Companies preparing to rule 'climate ready' crop market -- report

Some of the world's largest biotechnology companies have filed hundreds of patents on "climate ready" gene-altered crops, hoping to dominate a market expected to emerge as farmers respond to environmental stresses caused by global warming, an advocacy group for subsistence farmers said in a report today.

BASF, Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dupont and biotech partners have filed 532 patent documents around the world for crops genetically altered to adapt to rising temperatures, the ETC Group's report says.

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The companies are banking on climate change being the "silver lining" that shifts public perception of genetically altered crops, the report says. The companies see "an opportunity to assert that agriculture cannot win the war against climate change without genetic engineering," the report says. "In other words, industry claims that biotech crops will offer essential adaptation measures."

This kind of monopoly -- the top 10 seed companies control 57 percent of the global seed market, according to the report -- is damaging to the world food market because it limits what kind of research will occur and who will have access to the results, said Hope Shand, ETC's research director.

"A handful of the largest biotech companies are positioned to determine who gets access to climate-tolerant traits and what price they might pay," Shand said. "Monopoly control of plant genes is a bad idea in general, and during a food emergency with climate change looming, it's unacceptable. Privatization of biodiversity is the last thing we need in a state of global emergency."

Gene patents generally require that farmers purchase new seeds each year, rather than saving seeds from a harvest for replanting, meaning that farmers have restricted access to the climate-resistant strains, Shand said.

But industry groups say patents are a normal part of business and will not in any way hamper innovation.

"We feel that our technology can play a part in providing a solution to issues of global climate change," said Denise Dewar, executive director for plant biotechnology at CropLife International, a trade group. "It's true that these companies have sought to protect the intellectual property that they've discovered. But we don't anticipate that this is the limit of discovery -- we think more companies will come forward to request patents."

Mike Wach, managing director of science and regulatory affairs, of the food and agriculture section for the Biotechnology Industry Association, agreed with the industry group.

"The point of developing these traits is to anticipate climate change and develop crops to meet it," Wach said. "And there is an enormous amount of untapped genetic potential out there; these companies just tapped a few of those. This is not a topic unique to agriculture biotech. It's recognized in the constitution that when someone invests time, money and resources into developing a product, the government recognizes the need to protect that investment for awhile."

Urging U.N. action

ETC Group is asking officials at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Bonn, Germany, this month, to suspend granting patents on climate change-related genes and traits because a monopoly is supposed to grant some sort of societal benefit, Shand said, which these patents would not.

The report says the handful of major corporations have focused much of their research on the identification and patenting of climate-proof genetic traits that can cope with environmental stresses encountered by plants such as drought, temperature extremes, saline soils and low nitrogen.

For example, BASF applied for 21 patents in 11 countries on genes dealing with drought salinity, environmental stress, cold and heat.

One major concern with the number of patents is their scope, Shand said. For example, once a certain gene trait is found in one variety of plants, the claim often applies to other genetically engineered crops because the trait is assumed to be similar after minimal research, the report found. If patented, this would severely limit the access smaller companies have to such technologies, which ultimately will drive up costs, inhibit independent research and harm farmers in their production.

Another concern the report raises is that money spent on researching climate-resistant genetically modified crops could be spent on other farmer-based strategies for adapting to climate change, such as working with underutilized crops, other than corn and soybeans, that offer natural hardiness and resistance to environmental stresses, Shand said.

"It's way too soon to tell whether this area of research will be successful," Shand said. "We see it rather than a solution to confronting climate change, but instead the biotech industry is rebranding itself as a climate savior."

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