Patenting the future

June 2011

groups warn of gmo expansion in the phils (4)
Photo from Flickr
In December 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a landmark decision that the process of conventional plant breeding could not be patented.

Concerns were voiced at the time that the move was window dressing, and that all the products of conventional breeding would still be patentable.

Sure enough, almost immediately, a patent was granted on a conventionally bred tomato with a reduced core. Five months on, melons too became a Monsanto 'invention', complete with patent.

In a blatant case of biopiracy, non-sweet virus-resistant melons from India have been bred with sweet melons from elsewhere to produce disease-resistant strains.

A spokesperson for No Patents on Seeds summed up the whole situation thus:
“This patent is an abuse of patent law because it is not a real invention. It contravenes European law excluding patents on conventional breeding. Further, it is a case of biopiracy, since the original and most relevant plants come from India. Patents like this are blocking access to the genetic resources necessary for further breeding, and basic resources needed for daily life are subordinated to monopolisation and financial speculation.”
Besides the move to replace plant-breeders rights with the much wider control attaching to patents, Monsanto's melons are part of a bigger issue. The Netherlands seed company which actually bred (not created) the melons was taken over by Monsanto in 2008. This acquisition was part of a strategy of collecting promising germplasm and expertise from all over the world (See below).

Monsanto's habit of collecting germplasm.

Monsanto has “a catalogue that now spans 4,000 vegetables and fruit varieties across 20 species.”

This resource is already being turned into profit by the generation of novel, non-GM, varieties such as

'EverMild' tearless onions and melons which customers can be sure are ripe because they turn pink when they're ready to eat.

The venture is unfolding against a background of escalating sales of fresh produce in the US.

Biotech's collection-habit is a paramount concern because it promises to exert its influence, not only world-wide, but also on the whole future of humanity.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Picture from Wiki Commons
An escalating danger has already been recognised that we are fast losing the plant varieties vital for a sustainable future food supply. As a safeguard against this, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was created to preserve global germplasm diversity for posterity.

However, the Svalbard project may not give us much protection: it's more like putting all our eggs into one basket and giving it to the fox to carry.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) has long been an advocate for in situ protection of plant diversity. The Center stresses that ex situ saving should be a last resort and carried out in the most local and ecologically appropriate way possible.

Experience has shown that huge seed vaults inevitably run into practical problems with funding, staffing and routine seed testing. Svalbard has already revealed all these basic flaws.

Another fundamental question is being asked about the Global Seed Vault: its purpose is to safeguard our food supply, but it's also perfectly poised to safeguard the ability of the biotech industry to control our future agriculture.

There is a troubling connection between Svalbard and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and between the Gates Foundation and Monsanto.

Svalbard has received almost $30 million from the Gates Foundation, by far the largest support of any non-governmental entity. The Foundation has long been a determined supporter of spreading GM crops throughout the developing world. Notably, it has invested $23 million in Monsanto to help the Company through financial woes, and has hired a former Monsanto Vice President to run its International Development Program.

Sceptics have concluded the Gates Foundation is not so much a benevolent organisation as a 'respectable' surrogate to promote Monsanto's interests in Svalbard.

Add to this that there have also been million-dollar donations to the Global Vault from biotech giants Dupont/Pioneer and Syngenta. Between them, Monsanto, Dupont/Pioneer and Syngenta own 50% of the world's commercial seeds, and an awful lot of patents.

None of these companies are renowned for their altruism, nor for their concern for the integrity and diversity of seeds. They have, in fact, been steadily eroding seed diversity through genetic transformation and patenting for decades.

A CFS legal team has revealed another sinister aspect: the deposit agreements used in Svalbard are “extremely complicated, opaque, at times downright misleading and involve difficult questions and interpretation of international law”. Users of the seed-bank, especially developing countries, are unlikely to have the legal expertise, nor the resources, to hire the legal expertise, to decipher the myriad complications of the Svalbard contract: they have little chance of understanding or controlling what can happen to their deposits, much less give informed consent.

The conclusion is that corporations are using Svalbard as an opportunity to get a grip on the world's future agriculture: the seed-bank is a source of germplasm for creating patentable or GM seed varieties, and endless profit.


The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is also usurping local seed saving. Check out a recent speech given by Kent Whealy about the fate of the Seed Savers Exchange which he founded and tended for over three decades:

Corporate ownership of life tied up in a Gordion Knot of legal gobbledygook is one dream of the future we could do without. If you haven't done so already, consider adding your name to No Patent on Seed's open letter to the European Parliament and European Commission.

  • Tim Lloyd, Monsanto's new gambit: fruits and veggies, Harvest, 8.04.11
  • Andrew Kimbrell, Seed Saving and Seed Banks, Center for Food Safety, April 2011
  • Melons now a Monsanto “invention”, No Patents on Seeds Release, 17.05.11

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