Genetically Modified Crops: Building a Primer

Having set ourselves up with an extremely broad field of play on this site, we have so far tended (unsurprisingly) to stick with a couple of sub-topics where we have firmer footing: copyright on cultural works, ownership of consumer electronic technologies, and to a lesser extent the global water crisis.

In an attempt to open up some additional material for discussion, then, I want to start exploring a privatization issue we have not yet covered as of yet: genetically modified crops. Because I don’t have much background on the subject, I think our first step should be to build a blog post primer – an annotated link dump where we can start to piece together some information on this issue and figure out how it might fit in with our broader concerns. The comments section here would be a great place for helpful and knowledgeable readers to suggest further reading.

GMO-producing companies have claimed that their work will provide a wide array of benefits over traditional seeds. From the Wikipedia article:

Transgenic plants have been engineered to possess several desirable traits, including resistance to pests, herbicides or harsh environmental conditions, improved product shelflife, and increased nutritional value. Since the first commercial cultivation of genetically modified plants in 1996, they have been modified to be tolerant to the herbicides glufosinate and glyphosate, to be resistant to virus damage as in Ringspot virus resistant GM papaya, grown in Hawaii, and to produce the Bt toxin, a potent insecticide.

Genetically modified sweet potatoes have been enhanced with protein and other nutrients, while golden rice, developed by the International Rice Research Institute, has been discussed as a possible cure for Vitamin A deficiency. In reality, customers would have to eat twelve bowls of rice a day in order to meet the recommended levels of Vitamin A. In January 2008, scientists altered a carrot so that it would produce calcium and become a possible cure for osteoporosis; however, people would need to eat 1.5 kilograms of carrots per day to reach the required amount of calcium.

A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists also disputes claims of increased crop yield through GMOs.

At the heart of the GM crop issue is agribusiness giant Monsanto. A 2008 piece in Vanity Fair outlines the dynamic between Monsanto and small farmers – to give you some indication, the piece’s title is “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear.”

Among other things, Monsanto defines the specific uses to which its seeds – the product manifestations of its intellectual propery – can be used. Unauthorized use of these seeds, including using the crops produced to generate more seed for planting (“seed-saving”), violates Monsanto’s version of the End User License Agreement, called the Technology/Stewardship Agreement. By forbidding seed-saving, Monsanto intends to ensure that farmers must buy their seeds again every season in order to keep producing plants. This requirement seems to alter familiar understandings of ownership (i.e, once you purchase seeds, you own them and may do what you like with them) in the same way that EULA’s alter the legal ramifications of owning consumer electronics.

On officially-sanctioned Monsanto blog, Monsanto According to Monsanto, one of the company’s spokes-bloggers draws the comparison between seemusic piracy and the saving of patented seeds:

If you think about it, it’s pretty simple. The law is the law. When you sign an agreement, you must obey that agreement. Just like when I buy a CD of my favorite artist (which I do have quite the collection), I don’t burn it for friends. At the same time, I download quite a bit of songs to jam to on my iPod and I buy each and every one of those songs from iTunes.

Stilted tone aside, the argument shared by culture corporations and GM seed producers highlights the underlying issues of privatization that challenges traditional notions of ownership.

In an article for The African Executive, Teresa Anderson of the Gaia Foundation argues that the requirement to regularly re-purchase seed undermines the humanitarian benefits (lowering the horizon for agricultural production in poor regions:

The implications of patented GM seeds for African farmers should not be underestimated. Saved seed is the one resource that the poorest depend upon to carry them through the year. If they are forbidden to save their seed and must pay up to triple the costs of buying new seed each season, the costs of growing food will become prohibitive. The claims of lowered production costs do not stand up to scrutiny. Neither are the yields of GM crops sufficient to recover the costs.

One enforcement mechanism (other than lawsuits, which Monsanto regularly undertakes) for preventing the unauthorized use of proprietary organisms is Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), which could be considered agribusiness’ answer to DRM. Wikipedia’s listing for GURT lists two principal methods for this sort of control.

V-GURT: This type of GURT produces sterile seeds [ed. often called “terminator seeds”] meaning that a farmer that had purchased seeds containing v-GURT technology could not save the seed from this crop for future planting. This would not have an immediate impact on the large number of primarily western farmers who use hybrid seeds, as they do not produce their own planting seeds, and instead buy specialized hybrid seeds from seed production companies. However, currently around 80 percent of farmers in both Brazil and Pakistan grow crops based on saved seeds from previous harvests.[2] Consequentially, resistance to the introduction of GURT technology into developing countries is strong.[2] The technology is restricted at the plant variety level – hence the term V-GURT. Manufacturers of genetically enhanced crops would use this technology to protect their products from unauthorised use.

T-GURT: A second type of GURT modifies a crop in such a way that the genetic enhancement engineered into the crop does not function until the crop plant is treated with a chemical that is sold by the biotechnology company. Farmers can save seeds for use each year. However, they do not get to use the enhanced trait in the crop unless they purchase the activator compound. The technology is restricted at the trait level – hence the term T-GURT.

So – seems as if we have plenty of common threads right from the start.

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4 Comments on “Genetically Modified Crops: Building a Primer”

  1. pizzapelsa Says:

    Interesting story about Monsanto’s “Seed Police” and legal proceedings against farmers in US and Canada: http://ipsnews.net/interna.asp?idnews=27046

  2. P Says:

    A nice quip from the Vanity Fair piece:

    “Some compare Monsanto’s hard-line approach to Microsoft’s zealous efforts to protect its software from pirates. At least with Microsoft the buyer of a program can use it over and over again. But farmers who buy Monsanto’s seeds can’t even do that.”

    I think what strikes me a so radical about the GM seed issue is that companies like Monsanto seek to insert their intellectual property claims at (if you’ll excuse the pun) the kernal of production and then claim perpetual rights over anything that can be tied to that kernal, so that all future generations of plants and seeds become “derivative works” regardless of any other factors that go into the production of the plants (soil, weather, labor, etc.)

    To extend the software analogy, it’s as if you bought a copy of Photoshop, but were only allowed to use it to create a finite set of images before purchasing the software again, and then Adobe retained some level of rights over all of the images you produced.

    • pizzapelsa Says:

      The computer analogy seems interesting to me, too. In your post you mentioned African farmers hard hit by licensing fees for patented seeds. Monsanto is only helping to block progress in the developing world. Similarly, at the 2005 World Social Forum meeting in Brazil, activists called for open-source software for the developing world – arguing that license fees from Microsoft products were making it harder to wire developing countries: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines05/0130-03.htm

  3. P Says:

    Also check out the court case of Monsanto vs. Schmeiser, wherein Monsanto sued a farmer for unknowingly growing GM canola from seeds that drifted onto his fields from adjacent farms,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto_Canada_Inc._v._Schmeiser

    Monsanto won the case (though Schmeiser avoided having to pay damages), but the dissenting opinion was very interesting in terms of an attempt to set boundaries for privatization. From Wikipedia:

    “Arbour J., writing for Iacobucci, Bastarache, and LeBel JJ., dissented in part. The reasoning of the dissent closely follows that of the majority in Harvard College v. Canada (Commissioner of Patents) that concluded that though a company can patent products and processes, they cannot patent higher forms of life such as the whole plant itself. That is, “the plant cell claim cannot extend past the point where the genetically modified cell begins to multiply and differentiate into plant tissues, at which point the claim would be for every cell in the plant” (para. 138), which would extend the patent too far. The patent can only be for the founder plant and not necessarily its offspring.”


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