Sunday, July 30, 2006


Suman Sahai

Many crops of developing countries have a global value because of the special chemical compounds they contain like aromatic or other oils. If genetic engineering will modify common, commodity crops to produce these higher value chemicals, it will lead to displacement of the developing country products from valuable niche markets from where they can earn incomes, leading in turn to economic deprivation. Genetic engineering is providing alternative ways of producing commodities that have traditionally been supplied by developing countries. This has the potential of taking away the economic base of farmers who produce such products.

The production of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) from corn, a major GE crop bred for industrial applications like this, has undermined sugar prices and distorted sugar markets for cane sugar producers of developing countries like India. Surely, the massive agricultural subsidies of the EU and US for all agricultural products is a source of grave distortion in international agricultural trade but the creation of HFCS is also a major contributing factor in displacing cane sugar producers from the global sugar market.

Coconut is another victim of genetic engineering. Coconut provides high value oil used for edible and for industrial purposes. The main advantage of this oil is the high lauric acid that it contains. The US alone imports upwards of US$ 350 million worth of coconut and palm oil annually. Now genetic engineering is creating GE canola to produce the same special high lauric acid oil as coconut This research will have highly negative economic implications for farmers in coconut producing regions

Calgene has produced a high lauric acid rapeseed by using genes from the California Bay tree. This rapeseed will ultimately displace the coconut and palm kernel oil and deprive Asian farmers of revenues. The argument that coconut farmers could neverthelessl derive some income from other coconut products is being insensitive to the great difficulty with which developing country farmers are able to eke out a living. The loss of the coconut oil income, the farmers’ principal revenue opportunity in certain regions, will inflict severe economic hardship. This has to be understood in the context of the very limited opportunities for alternative or additional income sources in rural parts of Asia.

Intellectual Property Rights

The IPR issue, like much else in the GE story, is tailored for the corporations, not the farmers. It is an instrument that works against food and livelihood security and there is little evidence so far that it can contribute to increasing the production of food and removing poverty. Access to GE technology is largely impeded by the stringent IPRs that surround it.

Patent holders often refuse to license patents with broad claims to key technologies, to scientists and even to public sector institutions. Companies often seek patents not necessarily to conduct research themselves but to prevent research in areas that would threaten their monopoly. It is of concern that public research institutions are also getting into the patenting of plant technologies and research tools, further restricting access to genetic material and research data that are needed to cross complement research efforts.

Most of the basic technologies of genetic engineering are patented and the larger companies own these patents. These companies are reluctant to license many technologies to developing country organisations at an affordable cost. Patent laws do not require them to do so, so they are not obliged to grant any licenses if they prefer to control the technology themselves. This is part of the overall trend of corporate globalisation and it makes it very difficult for developing countries or public sector institutions to access new technologies or enter the research field.

Patents with an excessively broad claim are becoming increasingly problematic. They violate the ethical intent of patent law, which is to balance private gain with public good while leaving the way open for further innovation. Excessively broad claims like the one granted to Monsanto on all types of genetic transformation in all varieties of soybean (European Patent Number 301,749), are contrary to the original intention of patent law. They are monopoly instruments restricting useful research and therefore diminishing social welfare

The GURT technology

The Gene Use Restricting Technology (GURT) popularly known as the ‘terminator’ technology’ was kept in cold storage after widespread outrage at its anti-farmer focus but it is back on the corporate agenda and awaiting adoption.

GURT is an example of how genetic engineering has been used not to improve a crop or bring benefits to farmers but solely to enhance the control of the seed company over the variety they have bred. GURT is strictly speaking , the most stringent form of intellectual property rights, where the scientific process, not the legal, has been used to give the seed company complete control.

In the GURT technology two gene systems have been brought together to produce seeds with an in built mechanism that aborts development of the embryo so that germination can not take place and the seed is rendered sterile. The self -destructing seeds are actually hybrids produced by hybridising two transgenic plants, each containing one of the two gene systems. To control the induction sterility, a chemical switch has been built in. Soaking the seeds in a chemical like tetracycline can activate this switch. Once the tetracycline soaks into the seed tissue, it switches on one of the gene systems, which sets in motion the chemical process, which will abort the embryo. So in practice, the seed company can produce as much of the seed as they want and just before selling it to the farmer, they can treat the seeds with tetracycline to switch on the sterility inducing gene system.

When farmers buy this seed, they can grow one crop from it but the seed that sets in this crop on maturity, will not have the ability to germinate. The farmer will thus not be able to save viable seed from his crop for the next sowing and will be forced to return to the seed company for new seed. This establishes total control of the seed company on production and sale of seed. The terminator technology obviates the patent system in establishing the monopoly of the seed company on the new seed. The farmer is reduced to a helpless consumer.

No comments:

Post a Comment