The Gene Trade Goes Global

If you are a poor farmer in China, do you care if Monsanto dominates the seed industry in the US?

Apparently not. Several recent reports indicate a rapid launch of GE crops in the less developed world- independent of the US corporate seed industry.

The first news story, reported in the Wall Street Journal and by Reuters is that China has approved release of the worlds first genetically engineered rice. The Bt rice, which was developed by China’s Huazhong Agricultural University, is predicted to reduce the use of insecticides by 80 percent while raising yields by as much as 8 percent. This is no idle dream or artificial hype. The world has already seen such dramatic improvements in Bt cotton in China, India and Arizona as described in earlier posts.

Why full steam ahead when the EU has imposed a moratorium on GE crops for the last decade?

I think there are two main reasons:

1. China has homegrown biotechnology and seed industries and are not reliant on licensing GE technology from US companies.
2. China has a lot more people to feed and cannot afford to import it.

A report was released by the EU Joint Research Council indicates that while there are currently only 30 commercialized GE crops cultivated worldwide, by 2015 there will be over 120 (including potato and golden rice). Half will come from national technology providers in Asia and Latin America designed for domestic markets. This suggests that quite a lot of new traits will be outside the control of the US coportations. This is good for farmers in those countries and good for competition in the seed industry. It is possible that these developments may even finally make it clear to the public that GE technology is useful to everyone, not just large companies that people love to hate.

The Econmist ran a story nicely describing the current status of corporate control of the US seed industry.

Take Monsanto for example:

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“Today most of Monsanto’s $11.7 billion of annual sales come from seeds, increasingly of genetically modified (GM), or transgenic, varieties (see chart), and from licensing genetic traits. Indeed, it is now best known, for better or worse, for applying biotechnology to seed production”.

Since 2005, Monsanto has made more than 20 acquisitions of US seed companies. The issue is no longer “who owns the genes” but instead “who owns the seeds”. Conventional plant breeding and genetic engineering both require well characterized and high yielding breeding lines to develop new crop varieties.

If breeders and geneticists do not have access to that germplasm, if it is largely tied up into a few large seed companies, there will be fewer varieties of seed available and the public will lose out. For this reason the Department of Justice and the USDA will begin holding public workshops to examine if the consolidation of the US seed industry violates antitrust laws.

Comments

  1. #1 Rock Star
    June 23, 2010

    Douglas,

    Thank you for the link and thank you for growing OP and heirloom! I used to grow many heirloom (and am starting too again) tomatoes and used to tend my families organic orchard in the summer. I think it is really important to preserve biodiversity in our food supply and to look for varieties that do best in our climate. I am not into bioengineering to do that (for one reason since it is so expensive the company will own the patent and I won’t be able to save seed unlike with open pollinated) among my other concerns.

  2. #2 Thomas White
    February 14, 2010

    I also want to add that China’s production and market for seeds is controlled by the state. It is a monopoly in this area.

  3. #3 Thomas White
    February 14, 2010

    I think that the company “Monsanto” seeks to conquer the market for the manufacture and sale of fertilizers and seeds. Thus, the company, with its aggressive policies, it is enriched and become a monopolist in this field. But ultimately suffer simple farmers.

  4. #4 Tony
    December 18, 2009

    I recently paged through “A Viking in the Field” and noticed that Bent Skovmand was extremely concerned that companies (Monsanto was named) had caused a brain drain in the field of genetic plant research in the 80s (right timeline?), pulling the best and brightest out of the public research sector. He also expressed concern that as few as four seed companies had control over much of the seedstock in the world. I know Monsanto is the poster child for all that is evil in the minds of some, but it does seem as though some of the protest was accurate: Monsanto may have been too aggressive in acquisition of seed companies and defense of patents for the public good. Are any colleagues schedule to testify? I would like to know who in the academic community will appear on behalf of the researchers and the public sector.

    Love your book and blog. Thank you.

  5. #5 Douglas Watts
    December 18, 2009

    Hi Pam. Thanks. I know that a number of seed growers associated with Fedco are actively developing new open-pollinated cultivars. I’m using one now, a cherry tomato, which was begun in 1997 from three heirloom varieties, a cherry, a grape, and a potato leaf beefsteak, and got great results, one plant was nearly seven feet tall. It’s called “Be My Baby.”

    I’m not sure if any seed growers are working specifically on late blight resistance in tomatoes, but I bet after this past summer they will, as it took a terrible toll on a lot of market growers and home growers in Maine (June, July and August 2009 were the wettest J/J/A on record in Portland, Maine). I lucked out in part because I went out every day and clipped all leaves and stems showing any signs of late blight and burned them. This, it seems, helped keep it from running completely rampant. Interestingly, the one batch of store bought seedlings I used (from an Agway) fell to the blight much more than the heirlooms, which I grew from seed. Not sure why. The Maine Ag. Dept. believes the late blight mostly spread from tomato seedlings bought at big-box stores, sourced from a grower in Mississippi.

    Fedco (which is up the road from us) is run by some of the founders and directors of MOFGA, so they are not too fond of Monsanto, as you might expect. When Monsanto bought Seminis, Fedco stopped selling Seminis varieties in their catalog and have been scrambling to find suitable substitutes. It was a tough business decision for them to make, but last year they reported their best year ever, with over $1 million in seed sales. So if you want to make sure you’re not supporting Monsanto, a place like Fedco is worth a try. I order on-line at http://www.fedcoseeds.com/

    My father was a forester, apple pruner and landscaper (who I dutifully worked for doing all three as a kid), so the subject of preserving plant diversity has a lot of resonance for me. Growing old, open-pollinated vegetables has a scientific and exploratory tang to it that makes it as much like science as growing things to eat. Plus you get purple peppers, purple pole beans and weird yellow and orange tomatoes. People visiting our house are bowled over because they have never seen such “odd” stuff before. And they taste good.

    Thanks.

  6. #6 Sharon Astyk
    December 17, 2009

    It will be interesting to see if the GMO rices live up to expectation – and whether for poor farmers, the cost-benefit of Bt rice turns out to be effective.

    Re:previous commenter, except for people who use specialty catalogs like Fedco, Seedsavers, Baker Creek, etc… almost everyone in the gardening or market garden business, intentially or unintentionally buys Monsanto seeds, since they own Seminis, which supplies some very large portion of the garden trade.

    Sharon Astyk

  7. #7 Pam Ronald
    December 17, 2009

    hi Douglas, that is great that you have some nice tomato and pepper seeds that work for you. Is Fedco working on new varieties with enhanced late blight resistance? That would be ideal to have your local seed company generate improved varieties that are well adapted to your region. Good luck with your farm. Does anyone in your area buy monsanto seed?

  8. #8 Douglas Watts
    December 17, 2009

    Interesting. Here in Maine, USA we have a strong and thriving open pollinated seed supply for food crops, particularly through Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine. They are very dedicated to promoting and preserving as many older varieties as possible. I’m using 100 year old varieties of tomatoes, peppers etc. and some new open pollinated cultivars and they produce very well. Even though we had a terrible bout with late blight this past summer, our plants survived. I don’t use any fertilizers or chemicals. Just leaf compost. Fedco uses seed growers from northern New England primarily, so the cultivars are uniquely adapted to our finicky climate, which is probably the most important factor. Monsanto is trying to sell the same old product in a brand new box and make it so their box is the only one you can buy.

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