American farmers are experiencing the benefits of scientific progress first hand. In the agriculture of the most developed country on the planet transgenics have created a semi-feudal system where the governing rule is held by the Company, which in turn is valiantly protected by its army of lawyers. “Monsanto” style businesses prove to be far from the noble ideals of Harvard researchers four decades ago. Meanwhile, the Earth is bombarded with patents on engineered seeds. And curiously Romania is not left out. In the name of a diverse economic life, entailing varied services and respect for the farmer and environment, the Earth is preparing its defense (a story by Raul Cazan).
Transgenics do not increase production
Petru P., a hard working Transylvanian farmer from the meadows of the river Mures, has dedicated his life to agriculture in the following two decades after the fall of the communist regime. After years of working in the metallurgical industry under Ceausescu, and after the economic bankruptcy of the ’90, Petru saw the fully-fledged events of an equally emaciated agriculture. Around the year 2000 he was hired to plant genetically spliced corn seeds. Can a story be drawn out of this episode? Transgenics proved to be an unsurprising fiasco, as every other similar agricultural attempt in Romania. “2C” has found out however, that transgenic corn can’t withstand scorching-heat temperatures, but is able to face a tiny insect.
The purchasing and repurchasing of planted seeds doesn’t seem to have been a very tragic event in Romania; maybe because the smaller landowners were never really interested. All in all the episode of transgenic corn is almost over. Now the average farmer barely grows any corn at all. Instead the new trend is rapeseed, a source for ethanol used to fuel the hybrid cars of eco-chic stars. Despite the alleged benefits of transgenics to protect plants from the “evils of nature”, Petru P. concludes that transgenics do not really increase production.
Decimated by oversupply
“In the year 2009, compared to 2008, surfaces were reduced for MON 810 and conventional corn crops in Romania (…) Generally speaking, we consider that the reasons for area reduction in 2009 compared to 2008 were done on the basis of oversupply and commercial price falls for corn in the fall of 2008. Which in turn led to crop surface size reduction in 2009,” explains Aurel-Florentin Badiu, an official from the Quality, Research, and Development Centre of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Otherwise, nothing. “The problem isn’t genetically altered plants; the problem is that nothing is actually grown,” a farmer explains.
Quitting any prior advocacy, we can ask ourselves what benefits genetically modified organisms have. From early 2000 large advertising companies spreading across all mediums of communication have brought forth the false premises and hypothesis that transgenics would ensure food supply on a global scale and would fight hunger. In Romania, since the 1st of January 2007 when we adhered to the EU, only a few types of transgenic corn can be grown; the star being MON 810, produced by the American company Monsanto. Is MON 810 really better than other types of corn?
Specialists from the Ministry of Agriculture state that, “the genetically altered MON 810 ensures protection against corn borers (insects that deposits larvae which perforate the leaves, consume the pollen, chew galleries inside the corn cob, and even consume the seeds transmitting bacterial diseases). In areas susceptible to aggressive insect infestation MON 810 endures any attack for the entire period of gestation.” “Compared to regular corn production increases for MON 810 production are at 10%-15%; also costs are lowered due to less time, energy, and insecticides required for MON 810,” the Ministry of Agriculture’s response mentions.
Corn Borer, attack on MON 810
The problem, however, is infinitely more complex as the punctuated benefits mentioned above become insignificant. Around 1998 genetically modified organisms reach Europe, Romania welcoming them with open arms. “At that time the most wide spread stuff was genetically altered soybean and a species of potato called <<Superior new leaf>>, which protected the plant from the Colorado beetle.” Dan Craioveanu from the Transylvanian Ecologic Club explains. Ever since, new tests have been conducted on other plant species but none got registered in the seed catalogue. MON 810 corn was brought to Romania in 2007 because it was the only one admitted in the EU.
The corn borer isn’t that dangerous, there are numerous ways to fight it. Traditional Romanian corn species have a thick stem, Craioveanu states. Even if the corn borer breaches the stem the crop will not be affected. “For Romanians statistics regarding production per hectare is a good reminder of the communist days. Ironically Monsanto can’t brag about a greater production rate, only cheaper prices – and only in the short run,” Craioveanu explains. MON 810 has a thin stem so the corncob is vulnerable. The borer larvae especially target Monsanto corn.
Useless but dangerous instruments
“Genetically modified organisms are instruments, and instruments help us do that which is good,” states Michael Pollan, a hero of organic food and American domestic products advocacy. “But what good do we want to accomplish?” the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” asks himself. “We have to stop spreading pesticides. But are genetically altered products the only way to do it? No. We have to plant polycultures rather than monocultures, for instance. But Monsanto doesn’t like that strategy because they would like to sell as much as possible. So genetically modified products have merely been a way to sell more Roundup herbicide manufactured by none other than Monsanto.”
“The first generation of genetically modified products didn’t offer anything to the consumer. The food wasn’t cheaper, and pesticides were still being used – sometimes more than in conventional agriculture. At the end of the 1990 companies were telling me about the second generation of spliced products, the ones that had increased nutritional value. Where are they?” Pollan asks.
“The crops today are as plentiful as they were in the mid nineties. This may suggest that either the R&D budget went dry, or they uncovered that it’s too difficult to make these complex products work. Anyway, this industry is in a glitch. I don’t think that in ten years we’ll still be talking about genetically modified products.” Pollan concludes.
The Biotech hope
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, American universities in Massachusetts fervently started testing DNA recombination – Washington approval included. Through biotechnology minuscule organisms are modified to aid people in some way. Research in the 1980 resulted in extraordinary scientific discoveries and giant leaps for medicine.
However, in the early ’70, the American youth – a generation which still said “No!” to the Vietnam war and organized the first ecologist movements – was raising questions about bioterrorism and the potential accidents that might result from playing God with DNA. American and western-European press tried fruitlessly to scare its readers.
Ultimately, the benefits of genetically modified organisms were acknowledged. Biotech business was flourishing. The year 1982 marked a cornerstone event in the history of biotechnology: the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval of Humulin.
This was a form of genetically altered insulin, deemed a hero in the fight for organic food and American domestic products, Michael Pollan describes.
In the 80’ the only opposition to biotechnology and its applications was upheld by the voice of the relentless Jeremy Rifkin. The Economic Trend Foundation in Washington D.C. sent “Green Report” a short description of the point of view of its president, Rifkin. In 1987 the final blow to biotechnology was probably what Rifkin calls “ice-minus fiasco”.
It was the year when transgenics was nearing out plates. Rifkin sued the American government in order to stop them from releasing transgenic bacteria meant to stop ice-water crystal formation on plants. The bacteria had to “protect” strawberries from frost. They would have caused chaos in meteorological patterns if they were to escape in the atmosphere and multiply. Snow would have turned to rain, summer rain would have vanished leaving only drought and destruction of the ecosystem, Rifkin believes.
Rifkin and his group managed to impose a moratorium to temporarily postpone the bacterial release. Advanced Genetic Sciences –AGS, the company which produced the genetically modified organism, illegally released the bacteria in their own garden contaminating their trees and plants. This is a practice that will be repeated numerous times in the upcoming decades.
A great PR demonstration was prepared upon the US government’s approval for the anti-frost bacteria’s release on the strawberry fields. The swarms of reporters at the site found the strawberry plants taken out of the ground and left to dry in the sun. That which at first had to be the company’s crushing statement of superior science and victory through progress turned into a ridiculous struggle to resuscitate the poor strawberry plants. The eco-activist “reaction” was a in a constant re-occurrence the following decades.
An EU dialog; not a market
The upholders of biotechnology in Europe claim that genetically modified organisms are a next step in agriculture. While opponents underline a terrible human breach into nature. As Romania was opening its arms to trangenics, the EU was placing a de facto moratorium regarding the marketing of genetically modified organisms. Only a small number of plants were authorized for commercialization. This is and has been a relatively uncomfortable position for the EU giving way to violent debates regarding international commercial law and less violent ones regarding community law. There is an acute tension between this commercial restriction and trade liberalization in the EU. For more than a decade intense lobbying and legal action were the pressure points for reopening the authorization process.
In the EU, compared to the US, the dilemma between scientific expertise and public participation is under constant debate. Decisions regarding biotechnology don’t merely necessitate scientific approval. Considerations about fundamental questions regarding the world and the environment are equally important: ethical concerns regarding man’s relationship with nature; social, economic, and political problems linked to corporate control over the food industry; risk acceptance; respect to the principle of prevention. These hypothetical risks regarding genetically modified organism regulations have led to a dialogue culture and not to a false “invisible hand” market. Moreover, even though community law is relatively permissive, many member states have said no to genetically modified organisms.
Glyphosate, the secret to domination
At the end of the ’70, an amino acid called glyphosate discretely made its entrance into the American patent system. Amino acids are dietary components that form proteins. However, glyphosate isn’t something we would want to have for lunch. Instead of contributing to protein build up in plants glyphosate blocks the synthesis of essential amino acid and leads to death. This “quality” turns glyphosate in one of the most redoubtable herbicides, and is the reason why its biochemistry got patented.
In its commercial form of the Roundup herbicide, glyphosate is Monsanto’s domination spear tip in the transgenic seed industry. By recombining plant DNA with that of the Bacillus thuriengensis (Bt), the plant becomes immune to the herbicide. Consequently Monsanto is conveniently selling both the poison and the antidote. Seed patenting and their royalties has surpassed public, environmental, and even food supply issues.
A patent on nature
The big problem with transgenic plants is Monsanto seed patents and its quest for farmer royalties; their actions are backed by the American judiciary system and the WTO with its global free trade rules. If Monsanto’s sinister practices in the US are narrated and banner-ed through strong images by the documentary Food, Inc. (an “inconvenient truth” for food), then maybe the rest of the world still has a fighting chance against daily meal degradation.
The object of seed patents is set according to country. Generally speaking, were talking about “something” that is alive and defines a certain plant. This something can either be found in a complex natural environment from where it has to be extracted, or, on the other hand, it can’t be found in nature so some genes get spliced in order to form something that doesn’t occur naturally in that plant.
Monsanto’s genetically modified seed patents entailed a 400.000 page patent document of chemical formulas; largely speaking. Of course all that happened in America. Reduction ad absurdum: Could Romania ever deny such a patent?
Stefan Gavrilescu, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property, answers on behalf of “Green Report”. “I think it’s a slightly irrelevant problem. Those holding the patents are very big companies, the biggest being Monsanto. They aren’t obliging Romania to recognize their patents; they’re registering them here because Romania has a Patent Law. They can register patents here, and in accordance to Romanian law.”
“The philosophy behind seed patents is simple at its essence. But sincerely, I’m still not certain anyone is 100% right. Surprisingly it’s a lot easier to find anti-genetic-modification material than information materials on juridical doctrine,” Gavrilescu explains.
It’s very expensive to invent a plant that has only certain characteristics: for instance, a plant that repels specific insects, pests, or other plants. A genetically altered plant can be engineered to have within itself, at a cellular level, substances which are toxic for some or all pests. Placing pesticide-resilient bacteria in a plant through genetic alteration is said to be a very costly research process. “On the other hand, once you’ve learnt the process it’s very easy to use the invention’s result without paying. Say that I, Monsanto, make a bug repelling plant and put 100 bags on the market. Well, if I have no protection, in the next year my 100 customers will be selling their own seed at a profit to their own customers. And I have invested my money for nothing,” Gavrilescu says.
This is the stale rationalization behind the intellectual property protection of transgenic seeds.
Even though it may sound bizarre, contamination with genetically modified organisms could create problems from the perspective of patents. A relatively recent normative act allows for any commercialized seed to have up to 0,5% modified material.
A farmer can buy seed that has less than 0,5% patented genes. However, unexpected and strange situations are possible, Craioveanu thinks. “Once planted, contamination with modified genes can increase exponentially. So the farmer may unwillingly do something illegal and ultimately be made to pay royalties when the legal percentage is exceeded. Evidently, the farmer is innocent, the guilt is presumed by law. It’s contamination through patents,” Craioveanu concludes.
Seed patenting is illegitimate
Now the discussions start. In the US during the interwar period, new types of plants were invented by state owned institutions. The privatization of this activity began later, and implicitly, so did the need for legal protection. Evidently, the seeds are natural but Monsanto’s don’t “naturally” occur in nature.
Interestingly enough, conflict already exists between big manufacturers and small farmers who have found natural varieties of resistant plants, Gavrilescu shows.
There are plants resilient to climatic changes like a type of Indian rice which is resistant to floods. Large companies are trying to extract the genetic information form that type of rice and patent it, even though it has been used naturally for maybe thousands of years.
Marker Assisted Selection
“Genetically modified organisms are pointless; they only create health problems and pollute the environment. The products of the big companies are all patented, and small producers, farmers become more and more dependent on the hybrids produced by multinationals,” Rifkin states.
There is a new generation of research called Marker Assisted Selection. This new biotechnology is a true genome revolution, officials from the Foundation for Economic Trends believe.
What isn’t known, Rifkin says, is that most companies like Monsanto or Syngenta are researching this new technology right now. Why? “Because genetically modified organisms don’t work. They have no great advantage. They’re more of a barbarism in fact. Combining two entities in order to gain resistance against toxic environment is wrong: you create too much resilience to fast. Monsanto and Syngenta don’t want to talk about this because they don’t want to admit their genetically modified plants don’t work.”
In Marker Assisted Selection the genome of a plant can be charted. The new species awaiting commercialization can be combined at a nuclear level with a different, wild species which is resistant to drought, for example. The result will be a drought resistant corn. It’s important to remember that we’re only dealing with corn. Plant DNA doesn’t get spliced with any bacteria; only interspecies combinations.
If this selection is combined with agro-ecologic agriculture; no copyright, but open source, then we get organic agriculture. “We do know that Monsanto would never do this. But not long ago I had a meeting with the heads of global ecologic organizations – Greenpeace, Friends of Earth, Union of Concerned Scientists, and came to the conclusion that we’re against genetically modified organisms, but not against genetic research as long as we can make things better,” Rifkin states. This selection method is evidently less expensive than genetic modification. The new generations will be better, and farmers will communicate and trade the best hybrids.
It’s like file sharing; like exchanging files online. But more than that, they will have to also exchange knowledge. The corporations won’t be able to monitor everyone.
The antidote for patents
Romania doesn’t have legal precedents of “farmer vs. Company”. However, Romania can become a hotbed for contamination with transgenic plants because farmers keep their seeds, Craioveanu considers. And the corporate greed will turn into jurisprudence.
How do we protect these old or new plants against such injunctions? There are ways of protection even at the community level. However, they do not have the strength to face corporate giants like Monsanto. “I believe that the viable solution to publicly claim this knowledge is of the NGO type. I mean, in the case of flood resistant rice, you make an NGO and apply, for example, to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund you so you can patent it,” Gavrilescu suggests.
It’s a feasible example of what civil society can do. You want to preserve traditional knowledge? Leave the revolutionary speech and patent first. Or, even simpler, create a traditional seed bank because existing knowledge is preeminent to patents.
If you want to patent Romanian corn that has already existed in a field somewhere, and you can prove it’s been there for years, you don’t even need to patent any more. Read about Marker Assisted Selection. Or better yet, produce or consume locally.