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Climate genes and hunger traders

Climate genes and hunger traders


by Silvia Ribeiro, Clarin, May 24th 2008

Faced with the growing food crisis and disasters caused by climate change, the big biotechnology and agri-business corporations have returned to the attack with new enthusiasm, as if they were not the very ones who have caused the crisis. Their most recent proposal to deal with climate change and hunger is via "climate resistant" crops.

A decade ago, the same companies promised that industrial export agriculture, backed up by genetically modified seeds, was going to end world hunger. Exactly the opposite happened : it increased. Then they rode the biofuels wave, getting millions of dollars in public subsidy and reaping record profits whichever way things turned out.

Via food scarcity and speculation they sold dear. Via biofuel subsidies and artificial demand created by mandatory quotas in the US and Europe they earned more and sold dear too. Via oil price rises they also sold dear - not just the seeds and grains but also, because those same companies are the main sellers, agri-poisons, all oil derivatives. Now they win again, selling grains to the World Food Programme for people suffering hunger those companies themselves actively worked to bring about.

These hunger traders present themselves now as climate saviours. Suggesting concern about biofuels competing with food production, they propose a second generation of crops based on genetically modified plants and trees, more dangerous than any previous GM plants with a potential for much greater contamination. As the cherry on the cake they argue the absolute necessity of using Terminator technology (which creates second generation suicide seeds) to control the contamination they create. The one sure thing is that in this way they would force farmers to buy new seed every planting season.

As a complementary strategy, the GM giants Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, Basf, Dow, Bayer, who totally control the world's GM seed market and most of the world market for all commercial seeds, now argue the need to use seeds able to resist the vicissitudes of climate change. According to them that can only be done by means of genetic modification.

A new ETC Group report "Appropriating the climate agenda" (“La apropiación de la agenda climática”, www.etcgroup.org) shows these multinationals are not really worried by climate change or its consequences but about how to profit from the disaster. In the United States, Europe, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, China, South Africa and other countries, 532 current patent applications exist, either approved or in process, relating to genetic characteristics of plants able to resist climate related environmental stresses like drought, heat, cold, flooding, salinity and other things. In some cases, the reach of the patent application is so extensive any plant with the same genetic sequence would fall under company control. The king of these "climate genes" is Monsanto which in association with BASF and some smaller biotechnology companies controls two-thirds of climate resistant germo-plasma.

A tragic aspect is that highly technological agricultural approaches, such as so-called "precision agriculture", have actually made worse the very problems they were said to solve. For example, controlled irrigation so as to "save" water so it only reaches the surface of the plants' roots has caused worse soil salination, destroying or drastically reducing the chances of sowing any other plants. "Climate resistant" plants promise to apply the same logic, for which reason, apart from the new problems they will cause being GM plants, they will negatively affect soils and any chance of reaching a genuine solution to the problem.

The climate and food crisis is brutally real. But the response does not lie in more of what created it in the first place. It is rural workers and farming families who have the experience, knowledge and seed diversity necessary to deal with climate change and the food crisis. While the seed industry argues that since the 1960s it has created 70,000 new plant varieties (mainly flowers) it is reckoned that the world's small farmers create at least a million new varieties every year, adapted to thousands of different conditions throughout the world. What is least needed right now are new monopolies to stop those farmers from continuing to do so.

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Silvia Ribeiro is a researcher with the Erosion, Technology and Concentration Group

Translation copyleft tortilla con sal

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