Genetic engineering and patents: a vehicle for the hostile takeover of resources
Global agrochemical corporations want to secure as big a slice of the "food cake" for themselves as possible because food production is a lucrative business. However, this business model is only of limited use without having control over seeds (through intellectual property rights). Therefore, the introduction and implementation of patent and variety protection regulations on seeds is well up the political agenda in developing countries. Genetically engineered seeds are ideal for this because they can easily be patented as an "invention" and can thus become rigidly protected. The introduction of genetically modified seeds (GMO) also generally entails comprehensive regulation of the seed sector within a country. As a result, farmers are losing control of their most important asset, the seeds, by stealth.
The current diversity in varieties of plants and in breeds of farm animals is attributable to centuries of selection by farming communities and pastoral tribes. This diversity which had been community-based in its development and which is traditionally shared is now being privatised without any compensation being paid to those communities (biopiracy). SWISSAID is taking a stand against these practices and campaigning for the independence and rights of farmers right around the world.
How are things looking here?
Varieties of plants and breeds of livestock cultivated and reared conventionally have recently become patentable in Europe and are subject to absolute protection. This means that we have already reached the next stage in the privatisation of natural resources. The freedom of the farmers is restricted as a result, and breeders can be denied access to the raw materials for further breeding (which has been an unaffected precondition up for now for diverse, innovative breeding). We are campaigning against this as a founding member of the European "No Patents on Seeds" coalition.
Meaningful research and agriculture
We are calling for much greater use of public research funds in the further development of organic farming and seed cultivation, and for them not to be used for the benefit of major agricultural corporations and their business model. From our position on the board of the Swiss Genetic Technology-Free Alliance (SAG), we have actively been campaigning to keep genetic technology out of Swiss agriculture.
20 years of empty promises in genetic technology
Despite the huge investments made in GMO plants, they have produced abysmal results in terms of their ecological and social balance. Our partner organisations in developing countries have reported that peasant farmers have not derived any benefit at all from growing genetically modified plants, and this has been supported by numerous studies. GMO seeds have not helped to alleviate rural poverty in the past 20 years. And contrary to the promises made, the use of pesticides has quickly become greater than it was prior to the introduction of GMO, with devastating consequences for the environment and for health. What's more, hardly any food has been produced for human consumption through genetically modified plants up to now. The GMO seeds which are available on the market are what are known as cash crops – soya, corn and rape for biofuels, cotton for textiles and soya for animal feed. Therefore, they are not being used to tackle hunger. On the contrary, genetic technology has exacerbated the existing problems and the competition for resources, and threatens the existence of the peasant-farming and organic agriculture sectors, which have produced the bulk of food up to now.
Will new genetic engineering make everything better?
SWISSAID is also sceptical about the latest genetic technology propaganda, based on new techniques and old arguments. This is because the social and economic problems associated with genetic technology, arising through patenting breeds of animals and varieties of plants, through biopiracy, monopolisation and industrialisation of agriculture, will still exist.
There are better solutions
We are convinced that the path towards more sustainable farming lies in agroecology. There is huge potential to increase profits in the diversity of traditional seeds, and to make them more resistant to increasingly turbulent weather and climate conditions. Seed exchanges between farmers, as well as their unrestricted use and further development are success strategies which boost resistance and increase the independence of the farmers. That's what we are calling for.