In (Seed) Bed Together
Biotech companies are threatening our food supply. These agro-giants are plundering our public research programs and the nation's land- grant universities, which were established to promote science in the public interest. All of this in the name of short-term profit.
The U.S. Supreme Court appears to be backing this trend, with its recent decision to protect the patent rights of agriculture giants like Monsanto and Dupont over new varieties of seed the companies develop. The decision weakened farmers' rights to save seeds from their own harvest for future crops, forcing farmers to buy new seeds from the companies each year.
Taking power away from farmers and giving it to corporations is dangerous. Industry experts claim biotechnology will save the world, that it will end starvation and cure malnutrition. They say it will save the environment by reducing the chemicals required to grow our food. But that's not really what biotech is about.
Biotech is about ownership. It's about who has the rights to profit from the ideas and techniques that emerge from a shared public scientific heritage. It's also about profiting from the genes and genetic makeup of living beings. And these corporations are using our public universities to do their research, to increase their profits, and to diminish farmer and consumer rights.
Land-grant universities were established more than a century ago, with federal funds, to promote research in agriculture, engineering and other areas. Crop and livestock breeding programs flourished under these research programs. The purpose was to develop varieties of plants and animals that would benefit farmers and consumers both financially and nutritionally, and ultimately benefit society at large.
But in recent decades, the public-interest mission has almost disappeared, replaced by service to corporate interests. This is especially true in corn and soybean research. The bulk of remaining public programs until recently were in wheat breeding. Today essentially all public wheat breeding programs nationwide have partnerships with transnational chemical company BASF. And the University of Idaho, North Dakota State University, the University of Minnesota and Oregon State University have gone public with their agreements with Monsanto to produce herbicide resistant wheat.
Wheat, the world's principle calorie source, is one of the few major crop plants still in the control of farmers. Unlike corn and soybean farmers, the majority of wheat farmers still plant the seed they harvested the previous season. They also trade seed and even select types from the fields that do best in their particular geographical area. Most of the 60 million acres of wheat in the United States are still planted with varieties that were provided by land-grant universities with few or no legal strings attached. This means that a farmer who is happy with the type of wheat he is growing has every right to save the seed and plant it back the following year or sell some to a neighbor.
The biotech seed industry stands to make hundreds of millions of dollars annually if it can gain control of the wheat seed.
How can biotech corporations force wheat farmers to buy seed from them every year? First they need proprietary genes, then a plant to put the genes into. Then they need laws that protect their investment. All of these items are in place.
Corporations have quietly and increasingly established partner relationships with land-grant institutions.
The most common proprietary genes in crop plants are for herbicide, or weed killer, resistance. What is the value of a gene that protects a plant from your patented herbicide? Nothing -- until you put it into a crop plant that suffers from weed infestations. Once the gene is in a crop plant, it is worth an additional $5 to $50 per bag of seed. In addition, the farmer is required to sign a contract saying he will not save or plant back any seed the following year. As a bonus, the company with the herbicide resistance gene also holds the patent on the herbicide that the farmer uses.
Where does a company get a wheat plant in which its scientists can put their gene? The obvious answer is the universities; they hold tried and true wheat varieties, each specifically adapted to particular local conditions. In a state like Washington, over 95 percent of the 2.5 million acres of wheat is planted with university bred varieties. Breeding a single new variety of wheat takes up to 15 years and existing varieties are constantly being updated and replaced. To start a breeding program from scratch is not only expensive but time- prohibitive.
Corporations have quietly and increasingly established partner relationships with land grant institutions. This way they capitalize on a university's infrastructure, its equipment, the material in its breeding programs, the expertise of its students and professors, and the tradition of trust established with the farmers. Now, nearly all of the land grant universities have flung open their doors to corporate control of their wheat breeding programs, signing confidential agreements with chemical companies Monsanto and BASF to put their genes into public varieties.
The outcome will be wheat varieties sold by universities in partnership with corporations. Farmers will pay extra for what used to be free, and the public will be buying wheat products that have been genetically modified for the specific purpose of gaining ownership. Farmers who grow genetically modified varieties cannot replant or trade them without paying royalties. It is a classic tale of corporate welfare. Publicly developed and supported universities are now, for a piece of the action, signing away to private entities material and intellectual property, paid for with tax dollars, that should be part of the public domain.
What is wrong with universities working hand in glove with corporations to develop our food crops and getting a return on investment? One of the main issues is the ownership itself. Who owns wheat, for example? The food grain was first domesticated over 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. It is not native to this country and we would not be growing it here if we did not receive the help and genetic materials from farmers and public breeders worldwide.
Private control of genetic materials is jeopardizing our food security.
A second issue is the restricted flow of information. Because of developing ownership issues, most international breeders are no longer willing to share material. This is hurting research. Now, many of the products researched by publicly-funded scientists in public labs are being developed under confidentiality agreements and with strict limitations on publication. Some 50 percent of public breeders said they had been hindered in seeking exchanges of genetic material, according to a 1999 University of Wisconsin poll. Twenty-five percent reported having difficulty in graduate student training and research because of this limited access.
New sources of genetic material are essential for agriculture, but private control of these materials is jeopardizing our food security. This is typical short-term gain over long-term investment. It is taking the value that is inherent in a university -- decades or centuries of continual research -- draining its value by exploiting current crop varieties, and moving on. One of the gravest dangers brought about by this approach is the abandonment of science that addresses true needs in favor of solving only problems that have proprietary or profit-driven answers.
The government has pushed the academic-corporate partnership by not making grants available for research that could be privately funded.
Meanwhile, university researchers proclaim genetically-modified crops are safe. These scientists, many of whom are openly earning extra money for their corporate work, are encouraged by their administrations. It's in the universities' financial interest to forge partnerships with corporations: thanks to a law passed by Congress, the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, individuals and institutions are allowed to patent and profit personally from their publicly-funded research.
Public breeders must be accessible and accountable to public scrutiny. In these times of vigorous debate on how our food is being developed and produced, we need programs that remain unbiased and responsive to the public's concerns. These programs are currently threatened by the rush to buy and sell genes, techniques, varieties and ideas. Return on investment is fine in the corporate world, but it is not a motto that should drive our public science.
Stephen Jones teaches graduate courses in genetics at Washington State University, and has worked in wheat breeding for more than 20 years.