This article was written in early 2001. While there have been many changes in the biotech field since then, the basic threats detailed here have not changed. I based my research on over 300 sources, but the links have long since broken.
You can find GM patents owned by the US government by searching the USDA's Agricultural Biotechnology Intellectual Property database. Note that these patents include "transformation platforms" and "posttranslational modifications". These technologies can turn on and off a crop's ability to produce food, viable seeds and more. One must ask why the US government needs to own patents that can keep farmers from feeding people.
Before we begin, please take a look at this brief list of biotech lingo:
Bt: Biotech GE: Genetically Engineered GEO: Genetically Engineered Organism GM: Genetically Modified GMO: Genetically Modified Organism GURT: Genetic Use Restriction Technology (Terminator and Traitor Technology) Transgenic: Genetically modified organism
BIOTECH AS A WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION and what you can do
On March 3rd, 1998 , the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and the Delta & Pine Land Co. (DPL, the world's largest distributor of cotton seeds) received a patent for the Technology Protection System (TPS). As activists, scientists and journalists around the world realized what this system really did, they quickly renamed it Terminator Technology.
Why? Because Terminator seeds have an infertility mechanism built into their DNA that causes all seeds that the plant produces to be stillborn... Dead and incapable of producing more plants. For the first time, biotech seed companies had a way to strictly enforce their patents, while opening a whole new revenue stream in the process. Meanwhile, the United States government had the ultimate weapon... a way to control a nation's food supply. That was 1998. Wait until you see 2001.
TERMINATE WITH PREJUDICE
Not long after the creation of Terminator was announced, Monsanto, a giant in the genetically engineered food industry, attempted a merger with DPL (Delta & Pine Land). Monsanto had been working on their own Terminator project and wanted to combine research for a faster move to market. In July and November of 1999, while merger negotiations continued, the USDA and DPL quietly received two more joint Terminator patents , upping the ante. However, the Department Of Justice had antitrust concerns and stymied the plan, which effectively denied Monsanto ownership of DPL's more advanced Terminator.
2 days later, Monsanto announced plans to merge with well-funded pharmaceutical multinational Upjohn. Monsanto couldn't afford to risk more negative publicity after having just paid $81 million dollars to DPL for failure to complete that merger, not to mention having $8.5 billion in debt from agricultural input acquisitions.
In the closing days of 1999, a letter was released publicly from Robert B. Shapiro, chairman of Monsanto, in which the company vowed not to commercialize Terminator. Positive news coverage ensued and activists cautiously rejoiced. On March 31st, 2000, the UpJohn/Monsanto merger was approved and the two companies created a new corporate entity, Pharmacia. Little mention was made, however, of the Shapiro letter's more troubling details, primarily that his promise excluded a newer technology. This improved Terminator could ''turn on and off'' various genetic traits, like reproduction, disease resistance and yes, the ability to produce viable seeds.
Monsanto was just staying on the bandwagon. Most of the other gene giants had their own versions of Terminator II, including an incredibly busy Pioneer Hi-Bred International, which is owned by Dupont. RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) dubbed this new approach 'Traitor Technology' since it causes plants to betray their own natural imperatives.
The corporate spin was that Traitor Tech would merely be used to regulate "value-added" traits like enhanced nutritional content, but the patents show an emphasis on plant sterility and its reversal by application of an external product. It doesn't stop there. Seeds harvested won't germinate unless they, too, are "activated". How farmers are supposed to benefit from biotech's hand lodged permanently in their pocket is anyone's guess, but they're continually being assured that they will. WHO YOU GONNA TRUST?
In July of 2000, the USDA's public comment period on agricultural biotechnology ended. The results showed a public overwhelming opposed to biotech, especially Terminator and Traitor Technologies. Despite this, the USDA made it clear during a meeting of their advisory board, also in July, that they had no intention of abandoning their Terminator patents, despite having the legal option to do so. On November 13th, 2000, a merger between AstraZeneca and Novartis formed the world's largest agrochemical and seed enterprise, Syngenta. AstraZeneca's June 1999 promises to abandon attempts to commercialize their own Terminator were soon proven meaningless. On November 14th, 2000, the company won its newest Terminator patent... "newest" because at least 6 previous patents were now held by the new company.
On November 27th, 2000, Monsanto, who previously brought us Agent Orange, DDT, PCBs, and Bovine Growth Hormone, rolled out a 'New Monsanto Pledge'. The pledge states in part, "We commit to respecting the religious, cultural and ethical concerns of people throughout the world by... Underscoring our commitment not to pursue technologies that result in sterile seeds." It's certainly a step in the right direction, but note that the pledge says nothing about respecting the health and environmental concerns of the world's people. In a 1998 statement to the New York Times, Monsanto's director of corporate communications, Phil Angell, clarified the company's point of view: "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job."
To ensure that the FDA does their job in a biotech-friendly manner, the agency has been laced with former and future Monsanto employees and other friends whose actions have come increasingly under fire. WHAT THE OTHER GUYS SAY
Biotech proponents sidestep the need to discuss their visions of a Traitor Tech future by assuring us of GM crop benefits. They're often quoted as saying that today's genetic modification is provably safe because it's nothing more than a more efficient version of the plant crossbreeding that's been going on for nearly a century. But that simply isn't the case. DNA technology removes individual genes from one species and inserts them into another.
This is no longer a matter of breeding corn with corn. It's the bizarre assumption that virtually any two life forms can be combined on a cellular level... and then safely consumed! Then there's the claim that we have a moral obligation to support GM foods, as they could supposedly help feed the poor of developing nations. Biotech PR hints at starving Africans most frequently, which provoked this statement from African delegates to a UN genetics conference:
"We, the undersigned delegates of African countries participating in the 5th Extraordinary Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources, 8 - 12 June 1998, Rome, strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us."
But the biotech supporters have more up their sleeves. "We need biotech to fight cancer!", they say. One journalist claims she can't wait to bite into cancer-fighting broccoli. I have advice she can use right now. Start eating organic broccoli. In fact, make sure all your produce is organic and eat plenty of it. Congratulations. You're fighting cancer. "We need biotech trees to protect our forests!", they say. If we want to protect our forests, why not legalize industrial hemp? It grows faster than trees, needs less land, requires no fertilizers or pesticides and produces more fiber for paper products than trees, biotech or otherwise. And smoking it will only result in a headache.
But (drum roll please) the reasons most often given for supporting GM crops is that they grow faster/better, require fewer pesticides and are more nutritious. Click on the links to see just how wrong these statements are.
The bottom line here is the bottom line. Behind all the assurances of how much we need biotech are dreams of money and control. WHAT ABOUT THE STUFF THAT'S ON OUR SHELVES NOW?
Are you eating genetically modified food right now? Unless everything you buy is marked "certified organically grown" or "non-GMO", yes. According to The Campaign To Label Genetically Engineered Foods, "Two-thirds of all foods on supermarket shelves are genetically engineered."
Here's some fun 1999 facts from Pioneer Hi-Bred's website:
"This fall, only about eight percent of Midwest grain elevators attempted to segregate GMO soybeans from conventional soybeans. Only 11 percent attempted to segregate GMO from non-GMO corn. Only one percent of the elevators surveyed said they would not accept biotech grain. The vast majority of elevators didn't ask if the grain they were receiving is GMO or not and were commingling this grain."
Remember Starlink? Starlink was a GM corn intended as feed for livestock. It caused allergic reactions in humans, but somehow wound up in Kellogg cereals. The FDA has enshrined the belief that biotech foods are the same as their non-biotech counterparts in their 'Statement of Policy: Foods Derived From New Plant Varieties', which was put into effect on May 29th, 1992.
The reasoning goes like this: GM foods are their same as their unaltered equivalents. Therefore, the safety testing standards for them should be the same. In practice, this means that long term studies and most other rigorous testing is not required before GM foods are approved for human consumption.
Ironically, the FDA does not currently require even the most basic labeling rules that they themselves wrote. See the differences between our current reality and a future described by the FDA's biotechnology co-ordinator in this interview done shortly after the 1992 policy was passed.
As we've seen, the FDA and the US Government overall see it as their duty to promote GMOs as a part of bolstering American trade. This and the fact that our own government owns many biotech patents gives them little incentive to do otherwise. WHY THE BUCK NEEDS TO STOP HERE Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser became a folk hero for fighting back when Monsanto prosecuted him (and 475 other farmers, who settled out of court) for unintentionally growing one of their genetically engineered products. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, he lost. According to the Toronto Globe & Mail's March 30, 2001 story, the court ruled that "Since Monsanto has little control over how the seeds spread in the environment, any farmer who ends up with Monsanto seeds in his or her crop -- either from wind, birds, spillover from the neighbours or from trucks passing by and dropping seeds -- is breaking Monsanto's patent".
In his October 2000 letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Schmeiser wrote:
"If a single farmer plants GE seed, it will spread; there is no way to provide a buffer or a boundary which can protect other farmers from contamination, which occurs by seed drift by wind, machinery, birds, insects or animals. Once you have GM, there is no longer any choice; there is no way back, you cannot change your mind."
Or as the Genetic Engineering News succinctly puts it, "You either go for a GM food system or you ban it altogether. There is no 'reasonable' compromise. The biotech industry knows this and is betting on 'creeping contamination' leading everyone else to throw in the towel."
That's why they call it a food web. Everything is interdependent. GMOs simply cannot be seen as benign. No life exists in a vacuum. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Director of ISIS (Institute of Science in Society), says "genetic engineering has unleashed an uncontrollable, self-amplifying process of horizontal gene transfer and recombination that can sweep across the whole of the living world, with potentially explosive consequences in terms of creating viruses and bacteria more virulent than nature's worst. It is no longer a moratorium that is needed. GM crops are unsafe and unsustainable as well as immoral. We must abandon GM crops right now, along with intensive corporate agriculture."
DO YOU LIKE SCARY MOVIES? On January 21st, 2001 , the USDA and Delta & Pine Land finalized their commercialization agreement for the new Pollen Transformation System (PTS). This new technology uses pollen to transfer foreign DNA into non-GM plants. In other words, genetically modified DNA can now spread more rapidly.
Our favorite Delta & Pine Land VP, Harry Collins, says, "Because this system is much more efficient, we believe it will encourage production of transgenic cultivars in all types of economically-important crops including cereals, legumes, forages, citrus trees, vegetables and staple food plants and fruits."
We appreciate your honesty, Harry. All those who are beginning to believe in the "creeping contamination" theory, raise your hand.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH
While plans move forward for spreading plant and animal GMOs worldwide, other biotechnology forces are working equally hard to to profit from living things in other ingenious ways.
Whether it's ancient plants used by indigenous people, bacteria or human genes, biotech firms are patenting life and seeking royalties.
Why on earth on we allowing these patents to be issued?!!! Biotech firms and the US government have already more than proven that they have no intention of handling such an incredibly delicate issue with any kind of caution or moral sensibility: Delta & Pine Land refuses to clean up toxic waste disaster, claiming waste is beneficial despite verified death
Monsanto bribes Scottish research institute to discredit scientist who showed GM potatoes are harmful
Monsanto tries to bribe Health Canada (Canadian FDA) into giving Bovine Growth Hormone approval
US sends GM food rejected by European consumers to India as food aid US Prepares To Spray Genetically-Modified Herbicides On Colombians (7/2000) WHAT YOU CAN DO
Don't let all this doom get you down. There are ways to fight the invasion of GMOs. I'm not suggesting you go so far as to destroy your friendly neighborhood GM crops (as activists in Brazil, Europe, India and other places are doing). After all, the media would just brand you as "violent" and "radical".
But never fear... there are far less risky ways to make your voice heard...
Join The Campaign To Label Genetically Engineered Foods.
Take the actions suggested by the Organic Consumers Association.
See True Food Now's Action Alerts & their guides to avoiding GE foods Monsanto Products to Avoid Purchasing Keep an eye on the ETC Group Alerts page.
Sign this petition from the National Farmer's Union.
Just don't get your hopes up that this will stop the U.S. government from researching the military applications of GMOs. Did you know that The National Biotechnology Information Facility is sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Organization?
All of this reminds me of a joke I've seen around the Web lately: A group of scientists is sitting around discussing which one of them is going to go tell God that they don't need him anymore.
Finally, one of the scientists volunteers. He goes to God and says, "God, you know, a bunch of us have been thinking. We really don't need you anymore. I mean, we've been coming up with great new ideas; we've cloned sheep, and we're on the verge of cloning humans."
God nods understandingly and says, " I see. Well, no hard feelings. But before you go, let's have a contest. What do you say?"
The scientist says, "Sure, I'm all for it! What kind of a contest?"
God replies, "A man-making contest."
The scientist grins and nods in agreement. He bends down and picks up a handful of dirt and says, "Okay, I'm ready!"
And God says, "No, no. You go get your own dirt."