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Biodiversity Threatened

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Biodiversity Threatened With genetic engineering we are growing fewer and fewer species of crop.

With genetic engineering we are growing fewer and fewer species of crops. Thousands of crop varieties have been replaced by relatively few commercial varieties grown on large agricultural plots. However, monocropping creates a huge vulnerability in the food supply. Single varieties of crops can be more susceptible to plant diseases or environmental changes.

For instance, in the 19th century, the Irish potato famine was devastating because, amongst other factors, the single, prevalent variety of potato was susceptible to a plant disease that spread wildly. However, when the same potato blight struck the Andes, the damage was much less. The Andes farmers were growing about 46 varieties of potatoes, only a few of which were susceptible.

Similarly, biotech crops, which were at one time said to produce higher yields, often produce lower yields because of their inability to adapt to various conditions. In Mississippi, for example, cotton bolls fell off genetically engineered (GE) plants prematurely because they could not withstand climactic variations, thereby causing millions of dollars of damage. In another case, GE soy plants cracked open in hot weather, while organic soy was able to withstand the heat.

When scientists make major genetic changes overnight that in nature took thousands of years to develop, it's no wonder the crops are unable to adapt.

Patenting for Profit

Last August, the Federal Court of Canada decided that a breed of mouse
genetically modified for cancer research (the onco-mouse) could be patented. Patenting equates to ownership, because anyone who acquires or uses that breed of mouse (or its offspring) would have to pay royalties to the company that owns the patent.

Many find the idea of patenting life offensive because they consider earth's genetic resources as the common heritage of the planet and not something that can be owned by a corporation. The animal patent has sparked an uproar and the federal government is seeking to appeal the decision. However, all GE crops on the market in Canada and the US are patented.

The patenting of living organisms began 20 years ago. In 1980, the US Patent and Trademark Office awarded its first patent to a living organism, a bacterium genetically engineered to digest oil. Previously, patents were only given to new (or improved) machines, processes or materials developed by man. Living organisms were considered products of nature and therefore non-patentable.

Chakravarty, the scientist who supposedly "invented" the genetically engineered bacterium, conceded he simply shuffled genes, changing bacteria that already existed.

"It's like teaching your pet cat a few new tricks," he said.

Chakravarty admitted that he did not create life, but merely moved genes around. However, the patent was granted. Industry quickly recognized the significance of the court ruling. The race to patent, buy and sell the genetic resources of the planet began.

A few months later, Genentech, a recently formed biotech company, offered a million shares of stock at $35 per share. Within 20 minutes the shares were at $89. By the end of the day, the company had raised $36 million before it had introduced a single product on the market. By 1985, patents had been extended to GE plants, seeds and plant tissues. Industry gives various reasons for introducing genetically engineered crops.

The underlying motivation for genetic engineering is that because biotech crops can be patented, industry can gain control over the food supply and make huge amounts of money. Now farmers who grow GE crops have to pay royalties and licensing fees to the manufacturer of the seeds. The seeds are considered a proprietary technology, belonging to the company, which it licenses to the farmers. They even have to sign agreements that they will not save seeds from one season to the next, forcing them to buy new seeds each year. (Farmers have been sued for saving seeds.) Farmers also can be legally bound to use only the herbicides and other chemicals produced by the same company selling the seeds. The profit potential for industry is beyond their wildest dreams.

Corporations have also been pushing the boundaries of patent law, staking claims to entire species of plants and animals. In 1994, Agracetus was awarded a European patent on all genetically engineered soybeans. Monsanto was outraged at the monopoly, until Monsanto bought Agracetus.

Plant Genetic Systems (now owned by AgrEvo) has the US patent on all GE plants containing the Bt (insecticide) toxin gene. Sungene holds the US patent on all sunflowers high in oleic acid.

How can a company be granted private ownership over a plant, after making a single genetic alteration, when the plant they started with has been bred by nature and by farmers over thousands of years?

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