Thursday, February 14, 2013

How the public good became Monsanto's private gain

Agrichemical companies like Monsanto are pursuing hundreds of US farmers and farm companies through the courts, suing them for millions of dollars for infringement of seed patents. It’s a result of the wholesale transfer of crop varieties to the corporations.

By the end of 2012, Monsanto had pocketed £23.5 million from court judgments, but that amount is nothing to the hundreds of millions they and other chemical corporations have got in confidential out-of-court settlements.

The Centre for Food Safety and Save our Seeds have exposed the shocking story of how neo-conservatives in the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court facilitated the transfer of crop varieties from freely available goods to ruthlessly-controlled private property.

Up to the early 1980s, publicly-funded scientists working in the universities or the Department of Agriculture developed most new crop varieties. "In 1980, the share of overall US crop acreage planted with public sector seed was 70% for soybeans and 72-85% for various types of wheat," their report explains.

Public scientists developed the process of hybridization, including the first high-yielding hybrid corn varieties. But hybridised seed doesn't grow true from saved seed, so farmers must buy new each year to retain the in-bred characteristics. Enter the agricorporations. Already producing herbicides and pesticides, they saw the opportunity for big profits and moved into crop breeding.

For 200 years, Congress had resisted pressure to authorise patents on staple food crops. Then in the 1980s, as globalisation took off, chemical corporations were handed control of US agriculture as part of a process whereby ALL America's public assets were being transferred into the hands of profit-driven corporations.

New intellectual property regulations and policies allowed the corporations to stampede through hundreds of patents for genetic materials and plants. These were altered hardly at all from the existing varieties developed using public money.
Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow implemented a ruthless programme of mergers and acquisitions, buying up small to medium-sized state-based firms. These mostly bred seed for their local conditions but that work has been swallowed up by the one-size fits all (or else) approach.

The report debunks claims that patents are needed for the corporations to invest in research and development: "The vast majority of plant improvement in American history has been accomplished by farmers and public sector plant breeders, and these tremendous advances were made without any system of ‘innovation-promoting’ intellectual property protection for plants."

In effect the US government and judiciary have colluded with the corporations to "enshrine corporate interests instead of safeguarding farmers and small, independent businesses", the report concludes. This privatisation and monopolisation of products of nature is "contrary to centuries of traditional seed breeding based on collective community knowledge and established in the public domain and for the public good."

And it also endangers the future of food supplies. Monsanto's giant "success story" is breeding crops resistant to repeated applications of Round-Up weed killer. Now agronomists are warning of an epidemic of weeds that have also evolved resistance to glyphosate. Nearly 61.2 million acres of US farmland was infested with these resistant weeds in 2012.

Seed produced by the corporations so dominates the market that it is virtually impossible to find commercial varieties that do not contain patented genetic markers. And many varieties that could have helped to resolve new problems have disappeared. That's why farmers, seed “washers” (who prepare saved seed for planting) and farming companies cannot escape the clutches of the corporations.

The privatisation and commercialisation of the commons means food supply is predominantly in the hands of profit-hungry corporations who will stamp out independent agriculture and production where they can. Liberating ourselves from the likes of Monsanto and Dow Chemicals is an absolute priority not just for farmers but for the whole of humanity.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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