Sep 142011
Elements of genetic engineering

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There is an intense scramble for the earth’s resources and ownership of nature. Big oil, big pharma, big food, big seed companies are joining hands to appropriate biodiversity and biomass — the living carbon, thereby extending the age of fossil fuels and dead carbon. Corporations view the 75 per cent biomass used by nature and local communities as “wasted”. They would like to appropriate the living wealth of the planet for making biofuels, chemicals and plastics. This will dispossess the poor of the very sources of their lives and livelihoods. The instruments for this new dispossession are technological tools of genetic engineering, synthetic biology and intellectual property rights (IPRs).

A patent is supposed to be granted to an invention. But patents and IPRs are being used to own seeds, life forms and traditional knowledge. Piracy of traditional knowledge is not an invention; it is theft — we call it biopiracy.

Patents are at the heart of Monsanto’s seed monopoly. After the WTO’s Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement was signed in 1994, a representative of the world’s biggest seed corporation said that Monsanto had been the “patient, diagnostician and physician” in drafting the agreement which forced countries to introduce patents on life and seeds.

Monsanto, which began with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is now patenting non-GM crops. On May 21, 2003, Monsanto was assigned a patent on the Indian variety of wheat, Nap Hal, by the European Patent Office (EPO), Munich, under the simple title “plants”. On January 27, 2004, Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology, along with Greenpeace and Bharat Krishak Samaj, filed a petition at EPO, challenging the patent rights given to Monsanto. The patent was revoked in October 2004. This was the third consecutive victory on the IPR front after neem and basmati, and it once again established that patents on biodiversity, indigenous knowledge and resources are based on biopiracy.

Monsanto has used nine local brinjal (eggplant) varieties to develop its Bt. brinjal. Since the Biological Diversity Act of India, 2002, requires approval for accessing indigenous biodiversity, the Karnataka Biodiversity Board complained to the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA). According to the minutes of the NBA’s meeting on June 20, 2011, “NBA may proceed legally against Mahyco/Monsanto, and all others concerned to take the issue to its logical conclusion.”

Monsanto is also accessing native onion varieties to develop its proprietary hybrids. The company is going to pay `10 lakh to the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research for 25 gms each of Male Sterile (A line) and Maintener (B line) of MS 48 and MS 65 as a one-time licence fee. Is this a just price?

In May 2011, Monsanto got a patent on conventionally-bred melons from the EPO. Monsanto has used the natural resistance in Indian melons to certain plant viruses such as the “yellow stunting disorder virus”. Using conventional breeding, this resistance was introduced into other melons. While this is biopiracy of a trait evolved by Indian farmers, Monsanto has patented the plant, all parts of the plant (including the seed) and the melon fruit as its “invention”.

There is an urgent need to ban all patents on life and living organisms, including biodiversity, genes and cell lines. The coalition “No Patents on Seeds” has started a campaign to exclude breeding material, plants and animals, and foods derived thereof from patentability.

Industrial globalised agriculture is heavily implicated in climate change. It contributes to the three major greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels, nitrogen oxide from the use of chemical fertilisers and methane from factory farming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global atmospheric concentration of N2O, largely as a result of the use of chemical fertilisers in agriculture, increased from about 270 parts per billion to 319 parts per billion in 2005. Industrial agriculture is also more vulnerable to climate change, which is intensifying droughts and floods. Monocultures lead to more frequent crop failure when rainfall does not come in time, or is too much or too little. Chemically fertilised soils have no capacity to withstand a drought. Genetic engineering is embedded in the industrial model of agriculture based on fossil fuels. It is falsely being offered as a magic bullet for dealing with climate change.

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