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:
“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.