand the right to choose to buy GM seeds and foods or not--that we want labels that clearly tell us if there are GM components in that food. With such label information, the people will "vote" on the issue with their wallets, and the food industry will respond accordingly. We need to tell our representatives that there is so much we do not know about the implications of genetically modifying our seed and food, that we cannot afford to continue awarding profitable patents on life's software. We may discover, all too late, that in the name of progress and profit, we have irreparably damaged the code........Geri Guidetti, The Ark Institute

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