corn_lg.jpegWhile it seems that just about everyone is jumping on the green bandwagon, there is money to be had in global disaster, too. Climate change can be profitable.

Human-induced climate change could trigger climate shocks in all ecosystems that will profoundly affect crops, livestock, fisheries and forests and the billions of people whose livelihoods depend on them. Extreme climate events (especially hotter, drier conditions in semi-arid regions) are likely to slash yields for maize, wheat, rice and other primary foodcrops.

Seed companies are now positioning themselves to take advantage of such changes with genetically engineered seed crops that can withstand such changes.  While good for the seed companies, this has some groups concerned.  ETC Group, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights, has issued a report showing the policy implications of such a gene patent grab.

The group sites examples such as:

  • A temperature increase of 3–4 degrees Celsius could cause crop yields to fall by 15–35 percent in Africa and west Asia and by 25–35 per cent in the Middle East according to an FAO report released in March 2008. 
  • 65 countries in the South, most in Africa, risk losing 280 million tonnes of potential cereal production, valued at $56 billion, as a result of climate change.
  • Projected increases in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns will decrease growing periods by more than 20 percent in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Farmers in dryland areas of sub-Saharan Africa will experience revenue losses of 25% per acre by 2060. The overall revenue losses of $26 billion per annum would exceed current levels of bilateral aid to the region.

The report shows that many of the world’s largest seed and agrochemical corporations are obtaining patents on genes in plants genetically engineered to withstand environmental stresses such as drought, heat, cold, floods, saline soils, and more. BASF, Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dupont and biotech partners have filed 532 patent documents (a total of 55 patent families) on so-called “climate ready” genes at patent offices around the world.

This can be seen two ways: One, it is a way for companies to prepare to meet a foreseeable demand in the face of climate change and a potential world food crisis. Or, it is an opportunity for corporations to push genetically engineered crops using climate change as a scapegoat. The truth is probably somewhere in between but the concern is that proprietary technologies will ultimately concentrate corporate power, drive up costs, inhibit independent research, and further lessen the ability of farmers to save and exchange seeds.

Beyond the U.S. and Europe, patent offices in major food producing countries such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Mexico and South Africa are also seeing huge increases in patent application filings. Monsanto and BASF have put togehter a $1.5 billion partnership to engineer stress tolerance in plants. Together, the two companies account for 27 of the 55 patent families (49%) of those identified by ETC Group.

The question now according to the ETC Group: “Will farming communities now be stampeded by climate change profiteering?”  While I disagree with their assertion that “the patent grab on so-called climate-ready traits is sucking up money and resources that could be spent on affordable, farmer-based strategies for climate change survival and adaptation,” there can be an issue when the top 10 seed companies control 57% of the global seed market.

ETC Group is now urging governments meeting at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn (May 19-30) and at the joint United Nations-FAO High-Level Conference on World Food Security and the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy (3-5 June 2008) must recommend that governments suspend the granting of all patents on climate change-related genes and traits.

What do you think?

Download the report here: “Patenting the “Climate Genes” … And Capturing the Climate Agenda

Note:  Amended 22 May 2008 to better reflect the opinions  of ETC Group.

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5 Comments

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    I’m troubled by the lack of neutrality in the language used in the sections of this post that are not intended to convey the views of the particular sides of this debate.

    “Such a gene patent grab”, “concentrate corporate power”. To the extent that ten competing companies are being awarded patents, this can hardly warrant the implication of monopolization.

    “Inhibit independent research”. No independent research is squelched, only dependent research. The fact that there are multiple competing technologies suggests that the patents are not forestalling alternative approaches. Disclosures by inventors in their applications are readily assimilated by their competing peers.

    “Further undermine the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds”. In U.S. patent litigation, courts have not found such a right, particularly when compared to the right of patent owners to exclude others from making, using, or selling their inventions. This is the incentive for disclosure, which has been upheld when not anticompetitive.

    The system is acting as it should, attracting investment where it is needed. Having worked in the chemical process industry for 15 years as a Ph.D. chemical engineer prior to getting my J.D., I know that the R&D resources of these large companies would not be marshalled unless there was some prospect of getting an adequate return on their investments.

    If we place a class of patents off limits, there will be little R&D done by industry. Do we really want to remove these valuable resources from the table when we face such a major problem?

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    Reed,

    I appreciate your comments. I left in the passionate verbiage from the report in order to convey the feelings behind the report. In my haste, I did not make it clear that these are the sentiments of the ETC Group.

    I have amended the content of the article above to try to make the source of the opinion clear.

    Ed.

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    […] The abstract scenario posed above is what’s happening right now in biotechnology. According to the latest post from Patent Baristas: […]

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