Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or as they are alternatively called, genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) have raised quite a bit of concern over the past decade. But just what are these creatures that have caused so much alarm? In order to understand GMOs and their penchant to trigger alarm, we must first look at the base structure of all living things – DNA. The structure of DNA is often described as resembling a spiral staircase as shown in the drawing below.
Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) is the building block of life because it contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms – it is often called a blueprint or map. Only four bases comprise every conceivable combination of DNA pairings. The four bases found in DNA are adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T) with each type of base on one strand forming a bond with just one type of base on the other strand. This is called complementary base pairing.
Genetic modification is a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of such living organisms as animals, plants, or bacteria by combining genes from different organisms and is known as recombinant DNA technology. The result is an organism that is said to be “genetically modified,” “genetically engineered,” or “transgenic.” With recombinant DNA technology, DNA molecules from different sources are combined in vitro into one molecule to create a new gene. This DNA is then transferred into an organism and causes the expression of modified or novel traits
Tinkering with the DNA of seeds – those packets of DNA producing our food supply – has become big business in agriculture. Companies such as Syngenta and Monsanto have been involved for decades in experimenting with modifying the DNA of crops such as corn, soybeans, and rice. Once modification has taken place, the company slaps a patent on the seed and owns the rights to market the seed.
Just how important is ownership of technology processes as well as seed patents? The two Goliaths of agribusiness went toe-to-toe in a battle over the rights to Agrobacterium technology. The following is an excerpt from a report on that case:
On February 23, 2004, Syngenta International AG (Basel, Switzerland) and Monsanto Company (St. Louis, Missouri) announced an agreement in which the companies cross-license proprietary Agrobacterium-mediated transformation technology. The agreement resolved a patent interference proceeding in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) involving transgenic broad leaf crops.
The Monsanto-Syngenta deal also resolved a lawsuit that had been pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware. Syngenta had filed the case in 2002, alleging that Monsanto and Delta and Pine Land infringed U.S. Patent No. 6,051,757, which covers methods of transferring genes into dicotyledonous plants using Agrobacterium-based vectors. On the day that the companies announced their new agreement, the Delaware district court dismissed the patent infringement case.
Monsanto continues to build its store of Agrobacterium-related patent rights. In October, the company announced the PTO’s decision that Monsanto’s scientists had invented Agrobacterium transformation methods in dicot plants before the Max Planck Institute and other parties. The decision ended a 12-year patent interference dispute.
The Human Genome Project Information website provides a list of both benefits and controversies:
- Enhanced taste and quality
- Reduced maturation time
- Increased nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance
- Improved resistance to disease, pests, and herbicides
- New products and growing techniques
- Increased resistance, productivity, hardiness, and feed efficiency
- Better yields of meat, eggs, and milk
- Improved animal health and diagnostic methods
- “Friendly” bioherbicides and bioinsecticides
- Conservation of soil, water, and energy
- Bioprocessing for forestry products
- Better natural waste management
- More efficient processing
- Increased food security for growing populations
- Potential human health impact: allergens, transfer of antibiotic resistance markers, unknown effects Potential environmental impact: unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity
- Access and Intellectual Property
- Domination of world food production by a few companies
- Increasing dependence on Industralized nations by developing countries
- Biopiracy—foreign exploitation of natural resources
- Violation of natural organisms’ intrinsic values
- Tampering with nature by mixing genes among species
- Objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa
- Stress for animal
- Not mandatory in some countries (e.g., United States)
- Mixing GM crops with non-GM confounds labeling attempts
- New advances may be skewed to interests of rich countries
GMOs have set off a debate as to health, safety, ethics, etc., but, it is the last concern listed that should set off an alarm to all citizens in all countries. While we were not paying much attention, the multinational agribusiness corporations have been establishing patent after patent for GMOs. They are exploiting third world nations by using them as experimental stations.
As noted in the short excerpt about Monsanto and Syngenta, the companies are building storehouses of patents – patents that control the creation and distribution of seeds.
He who controls the food supply controls the world. And, it looks like it will be the Goliaths of agribusiness, not the fast-disappearing Davids of the agriculture world.