The Ark Institute
In Part I of this Food Supply Update
(July), I told you about the decision by Seminis, the world's
largest vegetable seed corporation and controller of 40% of the US
vegetable seed market, to eliminate 2,000 varieties of food seeds
from its commercial offerings as part of a "global restructuring and
Though no longer available commercially, the
2000 varieties would remain available to the company's own breeders,
according to a company spokesperson. You may also remember that Seminis is a leader in genetic engineering of vegetables and owns,
at last count, 79 patents on the vegetables it modified, so the fact
that the 2000 pulled varieties would remain available to Seminis's
own breeders is no comfort. In fact, many consider it alarming.
(Read Part I at
Our ongoing discussion of genetic modification of food crop seeds
and the potential for the virtual control of the global food supply
is not meant to single out any one company. The global, corporate
frenzy to patent genes of food and fiber plants as proprietary, that
is, as a company's legally defensible "intellectual property,
continues at warp speed despite mounting international protest from
individuals, organizations, scientists and governments who are aware
of the potential for abuse of such ownership.
This is a global,
ultra-high-biotech-lubricated race to herd as many economically
important food and fiber genes as possible into individual
corporations, intellectual property corrals.
Witness one of the
PRNewswire, September 7, 2000:
"Ceres, Inc., a dedicated plant
genomics company, and Genset, a leading human genomics company,
announced today that they have completed a major gene sequencing
project characterizing several tens of thousands of genes in corn (Zea
mays). Corn is economically the most important crop in the United
States with over 77 million acres planted last year and a market
value at the farm level of over $18 billion.
Ceres president, Walter De Logi, states,
"...Having access to the
sequences as well as the full-length physical clones of so many corn
genes will speed up our product development efforts in this
economically valuable crop.....Ceres continues to pursue an
aggressive intellectual property strategy and has filed patent
applications covering several tens of thousands of full-length
genes, their regulatory regions and their functions in various plant
Wow! Patent applications on tens of thousands of full-length plant
genes and the regions that control them. That's a lot of
intellectual property! Note, too, his reference to their "functions
in various plant species" and their regulatory regions.
regions of genes can be selectively manipulated to turn them on or
off, effectively dictating whether and when they will direct the
synthesis of the proteins they code for, how much, etc., and because
many plants share the same or similar genes, what you own and patent
in corn could very well extend your control of these same genes to
other crops. If granted, it appears the ownership and control of
tens of thousands of corn and other plant genes will legally change
hands - from Creation to corporation.
Legally, such patents would remove these plant genes from the public
domain. No longer would they be available for research by public or
private science laboratories bent on producing drought resistant or
higher yield crops for hungry regions of the world. It will be very
interesting to read all of these patent applications. Did they make
a proprietary molecular change to each full-length gene it sequenced
in order to claim each a unique, patent-worthy, manmade "invention,
or did they simply apply for a patent on God's own version of all
"tens of thousands of genes?
Either way, the legal control will
amount to the same thing.
It is quite clear that there is a new global business paradigm at
work here. In the early part of the last century, the ultra-wealthy
became rich and powerful by the ownership and sales of tangible
property - land and oil. Cheap land provided the foundation, and oil
the energy and lubrication for building the most materially rich,
industrialized societies the world has ever known.
tomorrow's super-rich and powerful are building their empires on the
ownership and sales (or lease) of intangible intellectual property.
Instead of building fences encompassing massive tracts of cheap
land, or pumping millions of gallons of black crude into corporate
tanks, biotech wizards corral the details of molecular structure and
function and seek to control elements of Nature's genius within the
legal fences of patents. DNA is the code, the software of life,
itself, and we all know how profitable it can be to own software
with nearly universal application.
Intellectual properties in the world of agriculture - genes and the
technologies designed to manipulate and control them, and chemicals
to kill weeds and stimulate or repress them - provide the financial
incentive, the motivation, the "lubrication of protected future
profit engines in return for the development of new crops. These
crops are and will be marketed as genetically improved, proprietary
"inventions with higher yields to feed current and future billions
of mouths; crops to produce vitamin A enhanced grains that could end
diet-based blindness; crops to produce more economical, easy to
administer vaccines and drugs; crops to produce new bio-fuels to
replace dwindling oil supplies.
The growing list and possibilities,
are nearly endless, and their stated intents altruistic, even noble.
Yet, we see in the Terminator, Verminator and other genetic use
restriction technologies (GURTS), the potential dark side of the
genetic intellectual property picture. These technologies boil down
to genetically programmed control of seed germination and/or
chemicals that must be used to ensure growth.
Others involve a
willful destruction of a plant's natural disease resistance that can
only be reactivated by buying a corporation's chemicals. Inevitably
they control people, especially the poor. The self-admitted targets
of most of the patent owners are 78 countries worldwide, especially
developing countries where seed is often saved by farmers and
replanted, making purchases unnecessary for years at a time.
aren't familiar with Terminator and GURTs, see archived Updates at
http://www.arkinstitute.com. Also note there that
The Ark Institute
is still giving away its non-hybrid seed. )
Science, the same marvelous science that brings us medical and
technological miracles every day, also made these technologies
possible. How do the world's top scientists weigh in on the
explosion of the corporate intellectual property and genetically
modified food issues? In my last Update I promised you a report on
July's high level working meeting of scientists from seven top
science academies, including five from developing countries.
academies and the numbers of scientists who represented the Councils
of each Academy, the latter in parentheses, follow:
Brazilian Academy of Sciences (4)
Chinese Academy of Sciences (3)
Indian National Academy of Sciences (2)
and (8) reviewers
Academy of Sciences (3)
Royal Society of London (5)
Academy of Science (1)
United States National Academy of Sciences (5)
(1) Staff Officer to the NAS Delegation
Among the U.S. delegation were:
Harvard educated molecular biologist
and president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts
Nobel Laureate chemist, F. Sherwood Rowland
researcher, R. James Cook
Yes, it was a top-notch working group.
Here are some relevant excerpts from the white paper released by all
of the global scientists at the conclusion of the conference:
"It is essential that we improve food production and distribution in
order to feed and free from hunger a growing world population, while
reducing environmental impacts and providing productive employment
in low-income areas....Goods can be produced through the use of GM
technology that are more nutritious, stable in storage, and in
principle health promoting bringing benefits to consumers in both
industrialized and developing nations.
On intellectual property and
patents, they said:
"Private corporations and research institutions should make
arrangements to share GM technology, now held under strict patents
and licensing agreements, with responsible scientists for use for
hunger alleviation and to enhance food security in developing
"An important consideration regarding such intellectual property
rights in inventions and discoveries resulting from genomic research
and from other applications of biotechnology is that overly broad
intellectual property rights should not be granted.....it is
important to consider the impact of intellectual property rights on
To benefit the growing populations of the
developing world, new plant varieties will have to be developed
through a variety of sources, including:
farmers who select
plants that succeed best in their particular locality for the
retention of seed for future use or sale;
public or pro bono
research institutions financed out of taxes or charitable grants
that provide improved varieties to appropriate users free or at
for-profit companies interested in creating new
products and markets that develop new varieties financed through
profits from seed sales.... (underlined for emphasis)
I think it is interesting to note that our own tax-funded, public
research institution, the USDA, has collaborated with a private,
for-profit company to patent Terminator technologies for mutual
profit (see original article at our web site) from seed sales, not
to "provide improved varieties to appropriate users free or at cost
as suggested by the scientists.
We, the people of the United States,
have literally funded the creation of intellectual property holdings
that can be used to deprive farmers both here and abroad of public
domain seed stocks. Do you think this is an exaggeration?
Here is a
press release dated June 18, 2000:
"Bolivia's National Association of Quinoa Producers (ANAPQUI) is
asking two professors at Colorado State University to abandon their
controversial patent on one of the country's most important food
crops, quinoa, a crop that feeds millions throughout the Andes,
including many Aymara and Quechua Indigenous People.
"Our intellectual integrity has been violated by this patent, said
Luis Oscar Mamami, ANAPQUI's President.
"Quinoa has been developed
by Andean farmers for millennia, it was not invented, by researchers
in North America...We demand that the patent be dropped and that all
countries of the world refuse to recognize its validity.
president was scheduled to appeal to a Special Session of the
General Assembly of the United nations and presented the quinoa
patent as a violation of Human Rights before the International
People's Tribunal on Human Rights and the Environment.
US Patent No. 5,304,718 grants CSU professors
Duane Johnson and
"exclusive monopoly control over a traditional Bolivian
variety know as Apelawa,..... the patent, issued in 1994, is valid
until the year 2011... According to the patent, this might include
many traditional varieties grown by peasant farmers in Bolivia,
Peru, Ecuador and Chile as well as varieties important in Bolivia's
quinoa export market....
Though little known outside of the Andes,
quinoa is becoming increasingly popular in North America and Europe
as an exceptionally nutritious food crop. Johnson and Ward believe
that their technique for hybridizing quinoa will increase the crop's
yield, making it better suited for commercial production in the
"The quinoa patent is a shocking example of
Executive Director Pat Mooney was quoted as saying.
farmers and researchers were stunned to learn of its existence.
After all, they freely shared their quinoa seeds and knowledge with
the Colorado State professors.
(Colorado State University in Fort
Collins, Colorado, is that state's land-grant institution and, as
such, is funded by government for agricultural research.)
Edward Hammond of
RAFI was quoted,
"There's something terribly wrong
when patent offices grant monopoly patents on food crops... This is a
dangerous and disturbing precedent, and it must not be allowed to
stand. Access to food and the universal Right to Food should not be
left in the hands of those who control patents on technology and germ-plasm.
The meeting of global academies of science also addressed the issue
of genetically modified food safety. They said there was a need for
"concerted, organized efforts on a global scale to quickly identify
potential health and environmental risks from GM crops."
"...public health regulatory systems need to be put in place in
every country to identify and monitor any potential adverse human
health effects of transgenic plants, as for any other new variety.
When I read this,
"quickly identify potential health.... risks, I
immediately thought of recent news concerning our current food
From this week's September 11th issue of
"There are only 126 USDA inspectors handling the import of 16.7
million animals, mostly livestock and poultry, annually; and only 91
U.S. Fish & Wildlife inspectors for some 21 million wild animals200
million including fish. Also, USDA lab facilities are in dire need
of repair. According to a recent report, virtually every critical
system, including bio-containment, is antiquated.... Could disaster
Experts say it's a matter of when, not if, pointing to
several recent catastrophes around the world.... They go on to cite
mad cow disease in Great Britain among a growing list of
international food crises.
Do you have faith that the USDA, with its now obvious vested
interest in the marketing of genetically modified seed and food,
will effectively monitor the entire national food supply - and any
changes in the health of the U.S. population - for "potential adverse
human health effects of transgenic (GM) plants"?
As I write this, CNN
just reported that genetically modified corn not approved for human
consumption has just been found in Taco Bell meals. The report
claims the genetic modification renders the corn difficult to digest
in humans and could cause allergic reactions. If accurate, this is
the first in what may soon be thousands of similar reports and,
perhaps, lawsuits following GM food supply "accidents."
How will the
USDA and even the FDA monitor all of these modified foods?
Here is a
very recent example of current monitoring for already proven risks
of bacterial contamination ......
(New York Times, August 27, 2000)
"Agriculture Department officials
say they are discussing the possibility of loosening their new
standards for preventing salmonella contamination in ground beef
used for the nation's school lunch program..... Since June, the
department, which provides 70 percent of the ground beef used in
schools, has required that every batch it buys be free of
Before that there were no standards for any pathogens,
including salmonella, bacteria responsible for about 600 deaths and
1.4 million illnesses last year... Meat processors have been
claiming that the standards are too difficult to meet and that
proper cooking kills the Salmonella anyway.
"Faced with industry
criticism, department officials began to reconsider salmonella
rules," according to the NY Times article.
Here's one more:
Wednesday, September 6th, Reuters:
"Americans face a growing risk of
eating feces, vomit and metal shards in meat and poultry because the
US Agriculture Department is allowing companies to perform more of
their own food safety inspections, two consumer groups and a labor
union said on Tuesday. Their survey of 451 federal inspectors showed
many were concerned that too much contaminated meat and poultry was
slipping through company production lines under the government's new
Federal inspectors check paperwork, not food,
and are prohibited from removing feces and other contaminants before
products are stamped with the purple USDA seal of approval, said
Felicia Nestor, food safety director for the Government
It is obvious that we have problems with the contamination and
safety of our current food supply "just in terms of foreign
substances and bacterial contamination."
Yet, U.S. supermarkets are
already stocked with a dizzying array of unidentified, genetically
modified foods despite our frightening lack of knowledge of their
potential health hazards, and our government's frequent failure to
successfully monitor and regulate them.
The biotech genie is out of the bottle, and it is doubtful it will
ever be put back.
It is far too powerful, and its potential for good
and for profit are far too great for man to ignore. Like the "oil
genie" before it, it is lubricating whole industries, granting wishes
for soaring stocks and rich bottom lines. It might even be compared
to nuclear energy with its theoretical potential for both good and
evil, but which proliferated before we knew how to control it,
dispose of its waste and limit its spread.
We still don't know!
Biotechnology is a whole new power, creating a whole new set of
capabilities and worries. It is time our legislators and leaders
know that we demand the right to choose to buy GM seeds and foods or
not - that we want labels that clearly tell us if there are GM
components in that food. With such label information, the people
will "vote" on the issue with their wallets, and the food industry
will respond accordingly.
We need to tell our representatives that
there is so much we do not know about the implications of
genetically modifying our seed and food, that we cannot afford to
continue awarding profitable patents on life's software.
We may discover, all too late, that in
the name of progress and profit, we have irreparably damaged the