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Pat Mooney vs The Terminator

By Rashme Sehgal

Seventy-five per cent of the biological diversity of this world has already been wiped out, says Pat Mooney, conservationist and crusader against food patenting, in this interview

Pat Mooney, executive director of the Canadian NGO Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI)

Pat Mooney, executive director of the Canadian NGO Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), has spent a lifetime crusading against food patenting and the loss of genetic diversity. RAFI works in the fields of conservation and improvement of agricultural diversity.

In 1979, Mooney published a report titled ‘Seeds of the Earth’, which was the first analysis of how we are losing our agricultural genetic resources. Mooney has lived most of his life on the Canadian prairies. The author or co-author of several books on the politics of biotechnology and biodiversity, Mooney received The Right Livelihood Award (the Alternative Nobel Prize) in the Swedish Parliament in 1985. In 1998 Mooney received the Pearson Peace Prize from Canada¹s Governor General. He also received the American Giraffe Award given to people "who stick their necks out". Pat Mooney has no university training, but is widely regarded as an authority on agricultural biodiversity and new technology issues.

Mooney was recently in New Delhi to attend a conference organised by Navdanya on ‘The Future of Food: Climate Change, GMOs and Food Security’.

Would you say that there is a consolidation taking place in the life sciences industry?
A consolidation of the life sciences industry is indeed taking place. The reason for this is the close connection between genomics or gene sequencing research that deals with plant, animal and human life and data management.

What is driving this unification between food, agricultural products and the pharmaceutical industries?
They are all using the same technology of mixing and matching genes, playing with DNA. Once you gain control over the technology, it can be applied to a wide spectrum of products. All this is an attempt to gain control of the marketplace through the use of patent and other monopoly controls. The market is being controlled through intellectual property rights.

But I would like to emphasise that all these products fit together. If food can be described as a pharmaceutical product vital to human health, then the reverse also holds true -- that medicine can be seen as a supplement to food. When they put those two together into a package and market them to consumers through retail outlets, it makes sense.

Are monopolies on the rise in all fields?
Yes indeed, at an alarming rate. Twenty years ago, we did an assessment of the seeds industry and found that there were over 7,000 public and private institutions around the globe. Now, three companies control 47% of the global seeds market. In the late-1970s, there were 65 companies marketing herbicides and insecticides. Today, nine companies control 91% of the global market. In the late-1970s, the top 20 pharmaceutical companies collectively had about 5% of the global pharmaceutical market. Today, these companies have taken over 40% of the global pharmaceutical market.

The results are there for everyone to see. Seventy-five per cent of the biological diversity of this world has already been wiped out. These companies are telling governments that in order to feed the poor and hungry, they should be handed over proprietary control of all seeds. I must add that 82% of all seeds being sold are patented. Ten years from now, 100% of all seeds being sold will be patented. These companies will have (by then) gained total control.

Which are the companies?
They include DuPont, Novartis, Astra Zeneca, Monsanto, Dow and Aventis. These are the leaders in biotech research and development. They also hold the largest number of key patents. They have the heaviest investments in genomics or gene sequencing research. They dominate in pesticides, seeds, human drugs and animal drugs. It’s a very tightly controlled industry.

What are the implications of the life sequencing industry?
While their long-term strategy is to create a life science industry that combines pharmaceuticals and food in one package, the last 18 months have got these companies a little worried. For one, they realise that GMO foods have turned out to be a complete dud. I think their own projection is that the second-generation of GMOs is also going to be a dud, and that it’s the third generation of GMOs that will help them make some money.

It’s not going to be as easy as they think, because the public at large is beginning to ask the more important question: who is going to own and control this stuff. There is a real scare amongst the public and farmers that ownership of life is a very scary thing, and there are just a handful of companies out there doing this. That’s a wild card that’s becoming more important all the time, and it is not going to go away.

A second trend is the recognition that the same guys trying to sell us herbicide-tolerant crops are also pharmaceutical companies. I think if we can make the connection between food and health, then the coalitions concerned will be much wider and deeper than they have been so far on food bio-safety issues. For the first time in a quarter-century, we’re seeing the issue of who owns and controls life becoming important.

Ultimately what is this control going to mean?
It has all kinds of implications. If a family wants to conceive, they can go ahead and have their gene line studied. They can opt for gene therapy for the sperm, if the company believes it is necessary. For these services, the family will have to pay a licence fee. When it’s conceived, either in the womb or in-vitro, the child can have its DNA assessed. On the basis of that, the family/individual can decide whether it wants it aborted or not. The MNC can give a printout at birth of the child’s DNA structure, his or her propensity for certain diseases and an analysis of his or her theoretical life expectancy. So, in a sense, the child’s life can be followed from start to finish. But the MNC will retain the right to patent the material it develops and use the genetic material of the child to develop other products and drugs.

During your talk, you mentioned a climate-ready gene and how we would have to pay royalty to use it…
Politicians today are looking for a technological fix that will help them resolve the problems of climate change. They would be delighted if big companies gave them an option that they could then adapt to our present agricultural systems. Once the climate-ready gene is ready, governments will have to pay royalty on it.

A great deal of climate-ready research is being carried out by the large companies. What they do not seem to realise is that one-third of the biomass of this planet has been commodified; there is a race on to commodify whatever is left. The life forms that these companies wish to control can be controlled through this commodfication, or so they believe.

The fact of the matter is that bio-technology may not work, but it will ensure great profits. This has been proved by the fact that during the last 30 years, they (the companies mentioned) have been able to gain control of the market.

In India we keep reading about a frightening scenario unfolding through the use of Terminator seeds and Zombie seeds…
The Terminator seeds brought enormous profits to Monsanto. But the Zombie seeds are even more dangerous. These seeds are dormant and can be brought to life after they are bathed in a chemical. So much international pressure was put on these companies from several quarters that Monsanto finally withdrew its Terminator seeds (in Canada). This is not to say that we should underestimate these companies, because they realise that more money can be made from trait control than from selling the Terminator seeds to farmers.

How does trait control work?
This technology allows a company to take any trait in a plant and then turn it on or off with the use of external chemical promoters. These could include herbicides, insecticides, fertilisers or even specific weather conditions. Traits that are beneficial to farmers can help them speed up the ripening process. That is a positive thing in case there is the danger of snow or frost. But there are several concerns as well. Traits could end up competing with one another, or they could be manipulated to take advantage of market forces.

We fear that trait control could impact food security. For example, let’s say you have a crop in the field and a trade war broke out between the United States and India over textiles. If India is growing cotton and the United States refuses to allow the export to India of the trigger chemical that would prevent the cotton from ripening prematurely, the cotton would ripen too soon and the crop would fail.

It destroys the idea of national or farm-based food security and makes us entirely dependent on a handful of companies.

How have governments reacted to these technologies?
We wrote letters to 155 governments asking them to ban Terminator and warning them about other technologies being introduced. The Indian government said it would ban the Terminator seeds.

We expect they will move on and examine how to ban some aspects of trait technology as well. It’s trickier to ban trait control because of the theoretical benefits to farmers and consumers from certain traits. Those who control traits will make the decision to activate or de-activate a trait; the dependence that might create is of concern here.

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008