miércoles, 26 de mayo de 2010

Seed Patents: A Risky Business

By Fabiola Jiménez 
Translated by J. M. Forsythe

Last summer I worked on an anthropological study exploring social movements related to the hunger crisis with a special focus on corn. In a conference organized by the Mujeres Artistas y el Maíz, I heard the term seed patents for the first time. It sounded like a serious idea, like something related to some secret chemical formula but…with seeds? Normally people patent medicine, brands, ideas, names or maybe industrial property, but the conference offered criticism of three transnational pharmaceutical corporations that are the main suppliers of agricultural products: Monsanto, Cargill and Bayer. They produce agrochemicals, pesticides, herbicides and the so called improved or genetically modified seeds. These seeds have been fortified with genes resistant to certain diseases or plagues. 

Traditionally, the improvement in a crop’s yield has come about empirically, by transmitting agricultural knowledge from generation to generation and passing down seeds from father to son. The introduction of improved seeds has changed this system. The fear of what could happen lies in the fact that they don’t produce new seeds, as they possess a self destructive gene. This means that any time anyone wants to plan a crop, he’ll have to buy new seeds. It is quite possible that in the future (hopefully the remote future) these seeds will be patented by one of the pharmaceutical corporations that produces them. That way, if someone uses a patented seed or if it grows wild on some farmer’s land (brought there by the wind or transported by an animal), there could be lawsuits filed against the farmer as if he had plagiarized the lyrics of a song. 

The risk of using these seeds also lies in that we will be eating their fruits. The website of all of these big corporations includes a section dedicated to demystifying the risks of biotechnology. This seems to me to be a clear indication that something is wrong, and the facts I’ve mentioned certainly cause me concern. Who wouldn’t need to reflect upon discovering that vegetables like spinach have lost 80 per cent of their vitamins or after reading that the fruits and vegetables we consume go bad faster than before and don’t have the same flavor anymore? 

Something has changed in the foods we eat. The risks that genetically modified foods represent for health and biodiversity are unclear. It may seem that these concerns are unduly complicated. After all, food is a basic human necessity. It’s almost as if we were talking about the right to breathe or to sleep. But the future that corporations like Monsanto are imagining could turn out to be a very dangerous one. 

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