Should Companies Patent Life?

An original post for Judy’s Homegrown, written September 7, 2013

Should a few biotech companies have the rights to all the seeds for our food supply?

Let’s review the way seeds come to be:

  1. Natural variation: Seeds have evolved over the millennia. They share pollen with each other, and voila: a new variety is born. The reason people like heirloom seeds so much is that the seeds inside the new fruit will bear the exact same genetic code, same taste and characteristics as the parent. Heirlooms are great for saving seed. In addition, naturally occurring species often adapt to a particular climate and conditions, allowing for strong plant resilience.[i],[ii]
  2. Hybridization: Humans realized that they could help plants cross pollinate, creating new varieties. Hybridizers do this on purpose to bring out the desirable characteristics from each parent in the new plant. The offspring of these hybrids bear seeds that are unreliable at copying their parents in exactly the same way each time. That’s why you have to go back to the hybridizer each year to get new seeds. It’s possible to copyright or patent a hybrid, thus giving the hybridizer a way to make a living off his or her work.
  3. Genetic Modification:  This field is still in its infancy, and scientists are creating more patented varieties each year. The gene of one species is spliced into the gene of the crop we’re trying to affect. For example, to combat Citrus Greening Disease which killed large swaths of citrus groves in Florida, researchers are injecting a gene from spinach that provides resistance to the disease’s bacteria.[iii] If they are successful at creating a genetically modified citrus tree, then Florida can bring back their industry.

The problem with genetic modification is that we haven’t rigorously tested the effects of ingesting GM foods.[iv] The companies that benefit financially from selling GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) have had laws passed in Congress that make it illegal for an objective, outside research team to review the GM seeds before they are commercially available.[v] If a drug company tried to release a new medicine without testing it first, they would be stopped by the FDA.

In a study[vi] published September 2012 by scientists at France’s Caen University led by Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini, the strain called NK603 maize (corn) made by Monsanto gave GMO-ingesting rats cancerous tumors in four to seven months. In industry-run studies, trials ran only 90 days, and despite findings that were dismissed as “not biologically meaningful” signs of toxicity were seen. The study by Seralini’s group lasted 2 years, the average lifespan of a rat. His study concluded, “In females, all treated groups died 2–3 times more than controls, and more rapidly.”

Hidden in HR 933, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act that kept the government financially fluid until September 30th of this year, was a “Monsanto Rider” disingenuously called the Plant Protection Act. Promoted by Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt, it makes biotech companies above the law. “Not even the US government can now stop the sale, planting, harvest or distribution of any GM seed, even if it is linked to illness or environmental problems.”[vii]

Before we trust a biotech company to produce seeds and plant material that will “save” us, perhaps we should determine whether that same food is killing us.

But even more concerning is this: if we stop relying on natural variation to create superior species for drought and flooding tolerance, and we buy all our seed from biotech, aren’t we relying too much on the good graces of these companies to stay alive? Before we give over all our rights to produce food to a few large corporations, let’s stop their march toward restrictive legislation, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.[viii] (TPP)

Under the Trans Pacific Partnership, it would be illegal for a government to require GMO labeling. Thus, Monsanto could sue the State of California for insisting that GMO foods be so marked.  The TPP includes “regulations that give multinational corporations unprecedented right to demand taxpayer compensation for policies that corporations deem a barrier to their profits” and labeling will be seen as such a barrier.

I often think that the reason biotech is given such leeway in our legislative process is that it is seen as a boon to employment and financial success. Instead, until we can conclusively find that GMOs are safe, we should be reviewing the beneficial effects of mycorrhizae and bacteria[ix] in solving adaptability issues and natural predators and hedgerows[x] for combating pests.

I strongly oppose patenting all of our food. It flies in the face of sovereignty. Right now, 53% of seed is controlled by only three companies: Monsanto, DuPont, and Sygenta. And “the top ten seed firms, with a majority stake owned by U.S. corporations, account for 73 percent.” [xi]

Before we march off into this dark future where the source of our food comes from companies that would like to control all seed and food supplies, remember to find a congressman who would vote against the TPP.

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