New Internationalist

Switching Off The Gene Machine

Issue 108

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AGRIBUSINESS [image, unknown] Switching off the gene machine

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Switching off the gene machine
Over the past decade a handful of multinational corporations have quietly gained control of the first and most vital link in the food chain - the production and marketing of seeds. Pat Roy Mooney investigates this new corporate concern and raises some tough questions about our future food security.

Super seeds: paving the way to disaster.
Super seeds: paving the way to disaster. Photo: Camera Press

SEEDS are the beginning of food, the first link in the food chain. Control seeds and you control food. Yet, take a stroll through any of the North’s supermarts and the threat of such control seems patently absurd. The cornucopia of fruits, vegetables and canned goods lining the shopping aisles may total an average of 11,000 separate food products. Another 7,000 products are test-marketed each year. Such abundance and diversity makes any thought of food monopolies seem ridiculous.

In fact the North’s food choices are narrowing and food quality declining, We now eat less fresh fruit and vegetables than we did in the comparatively dismal days following World War II. Today’s diet contains a quarter of the apples our grandparents ate and consumption of garden ‘greens’ and beans in North America has been declining since the 1950s. US government surveys show only nine vegetables make a significant nutritional contribution to the American diet.

North America and Western Europe are ‘meat 'n' potatoes’ country. We occasionally dabble in exotic goodies from some small corner of Mother Nature’s pantry. But our overwhelming vegetable choices boil down to maize (corn), peas and carrots.

In fact diversity has never been a strong suit in the North’s agricultural system. Ninety-five per cent of all human nutrition is from only 30 plants and three-quarters of world energy requirements come from eight basic crops. There may be 300,000 potential food plants out there in nature but the marketing strategies of agribusiness have managed to ignore most of them.

Virtually, every major food plant in the industrialised countries originated in the Third World. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, traditional farmers continue to cultivate seeds and crops that form the genetic base for all plant breeding and our entire food system.

After more than 10 millenia of selection by nature and by farmers, the plant genetic diversity of the Third World makes it the ‘mother lode’ of raw materials for modern plant breeding. Northern agronomists must return to the Third World regularly in order to find new genes (the building blocks of plant breeding) to insert into crops in the North. We may be grain-rich but we are gene poor. The problem is the genetic base of our major food crops in the Third World is being wiped out. As go these old seeds so goes our food security. As new ’Green Revolution’ varieties spread around the Third World, farmers eat the old seed and plant the new. Geneticist Garrison Wilkes describes the effect of this phenomena as ‘building the roof with stones from the foundation’.

Events in the early 1970s served to accelerate the destruction of our food base and make the control of seeds possible. Shell Oil noted then that two major changes had affected the seed industry: the Green Revolution and Plant Breeders’ ‘Rights’.

For companies the size of Shell, the success of the new ‘super seeds’ showed that the North’s aid agencies were ready to underwrite a global seed industry. Third World governments would have the funds to subsidize seed prices — and world markets could be found for new commercial seeds. In the same year that Norman Borlaug picked up the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the Green Revolution, the United States adopted plant patent legislation.

In one stroke the global market for patented seeds tripled. With patents, companies could look to exclusive monopoly control over a new plant variety. This monopoly provision (Plant Breeders 'Rights') would allow big companies to vertically-integrate from breeding to seed retailing. The threat of patent litigation would bar small family-based seed companies from the competition.

From a standing start in 1970, Shell Oil now markets seeds through at least 60 companies in Europe, North America, Latin America and Africa. It is by far the largest seed enterprise in the world.

Close behind are the two Swiss chemical twins, Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy — with 22 and 30 companies respectively. Other European majors — none of whom appear to have been in the seed business a decade ago — are Sweden’s Kema Nobel and Cardo; France’s Elf Aquitaine and Rohne — Poulene, and Holland’s Suiker — Unie. Across the pond, the Americans caught on fast; dominant companies now include Pfizer, Upjohn, Olin, Occidental Petroleum, Stauffer Chemicals, Atlantic-Richfield and Superior Oil.

It appears more than 400 firms have been either bought up or chased out over the past ten years.

The effect in the marketplace has been astonishing. For the first time ever US seed prices broke their traditional link to farmer commodity prices to rise at a rate exceeding all other agricultural input costs — including petroleum products. Seed prices in the United States doubled and doubled again in the course of a decade. One forage crop, alfalfa, jumped from just over $22 a sack in 1967 to $111 in 1978.

At the same time multinationals moved to consolidate their control of both patents and the market. In a land of seed companies dating back to Cromwell’s day, three multinationals took over England’s packet seed (vegetable and flowers) trade. Shell Oil, Kema Nobel and Cardo now have 78 per cent of the retail business after buying out local firms.

Seed industry sources in the UK claim Shell accounts for 40 per cent of all plant patent royalties in that country. Often the same companies exert the same patent influence around the industrialized world from Sweden to New Zealand.

Farmers and consumers in many countries are particularly concerned that the world’s new seedsmen are almost exclusively from the chemicals side of agribusiness. Since seeds flow through the same marketing channels as crop chemicals this is hardly surprising, but analysts are worried that chemical giants may reap special advantages from the dovetailing of their plant breeding and crop protection work. Certainly, the possibility exists that companies may offer farmers a ‘package deal’ of seeds and chemicals.

New work in seed pelleting is increasing the market for clay-wrapped seed complete with chemical inoculates — thus making the farmer an offer he can’t refuse.

[image, unknown] Ciba-Geigy has recently come up with the perfect seeds and chemicals package. With its patented sorghum varieties, the company now offers a trio of chemical seed ‘safeners’. Two combat pests in the soil while the third protects the seeds from Ciba-Geigy’s leading herbicide spray ‘Dual’, which might otherwise harm the seed. This is known as the ‘Clint Eastwood’ approach to plant breeding. (‘Any-which-way-you-can’).

Of still greater concern is the potential for seed/chemical companies to profit by simply doing nothing if and when a disease attacks a crop. Rather than find an ‘organic’ way of combating a new disease with an improved variety, the company may merely refer farmers to the chemicals already on the shelf.

As disturbing as the corporate trend is in the North, it is reaching crisis proportions in the South. Overly-aggressive marketing of commercial seed varieties is accelerating genetic erosion beyond the capacity of geneticists to find and store endangered germplasm. The big companies are only interested in the large acreage crops, often export crops. These tend to take over traditional poor people’s crops or move into climatic zones and soils inappropriate to the commercial variety.

This ‘commerciogenic wipe-out’ has led to intense efforts to collect and store endangered germplasm. Through the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) a campaign to establish a system of global gene banks for storage of crop material is now eight years old. Of the more than 30 crops for which base collections have been established, virtually every crop of economic importance has been assigned to the North — to countries with Plant Breeders' ‘Rights’ monopolies.

It is estimated that 75-90 per cent of all Third World plant genetic resources in storage are banked in the North.

Many Third World scientists are infuriated by Plant Breeders’ ‘Rights’ provisions that allow someone to simply ‘discover’ a new variety and obtain exclusive monopoly rights. Such a loose provision leads to the direct rip-off of Third World treasures. A case in point is US patent No. 551 awarded some years ago to Quincy McKeen. MeKeen found the rare flowers on a stroll in Guatemala. He scooped up all he could find and hot-footed it back to his New England home where he grew out the seeds — kept the best and destroyed the rest of the natural diversity to avoid competition.

Third World governments are not anxious to be any further indebted to multinational corporations. As one diplomat said at the FAO conference in Rome last November, ‘give us this day our daily bread’ should not be a prayer to Shell Oil.

Pat Roy Mooney is a Canadian writer and author of Seeds of the Earth, available from ICDA, Rue des Bollandistes 22, Brussels, Belgium, £3.00/$7.50

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