Pit Schultz on Tue, 29 May 2001 10:33:14 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> seeds of contention transcript


Presenter/producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
Broadcast: BBC World Service, April 2001

NARR: So far in this series, we've looked at the arguments over whether
developing world countries need genetically engineered crops to feed their
growing populations.  Whether they promise to improve the nutritional value
of food for everyone - which of course runs counter to the claims of GM
sceptics that GM foods haven't been proved safe to eat.  We've also heard
conflicting evidence over whether transgenic plants will pose a threat to
the environment . But for many, these controversies are but side-shows
compared to what's really the big issue.

RICHARD JEFFERSON: "All the protests about food safety and environmental
safety are actually not about those things, because in fact the facts bear
out the safety and environmental appropriateness of the current innovations
in GM crops.  What they don't bear out, however, is the domination of a few
players in the food chain."

NARR: Richard Jefferson, CEO of CAMBIA - which is an unusual operation - a
private, but not-for-profit plant biotechnology laboratory in Canberra,
Australia.  Jefferson's concern is the expanding global influence of the
handful of multinational corporations that develop GM crops and take them to
the market and the farmer.

RICHARD JEFFERSON: "Basically, I and others are frustrated by the
globalisation process.  You are probably frustrated by the globalisation
process - the lack of a sense of humaneness to daily life, faceless, high
capital running our food chain.  Those are the sorts of things that are
very, very emotive for all of us, including myself."

NARR: Concerns about the consequences of the power and influence wielded by
the big agricultural biotech corporations are voiced by many. The most
troubling visions of the future - painted by some non-governmental pressure
groups - have farmers all over the world with no option but to buy patented
genetically engineered seed from the big companies - which also supply all
the necessary agro-chemicals that go with them.  And woe betide the growers
if they try to save seed and replant it.  Or then again perhaps they won't
have that possibility - because of the notorious 'Terminator' genes that
stop crops producing viable seed.  That's a worry of Leopoldo Gilarun, a
small scale farmer in the Philippines, who believes the traditions of seed
saving and replanting will disappear with transgenic crops.

LEOPOLDO GILARUN: "We cannot re-use them.  And we are afraid that, if they
apply these terminator genes, the companies that produce them on a
commercial basis will be assured of the farmers buying their seeds.  It's
very worrisome to us farmers, considering our economic resources."

NARR: The relationship between developing world farmers and the
multinational biotech companies is the chief concern of RAFI, the Rural
Advancement Foundation International.  It's been concerned for some time
about the merging of agrochemical companies with seed companies with
biotechnology companies to form single entities.  The organisation's Latin
American representative, Silvia Ribeiro, says the recent history of
consolidation within the international seed industry alone is a worrying
SILVIA RIBEIRO: "When RAFI started around twenty years ago, there were about
7,000 seed companies in the market, in the world market, and none of them
reached one percent of the market.  Now, when we are speaking twenty years
later, you have about ten companies, seed companies ....
RIBEIRO: Ten.  We were talking about 7,000 just now.  We have about ten
companies, that are really dominant on the market, that together have the
control of more than 40 percent of the world market."

NARR: Not all these leading seed companies deal in GM seeds - at the moment.
But the rate of merging and consolidation has been increasing over the same
period during which genetically engineered crops began to be developed and
later commercialised.  And a handful of the top seed companies are also the
most dominant in creating and selling transgenic crops.  Sue Mayer of the
pressure group Genewatch UK. 

SUE MAYER: "We've now got a situation where there's only four multinational
companies who are developing eighty percent of the GM crops globally, and
they will be, if they possibly can be, controlling what traits are
developed, and then who has access to them, who doesn't, and how they're
applied.  It's quite a dangerous state of affairs to be in.  We need to have
diversity, I think, in terms of food security, not monopolies."

NARR: The Big Four companies are led at the moment by Monsanto which
currently has about 80% of the genetically engineered crop market  - the
herbicide-tolerant varieties and those engineered to produce their own
insecticide.  These were the first added characteristics or traits in GM
crops to make an impact, with the farmers of North America and Argentina in
particular.  After Monsanto, the dominant corporations are Dupont, Aventis
and Syngenta.  Syngenta formed last year - a merger of the agribusiness arms
of Astrazeneca and Novartis.  Stephen Smith, head of seeds at Syngenta UK,
says there's nothing sinister about the size of these companies - it just
comes with the biotech territory.

STEPHEN SMITH: "One of the reasons that the technology is in the hands of so
few is because of the length and time of the investment that is necessary to
develop something in this area, and it is only companies that are successful
of the size of Syngenta that can afford and take the risk of such long-term
and detailed technological investment.  That's clear.  So that's one reason.
Two, how large are these companies really?  Monsanto is actually smaller
than Tesco's for instance, both in its turnover and the number of its staff
that it employs.
(LUCK-BAKER) Tesco's being the British supermarket chain.
(SMITH) The leading major supermarket.  Those things are relative."

NARR: But as a plant biotechnologist himself, though running a much smaller
operation than either Syngenta or Tesco's supermarkets, Richard Jefferson
disagrees that you have to be big to use genetic engineering to bring useful
crops to farmers.  In fact he argues the big industry approach means most of
the world's farmers will miss out on the potential opportunities. 

RICHARD JEFFERSON: "Real innovation comes from a small to medium enterprise,
in a decentralised fashion.  I think that, agriculture being a highly
decentralised process - each paddock, each field is quite different -
requires a series of different solutions to different problems.  And that's
unlikely to occur when there's masses of capital invested in fairly high
margin innovations.  What's going to happen is the 'square peg, round hole'
syndrome.  If you have a certain set of innovations that may be very
effective for the Iowa soya-bean farmer, those same innovations don't
necessarily address the issues that are relevant to a small-holder in
central India, running less than an acre of land with diverse crops.  If
right now, only the guys in white coats with a lot of money can solve the
problems, they'll only solve the problems of the people that are in their

NARR: So if we accept for the time being, that what different farmers in
different parts of world need won't be catered for by the profit seeking
sector - what about the public sector?  That's the national
government-funded agricultural research or that done at the international
research centres such as the International Rice Research Institute, funded
by international donors.  According to Phil Pardey of the International Food
Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC - financial support for the kind
of research and development that produced the high yielding rices, wheats
and maizes of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s has been
decreasing alarmingly.

PHIL PARDEY: "This lack of investment is something we really need to bring
to the attention of policy-makers, both in terms of developing countries and
donor countries.  International agencies like the World Bank and the like
have dramatically reduced their investments in agriculture and their
investments in agricultural research in developing countries over the past
decade or so."

NARR: One consequence of this decreasing public funding is an increasing
number of partnerships between public sector researchers and the corporate
realm.  The highest profile and inevitably most controversial of these is
the Golden Rice project.   The rice in question has been genetically
engineered so that it produces a substance called beta carotene in its grain
- something rice doesn't normally do.  Beta carotene is what the human body
needs to make Vitamin A.  Vitamin A deficiency is a very common and
life-threatening form of malnutrition among the poor in Asia.  It's a
leading cause of child blindness for example.  Hence the idea of a vitamin
A-giving rice that small holders in developing countries can grow
themselves.  The research was started by two European university scientists
in Switzerland and Germany.  But in the last couple of years, they've teamed
up with biotechnology giant Syngenta.  The company's side of the
collaboration is overseen by Adrian Du Bock.

ADRIAN DU BOCK: "The legacy company that I worked for in Syngenta, which was
called Zeneca, had had a long history of interest in rice as a strategic
crop.  Rice after all feeds half the world every day.  And additionally,
we'd had a long interest in carotenoids as an interesting area of
nutritional enhancement.  We had worked with major research groups,
including an EU programme looking at carotenoid enhancement of foods, and
this EU programme had, in another part of it, the two inventors of golden
rice.  So we were delighted to hear of their success and came to discuss
with them how we could obtain commercial rights and, from those discussions,
came an understanding and an agreement that we would support them in their
long-avowed interest in making the technology freely available to
nutritionally-deprived people in the developing countries."

NARR: So the deal is, when Golden Rice has been fully developed - Syngenta
can sell it in North America and Europe markets for profit.  On the other
side, Syngenta helps the European researchers with the time-consuming and
expensive business of testing the crop in the field and sorting out the
regulatory requirements in developing countries.  It's here that the rice
will be made freely available to rice growers whose income is less than 10
000 US dollars a year - in other words, the overwhelming majority.  But, not
everyone's happy...

NETH DANO: "Bringing in Vitamin A fortified rice to the table of ordinary
people from South East Asia will not solve the problem at all."

NARR: Neth Dano of SEARICE, a Southeast Asian NGO that campaigns on a range
of rural issues.  Many anti-GM organisations such as SEARICE object to
Golden Rice because they claim it's a ploy by industry to win round the
global public into thinking that transgenic crops are a good thing -
undoing the less than positive image the GM opponents have created in the
last few years.   But Neth Dano believes that Golden Rice, as well as being
a ploy, misses the real point - if Vitamin A deficiency is to be dealt with

NETH DANO: "The problem of vitamin A deficiency began at the peak of the
Green Revolution.  It is because a lot of the lands that used to be planted
with vegetables and other crops apart from rice, were converted to rice.
And you have the media to contend with.  The media tells you that it's a
status symbol to eat meat and packaged food products etc. which are devoid
of any nutrients and everything.  Vitamin A rice will not solve the problem
at all."

NARR: The development of Golden Rice also raises the contentious issue of
patents - patents being the rights of ownership on... well almost anything
these days.  Carol Nottenburg, director of intellectual property at CAMBIA.

CAROL NOTTENBURG: "The TRIPS agreement, which stands for 'Trade Related
Aspects of Intellectual Property', and which applies to all countries that
belong to the World Trade Organisation (right now I think about three
quarters of the world's countries) says that anything can be patented.  And
if I have a patent, I can keep others from making, using, selling, offering
to sell or importing the patented product or process."

NARR: In the realm of plant genetic engineering you, as a researcher or
company, can be awarded a patent on a particular GM crop you've developed -
in some countries you can patent a gene you've isolated if you know what
particular job the gene does.  And there are patents on all the laboratory
techniques - the so-called enabling technologies - that scientists use to
genetically engineer crops.   With Golden Rice, it turned out that there
were about 70 patents on the techniques and materials used to create it,
raising a question mark in some minds that its development might be limited
by the intellectual property rules.  Some of the patents were held by
Syngenta, which was another factor behind the public-private collaboration.
But many of the other patents were owned by other companies.  However,
Syngenta's Adrian Du Bock says he trouble-shot for the European academics.

ADRIAN DU BOCK: "When we analysed the situation, we found that there were
really only a handful of patents and agreements that needed to be addressed
in order to allow the materials to be moved.  I, on behalf of the
humanitarian board of the Golden Rice project, approached the other
companies involved and I'm delighted that they were all very receptive to
the idea of donating free licences for their technology, for use in this
specific humanitarian programme."
MIGUEL ALTIERI: "I resist.  I'm from the South, and I resist that the future
of my people is going to be dependent on the goodwill of corporations.

NARR: Miguel Altieri - Chilean by birth, and professor of agroecology at the
University of California, Berkeley by profession.

MIGUEL ALTIERI: This is just kind of a food aid approach, which I resist and
many, many people in developing countries have resisted food aid of any kind
for many many years, because that's not the solution.  We have technologies
that are much more appropriate to the small farmers, that are based on their
traditional knowledge, that are free, that are not subject to patents, and
that therefore are the solution to their problems."


RICHARD JEFFERSON: LAUGHS "I don't know, you could say Golden Rice, you
could say silver bullets and platinum platitudes.  Most of the technologies
that were nominally donated by the private sector, in fact they didn't own

NARR: Richard Jefferson at CAMBIA has another take on the Golden Rice
patents.  He says the good will from some of the companies was more like a
good public image opportunity.  As he explains, a patent only has any force
in a country if it's been granted by the patent authorities in that country.

RICHARD JEFFERSON: "A patent is a national instrument.  In a particular
country, a patent that is issued gives the holder of that patent the right
to exclude others from practising that invention.  A simple thing.  Most of
the developing world that is nominally going to be beneficiaries of this
hypothetical Golden Rice don't have patent regimes of any import, and these
technologies are not patented to those countries.  In other words, a company
is giving away something it doesn't own.  But it gets great PR out of it."

NARR: So although at the moment, the restrictions that come with patents on
genetic engineering techniques - the genes or the final transgenic crops
themselves - don't in theory have an impact in most developing world
countries.  However, that situation may be set to change, because of the
TRIPS agreement of the World Trade Organisation we heard mention of earlier.

RICHARD JEFFERSON: "Most of these countries will be enacting intellectual
property regimes.  They are required to, in adherence with the TRIPS - a
component of the WTO agreements, formerly the GATT agreement.  They are
going to be required to implement intellectual property regimes, and then
very, very large amounts of technology will be presumably patented in those


VAL GIDDINGS: "There are issues that result from the fact that private
companies hold most of the intellectual property, and that means that it's
not all accessible to everybody, but intellectual property is a Faustian

NARR: Val Giddings, vice president of food and agriculture at the
Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organisation.

VAL GIDDINGS: "You know, how do you navigate between the conflicting
requirements of stimulating innovation and rewarding an innovator.  A
time-limited monopoly (of twenty years), which is what a patent is, is the
best mechanism anyone has come up with for doing that.  If folks don't like
the fact that most of the patents in this arena are in the hands of private
companies, there is an easy solution.  Let us increase public sector
research support, so that more of the intellectual property, a larger
proportion of it, is actually developed in the public sector."

NARR: But the very idea of being able to patent a crop plant, albeit one
that a company has applied the hi-tech treatment of genetic engineering to,
is just not right, says Silvia Ribeiro at RAFI.  Her opinion is that the
biotechnology companies are merely adding a few pieces of new DNA to entire
genomes of crops that are only in existence thanks to the plant breeding,
the intellectual, efforts of farmers throughout history, and mainly in
countries of the south. So who really owns those crops, she asks?

SILVIA RIBEIRO: "Agriculture in the world is the result of thousands of
years, and millions and millions of farmers all over the world, that have
been exchanging seeds freely without any intellectual property on them, and
leaving this as a legacy for humankind.  This is the basis of agriculture,
the basis of our food, of our medicines and many other things.  So, let's
say the companies now improving something in a good way that could be
desirable for many people but using something that's been developed over ten
thousand years and by millions of people.  'But,' they say, 'we have done
this and we will put a patent on it, and you won't access it, unless you pay
me.'  And I think this is profoundly unethical and it's simply wrong!"
NARR: Along with patents comes the instruction from the biotech seed
companies that any seeds produced by their transgenic crops cannot be
collected and replanted.  Farmers have to sign contracts agreeing not to
plant such seed or pass it on to other farmers.  Indeed some in North
America have been sued for doing just that.  This is a far cry from the
principles of Masipag, a network of a small scale organic farmers and plant
breeders in the Philippines.  One of their members is Leopoldo Gilarun.

LEOPOLDO GILARUN: "We breed for free.  I do not breed for commercialisation,
because in Masipag it is our principle that we consider the seeds as sacred,
and the purpose of the seed is not for money but for the benefit of all the

NARR: Seed sharing and saving is practised by millions of small holders
throughout the developing world, who don't have the resources to buy seed
every year - if at all.  So is that tradition threatened by patented GM
seeds that come with contracts forbidding seed saving?  Michael Lipton, a
food policy analyst at Sussex University in the UK, believes not.

MICHAEL LIPTON: "There is simply no way that this can be policed.  For
example southern Brazil - in Brazil, genetically modified crops are illegal.
They are still doing the basic research, but they are illegal.  Yet,
Argentina is just across the border, and lots and lots of these crops, most
of them patented, have found their way into very large areas in southern
Brazil.  If you're dealing with farms of a few tens of thousands of
hectares, even thousands of hectare-farmers, you can do something about that
and you can sue.  In a small holder environment, it's completely hopeless."

NARR: So given an unenforceable situation with small scale farmers in
developing countries, groups concerned about the impact of GM crops believe
that the companies are working on a genetic means of preventing growers
saving seed - engineered into the seed itself.  Sue Mayer of Genewatch UK
explains these so-called Gene Use Restriction technologies, or GURTS. 

SUE MAYER: "What happens there is that you have a switching system, a
genetic switching system which is triggered by the application of a
chemical, either to the seed or in the field, and that switch is then
attached to other genes, which may affect one of a different array of
different functions in the plant.  It could be seed germination.  It could
be time of flowering.  It could be whether the crop is disease- resistant.
But what it means is that you have a package, and that the plant will only
work as advertised if you buy the chemical as well as the seed.  And that
means you keep going back (to the company)."

NARR: The most famous, or notorious, of these GURTs is Terminator
technology, but so loud and wide was the outcry three years ago when the
patent on it came to public attention, companies with a potential interest
in it said they weren't going to pursue development.

SUE MAYER: "They said they won't use terminator technology, which is when
you have seed sterility.  The commitment hasn't gone any further than that.
And we know, for example, Astrazeneca (now Syngenta) have field-trialled
potatoes with chemical switching in the UK for the last two years at least.
I mean, all the companies have their own slightly different versions of
patents on these GURTS."

NARR: But according to Val Giddings at the Biotechnology Industry
Organisation, the principle reason for developing GURTS is quite defensible.

VAL GIDDINGS: "It costs a fair bit to develop these new improved crops, and
this represents a substantial investment in intellectual property.  The
problem with some crop plants is that farmers can save seed, and what that
means is that a company has to recoup all of its R&D costs from the first
generation of seed sales, or they have no way of repaying their investors.
And that would price some things out of existence."

NARR: However Val Giddings refutes the suggestion that the technology was
conceived with developing world farmers in mind, saying that's not where the
industry sells most of its seed.

VAL GIDDINGS: "The majority of the global seed markets are not found in
developing countries for a very simple reason.  Farmers in developing
countries don't have the money to purchase seed.  That's why I suggested
that rather than oppose biotechnology, Greenpeace etc ought to get behind it
and argue for increased support for biotech research in the public sector,
because if we can produce new, improved varieties that work for farmers in
Kenya and Zambia and Colombia, we could solve a whole host of problems.  But
at the moment, there is very little incentive for companies to do so,
because the markets are not there to which they'd have to recoup their R&D
LUCK-BAKER: So the idea of Gene-Use Restriction Technology being applied to
the farmers who typically save seed, (who are the kind of farmers that the
NGOs are particularly concerned about) is a sort of fantasy scenario, you're
(GIDDINGS) Yes.  I mean, farmers typically save seed pretty much wherever
they can save seed.  So there is some seed saving that goes on with some
crops here in North America and in Europe.  But the argument that this was a
nefarious scheme to subordinate farmers in the developing world to
multinational corporations... Well, it's hard to describe that accurately
and remain diplomatic."

NARR: It's an inrefutable fact that many millions of developing world
farmers are too poor ever to be customers of Syngenta, Monsanto and the
like, but the industry can't deny it does have markets in southern
countries.  There are field trials of GM crops in the Philippines, India,
and Mexico to name but a few.  There will be large scale growers who can
afford GM seed, or less well off ones who may be encouraged to buy it with
the help of national government loans.   For Richard Jefferson of CAMBIA,
the one of the most frustrating things about the approach of both anti-GM
campaigners and the industry is that they fail to address the fact that
there's a diversity of farmers in all countries, with enormously varying
needs and priorities.
He set up CAMBIA to try and do a different kind of agricultural
biotechnology - one that makes farmers the research agenda-setters - not the
company balance sheet or the well intentioned genetic engineer in a
university laboratory.  It's also about avoiding intellectual property
issues creating problems and obstacles.  Here's CAMBIA's motto.

RICHARD JEFFERSON: "Democratise, decentralise and diversify" - that is we
try to invent technologies which will encourage or allow the decentralised
innovative process by diverse people in diverse locations.  That sounds very
grand, but it actually is fairly pragmatic.  You can actually look at
existing technologies and say there's only a handful that are getting in the
way of people really being innovative.  Can we invent technologies that go
around those limitations and open up new opportunities?  And I think we can.
LUCK-BAKER: So basically, part of what you're about here is coming up with
new technologies that haven't got these restrictions imposed on them.
JEFFERSON: Exactly.  But not brand new technologies that are just going to
reinforce the existing problem-solving paradigm.  We're big fans of farmers
here.  We think that farmers are amongst the hardest working people, who are
in the most debt, and who are in the most responsibility of any individuals
I can think of on Earth.  And what I see is that they are fairly excluded
from the dialogue of problem solving.  And you have to start from that.
Instead of being a techno-fix junkie, starting with the gene and saying,
"Gee, this is cool, we've got this neat gene, what can we do with it?" - we
have to do a step back and say, what are the opportunities we need to craft?
As an example, if we could have a way of providing plant breeders with
opportunities to breed plants that are adapted to particularly challenging
environments, like water-stressed environments, would that open up new
opportunities?  I think it would."

NARR: Among the technologies CAMBIA has developed is a form of genetic
engineering that stimulates crop plants to produce new potentially useful
varieties much faster than usual.  Rice plants for example that have an
engineered propensity to throw up different kinds of root systems or leaf
patterns or whatever.  The final outcome is not pre-ordained by the genetic
manipulation but there are a multitude of different plants variants with
different potentially valuable characteristics.  But it's the local plant
breeders who CAMBIA works with who decide what traits they want to encourage
to suit their local farming environments and styles.   This is certainly
very different from the top-down approach of most genetic engineering
research today. Furthermore, the business arrangements between CAMBIA and
its clients aren't the norm either.

RICHARD JEFFERSON: "We have a tradition here that's even ensconced in our
constitution at Cambia, of ensuring that everyone has access - affordable
access - to our technologies.  That is that it guarantees access based on
the ability to pay.  And we also reserve the right to waive any licensing
fees in certain circumstances.  So, imagine a small plant-breeding operation
in any country.  The idea is, that if they want to use these tools to
innovate, they should be able to do so and they should be able to retain
almost all the fruits of their innovation, in their organisation or with
their their customers.  We don't wish to abstract that value to our
organisation, so we will charge a fee associated with their ability to pay,
and not try to impose royalties.  So let's imagine they're very successful.
We wish them well, but we don't want to own a piece of that success."

NARR: Whether this kind of not-for-profit, democratised kind of crop
biotechnology will catch on elsewhere - who knows.  The first five or six
years of GM agriculture have been turbulent ones - with industry,
scientists, environmentalists, development NGOs, politicians, farmers and
consumers - all in a state of agitation as the public debate about the
desirability or otherwise of transgenic plants has grown.  The crops have
had a difficult germination.  As for the future, Sue Mayer of Genewatch UK
thinks it could go one of two ways.

SUE MAYER: "One of the exciting things at the moment is, because GM crops
have come under scrutiny, we have got an opportunity to open up this debate
and maybe try and get some good out of it in the long run.  It will depend
on governments in fact taking some hard measures and actually reining things
back, so that we can have those debates.  So I have two scenarios, one which
is very bleak - that we have monocultures of herbicide-tolerant crops across
the globe.  That makes economic sense for those companies at the moment.
It's easier and quicker to do it, into new species, new varieties.  Or I
have a much more rosy scenario, which is where we're in a situation where we
can genuinely as communities in different parts of the world say, "OK, we
don't want herbicide-tolerant soya-beans, but we actually think that this
particular desease-resistant potato could be beneficial for us".  At the
moment, there isn't any real choice like that.  It doesn't exist.  But my
rosy scenario would be that we would get there."


Seeds of Contention at:

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@bbs.thing.net