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Playing God in the Biotech Labs - Who owns the keys of life?

© Kat Morgenstern, June 2003, all rights reserved.

Over the past few years legislators have been working away at designing an intellectual property rights system that governs newly discovered or developed plant varieties. It seems ridiculous that any form of life can be patented at all, but that is exactly what has been happening.

To quote the GRAIN press release: 'Intellectual property rights (IPR) applied to seeds give breeders, or whoever claims to have discovered or developed a new plant variety, an exclusive monopoly right in relation to the seed. Under patent law, that monopoly right is very strong. It will generally prevent anyone from using, selling or producing the seed without the patent holder's permission.'

At present most of the varieties that have been patented are seeds that have a high commercial value but with the numerous advances of biotechnology such patents are becoming ever more commonplace. Until now there has been a clause known as the 'the farmers privilege' which has given farmers the right to save seeds and reuse, barter or sell them in subsequent years. This 'privilege' is now under attack. New laws are coming into effect which are mostly concerned with protecting the continuous cash flow of the multinational seed giants, by severely curbing the 'farmer's privilege' thus forcing them to pay continuous royalties or re-buy fresh seeds each year.

For the past decade or so the seed giants have lobbied hard and succeeded to implement the remodeling of international laws and agreements, which work to the effect of ensuring them the right to control the food chain. They have managed to carve out a legal status for themselves that places them somewhere in the vicinity of God, the almighty, from where they can control the genetic strands of life itself while the general public has been asleep and remains largely unaware of these fundamental changes that are profoundly reconstituting the fabric of life itself.

The ploy is to genetically engineer essential food and other economically valuable plants, so that these become 'inventions', which can be patented and thus fall under the intellectual property law, meaning, that anybody who wishes to plant such seeds has to pay royalties to the company who owns the patent. Thus, farmers who grow these GE seeds are no longer allowed to save their seeds and once in the claws of the seed companies the farmer is indebted to them for as long as he wishes to grow their patented variety of seeds.

Ok, some might say, the farmer does not have to grow the GE seeds and thus can remain free of the royalty pressure and continue saving and growing his own seeds. If only things were that simple! Unfortunately they are not. Nature, doing what comes naturally, cross pollinates non-GE plants with GE plants - you know, that thing that the bees and the butterflies do when they buzz about from flower to flower, or the wind, or the bats or the birds…They don't stop to ask the plant, 'excuse me, has your seed been tampered with in the Biotech laboratory…?' before they plunge in to suckle the nectar and thus spread the pollen far and wide.

This indiscriminate sexual behavior of nature poses an obvious hazard not just to human health, but also to the entire eco-system in which these plants grow - though the full extend of a potential GE disaster has yet to be assessed. There have been no long term health risk trials on humans so far. We don't know how GE foods will affect our health or that of future generations, though statistics have shown that food related incidence of diseases have grown dramatically since GE foods have been released on the market. Of course, as usual, a clear correlation has so far not been established. Nor do we know how GE pollen will affect the pollinators or any other aspect of the ecosystem with which it will come in contact… Some time ago GE maize only intended as animal food was accidentally mixed with regular maize for human consumption, and the resulting corn chips have already caused severe allergic reactions in some of the people who inadvertently ate the polluted food. The fear that insects or birds might be similarly adversely affected is not far fetched. How will this affect the rest of the ecological tapestry? Will the strands that make up this complex web of life be dismantled, thread by thread until it is too late to repair? GE opponents fear the possibility of uncontrollable ecological consequences once the plants and their pollen are released into the environment. The pollen cannot be recalled if the experiment goes wrong.

Some of the genes that are being inserted into regular food plants such as corn are derived from bacteria and fungi and other strange sources. The rational is that if plants can be bread with an inbuilt resistance to certain bugs or fungal afflictions fewer pesticides will be needed to grow them. However, nature always seeks a balance, and just as bugs have developed a resistance to pesticides and antibiotics over the past 50 years or so, they will eventually overpower these inbuilt resistance genes. Then we will have superbugs that are resistant to both, the chemicals and the genetically engineered resistant plants - where will we turn then?

To add insult to injury, the seed companies have already manipulated the laws to the extend that in such cases where their GE seed cross pollinates with a non GE strain, the legal consequences rest not on their shoulders as one might have thought, for polluting another farmers crop for example, no, the blame rests with the farmer who has become the victim of the GE pollution. In the view of the IPR law he has 'stolen' the GE pollen and thus the company has the right to collect royalties for the crop, which the farmer unintentionally produced. Thus, not only is his regular crop ruined, but on top of it he has to pay for the assault. This policy is completely twisted and sick, and you might think it a joke, but such a case has already happened a couple of years ago in Canada. The legal battle that ensued has set the precedence for many such battles to come.

As if that were not enough, another aspect of this grim and evil ploy is the political pressure with which the United States government is trying to enforce acceptance of GE seeds worldwide (under the banner of 'free trade'). So far several countries have put up a certain amount of resistance to the Frankenfoods and seeds, thus curbing the potential disaster, but now the US is trying to take the EU to court over its refusal to accept GE foods and seeds and even blames the EU for perpetuating the starvation and poverty in Africa and elsewhere. If only the EU accepted GE foods, so the argument goes, the poor, underdeveloped nations could grow these novel crops and thus earn some money on exports and feed themselves as well. However, they fail to mention that once these farmers start growing the GE crops they will no longer be allowed to save the seeds and thus will be forced into a slave economy in which they will be forever dependent on the seed giants and forced to accept whatever atrocious permutations of dependency they will impose upon them - seeds that only germinate with the addition of certain chemicals is just one scenario. If they wanted to return to regular seeds they might find that the supply has shrunk and regular seeds are simply no longer available. This already happened in the USA a few years back when the government and biotech companies hailed GE foods as the next best thing to sliced bread and urged farmers to convert all their crops to the new technology. But once they started growing the GE crops farmers found that their crops were unwanted outside of the US and subsequently tried to return to their conventional seeds - only to find that these were now hard to come by…

As awareness and resistance to GE foods has grown in the industrialized nations the pressure is now on in the developing world, which is now heavily being pressured into growing the new wonder crops - why? Because they are an easy target. Politicians and GE proponents realize that they need to run a real life large scale experiment to 'prove' to the rest of the 'Luddite skeptics' that GE technology is safe - and 'Bingo' an excellent opportunity is just coming up on the horizon: As Africa is facing yet another starvation crisis the Bush administration has instantly latched on to the opportunity to conduct a broad scale test of GE foods on a helpless and suffering public (see Force-feed the hungry ). 'Eat GE foods or starve' is the message, and furthermore 'if you don't accept the GE foods we will cut funding to relieve the AIDS crisis' - of course, we are only trying to help, aren't we…? In places such as Africa the seed giants can run their real life experiment under the cloak of benevolence and thus watch the effects of their Frankenstein foods unfold. Far away from home the yet unknown social, medical or ecological consequences of the experiment will not hit home with voters, who might vehemently protest and thus influence the politicians and, god forbid, urge them to curb the rights and powers of these seed companies. Why should Mr. or Mrs. taxpayer in the industrial world care about a GE induced natural disaster that may unfold in some poor third world country as a consequence of 'food-aid' sometime in the near future any more than he or she does about the politically induced starvation that ravages these countries today?

Unfortunately, GE crops and all the complicated threads and issues that are connected to biotechnology, the seriously dangerous dabbling with the building blocks of life and its unpredictable effects, the questionable policy to grant intellectual property rights on any form of life, the control of the food chain by a few power and money hungry corporate megalomaniacs and last, but not least, our own pawn-like role in the whole scenario when we face the magnitude of the mess and feel helpless - they all concern each and every one of us.

Our voice may seem small, but we CAN refuse to cooperate with the corporate megalomaniacs, we CAN demand to know the sources of our foods and inform ourselves and boycott food manufacturers who use GE ingredients - its up to us to choose or refuse - we CAN grow our own veggies, save our own seeds and exchange and swap with our friends and neighbors. We CAN discuss these issues with the local farmers and urge them to grow organic, we CAN share our concerns and worries with everybody we meet or write letters to politicians and local papers. We CAN re-claim control of our lives through our conscious actions and support mother earth who sustains us all.

Life is not a commodity

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