Corporations are using biotechnology to tighten their control of natural resources. Patricia McKenna reports.

The Earth is currently at its peak in terms of biodiversity. It has never, according to eminent scientists such as Prof. Edward O.Wilson, sustained such a diverse range of living creatures despite the depredation and the extinction of many species directly or indirectly caused by mankind’s activities.

It is also the first time that millions of people around the world are waking up to the fact that we have entered one of the great extinction spasms that have dotted the historic line of the evolution of this planet. The EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom paid homage to some of them, who were holding a vigil outside the negotiating chambers in January in Montreal, after the signing by 50 environment ministers and approximately 130 government delegations of the protracted Biosafety Protocol. And we must continue to lift our hats to the tens of thousands of those whose infuriated presence and stamping feet resulted in the collapse of the WTO negotiations in Seattle last November.

It is not yet clear, however, how the Biosafety Protocol will work in practice and how effective it will be in putting a brake to the plundering of the Earth’s genetic resources by a handful of mega-predators who lurk around every corner of every decision-making platform on this planet.

As of 7 January last, according to the Canadian NGO RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International), five ‘Jumbo Gene Giants’, resulting from consolidated mergers between the world’s most powerful biotech companies, will control 68 per cent of the global agrochemical market and over 20 per cent of the commercial seed trade worldwide*. Meanwhile, over 80 per cent of patents covering genes extracted from plants and animals throughout the world to produce genetically modified foodstuffs are owned by about 10 such companies and this number is likely to reduce in the near future.


It is our governments’ moral responsibility to preserve the Earth’s biodiversity and encourage farmers to maintain a traditional, wholesome, polycultural system of crop cultivation and animal rearing while they ought to penalise those who exploit and wantonly destroy natural resources. Yet the same governments have surrendered their control over their countries’ natural resources to the few companies mentioned above.

Indeed, not only have these secured the political and financial backing of most Western governments, but they have also been much obliged to the listening ears of negotiators in the World Trade Organisation(WTO), the World Bank, the IMF and the EU, which have all granted them licences to plunder under the false pretence that their ‘good’ work could save mankind from starvation and crippling diseases, and because of their claim that genetically engineered crops would reduce the use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers.

Let me just give a few examples. Biopatenting threatens 1.4 billion farmers in the developing world who currently depend on saved seeds for the following year’s crop. Staple foods in India such as Basmati rice and Turmeric have been patented.


The TRIPs (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property) agreement, signed in 1995, compels all WTO members to provide for legal monopolies on crop species by introducing a patenting system on plants by 2005. If this is not substantially reviewed, as was supposed to happen at the last round of negotiations, this means that local Indian farmers can no longer grow these products independently without having to pay huge royalties to the companies owning the genes of what had been a common local resource.

The same goes for the Neem tree, also revealingly called the ‘village pharmacy’ in Asia. A relative of mahogany, it has been treasured for thousands of years for its natural pesticidal, dermatological and anti-bacterial properties. Hundreds of thousands of plant and animal genes have been patented since 1995 mostly in the USA (where the process began in the eighties), Canada and Europe, since the adoption of the much fought against European Patent Directive in 1998.

Under this pernicious system, farmers must stop the age-old practise of saving their seeds from year to year, since they no longer possess any right over them. Instead they must lease their use every year from the company owning these rights. Thousands of farmers in America are presently facing trial because they have replanted their seeds.

‘This is not tomorrow’s nightmare, it’s happening now’

We are witnessing the dawn of a new capitalism which is threatening the livelihood of millions of people and the diversity of our natural surroundings by appropriating our natural resources and wrapping them up in pieces of law. This is not tomorrow’s nightmare, this is happening now. A farmer in Canada sued by Monsanto, who claims he replanted the company’s biopatented canola seed, is arguing back that, because he is surrounded by plantations of GM canola, and because he used the company’s infamous herbicide against the RoundUp resistant crop, he could not get rid of them.

There lies the arrogance and the hitch; how does one control the wind, how does one alter the pollination process of plants and how does one completely isolate a GM crop from a non-GM crop? So many questions which have never been answered by those supposedly looking after their people’s well-being and safeguarding the much bandied about freedom of choice of the

citizen in a democratic state.

A whole body of law is being dangerously built on a deeply morally wrong premise. The fundamental question regarding the liability of the companies owning the patents and planting GM crops has never been answered either. Numerous assumptions have been made by Food and Environment Regulatory bodies in the US, Britain and Ireland to name but three countries. These have irresponsibly agreed to the release of novel organisms without a prior radical adaptation of their testing methods and legislation.

The moratorium applied in the EU to the commercial release of GM crops is currently being challenged by the biotech industry and the European Commission which is trying to get the next three dossiers (fodder beet plus two rapeseeds) approved by the regulatory committee meeting next March. It is vital that a maximum number of countries vote against it. The biotech industry is trying to argue that they have now presented new data consistent with the proposed amendments to the Directive on the Deliberate Release of GMOs. Indeed, the moratorium declared last June was linked to the adoption of this directive.

The moratorium should be extended until such time as the results of independent appropriate testing carried out over at least ten years are made public and impartially counter-assessed. To a large degree the assumptions continue to be made at EU level even though the moratorium still holds, since much of the White Paper on Food Safety released by the European Commission last January is a reactive piece of legislation attempting to provide remedies without curing the disease(s). In the same breath the Fifth EU framework programme of research and development

sponsored by DG XII is heavily biased in favour of biotechnology projects.

Wanton destruction

Legally challenging this new technology is one possible avenue out of the conundrum. A year ago, Greenpeace and a coalition of over 70 plaintiffs sued the US EPA, charging it with, ‘the wanton destruction of the world’s most important biological pesticide -- Bt’. This natural pesticide has been used by organic farmers for years but is now under threat from GE crops. Bt corn is genetically modified to produce the insecticide used naturally by organic growers. With widespread pollination (Bt corn is currently grown on about 20 million acres in the US), within the next four years, all crops could become insect resistant, thereby wiping out the effectiveness of Bt for organic farmers. This would also lead to the ever increasing release of different insecticide resistant crops of corn. Scientific studies have also shown that Bt corn is toxic to monarch and other butterfly larvae.

Greenpeace recently welcomed the decision made by the Federal District Court of Washington D.C. that the EPA was held accountable for its decision to legalise the planting of GM crops. Similarly, there have been some successful legal challenges to the highly questionable biopatents, and a case brought by Italy, the Netherlands and Norway against the European Patent Directive is pending. If this succeeds it could send the European Commission back to the drawing board.

Just a week prior to the Montreal negotiations, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, David B. Sandalow held a press briefing in Brussels. He said that the so-called Miami group, i.e. the major grain exporting countries consisting of the US, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, are seeking language in the biosafety protocol, ‘that would make clear that this agreement does not affect the rights and obligations’ of a country under the WTO.

The Miami group won on that score since, although the protocol now holds the same legal status as an international trade agreement, it does not affect the rights and obligations of countries under WTO agreements. This could be turn out to be a big thorn in the side of those implementing the precautionary measures enshrined in the biosafety protocol.

It is our duty, as responsible citizens of this world to continue to lobby so that the WTO chiefs taking stock after the Seattle debacle address our concerns and radically alter the substance and spirit of past agreements to enable governments to don anew their responsible mantle.

*The companies concerned are: Novartis and AstraXeneca to form Syngenta; Hoescht and Rhone Poulenc to form Aventis; Monsanto and Pharmacia&Upjohn to form Pharmacia; DuPont; and Dow Chemical.

Patricia McKenna represents the Irish Green Party in the European Parliament. She was interviewed in Spectre No.5