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Monday, December 13, 2010

Genetic Engineering: Its what's for Dinner

For many years consumers have been consuming soybean oil from genetically engineered plants.

Certainly I had no idea this was going on until I came upon some articles about how a company called Monsanto was able to patten genetically engineered soybean plants.

Before the 1980's a pesticide called glyphosate had been used to kill weeds. Glyphosate interferes with the plants ability to produce certain amino acids.  While a good pesticide (at least relatively speaking) it was not helpful on crops.

In the 1980's when Monsanto filed for US Patent 4,535,060.  This patent describes how to create a soybean plant that includes a special genetic modification that prevents glyphosate from interfering with the plants metabolism.

How they did this is not too hard to understand.  Basically they found some bacteria that could tolerate glyphosate.  Generation after generation they slowing increased the glyphosate in the medium where the bacteria where growing until the bacteria reached a certain level of tolerance.  This tolerance for glyphosate is expressed genetically in a specific piece of the bacteria's  genetic code.

At that point the "tolerance genetic code" was removed from the bacteria and placed into the soybean plant.  The resulting soybean plants and corresponding seeds produced by those plants were glyphosate tolerant, that is, glyphosate would not kill them.

By the mid 1990's Monsanto sold these seeds (along with, one presumes) glyphosate weed killer as "Roundup Ready" soybeans.  Roundup Ready means that Roundup (glyphosate) could be sprayed on the fields with these soybeans and the weeds would die but the soybeans would not.

The Monsanto patents (there are more than I listed (US 4,940,835, US 6,013,863, as well as others) cover the the actual life form of these genetically modified soybeans.

Monsanto, by the mid 1990's, created a business where these seeds were sold by contract to farmers under the condition that they could not replant any seeds (soybeans) harvested from the field - the assumption being that the plants were reproducing Monsanto's patented seeds and to harvest and keep them was to violate Monsanto's patents.

One of the many problems with all of this is that these plants freely interact biologically with non-Monsanto soybeans, i.e., the birds and bees mix the genetics in the usual way between Monsanto and non-Monsanto plants.  Thus if you had non-Monsanto soybeans growing next to a neighbor with Monsanto soybeans you automatically were in violation of Monsanto's patents if even on soybean plant in your fields reproduced their patented genetic modifications.

You can imagine that this created great misery for farmers and huge profits for Monsanto.  In particular, the art of harvesting soybean seeds, has been lost.  Prior to this invention most farmers replanted seeds year to year.  Seeds in those days came from university breeding programs or seed companies which had not intellectual property interests in the seeds or plants.

There are documentaries, (Food, Inc. is one), that outlines how Monsanto uses private investigators and a network of facilities to locate and those suspected of "stealing" Monsanto's intellectual property - either directly by replanting seeds (which you are not allowed to do contractually if you buy the seeds) or indirectly by having your fields cross-pollenated inadvertently.

What piqued my interest in this is that recently Monsanto tried to claim that soybean meal, containing some fragments of their intellectual genetic property, were also protected by their patent.

All of this is troubling at many levels:

For one, we really don't have any idea what affect this modified soybean is having on us.  Its been around for about 15 years or so and the oil, plants and seeds are used in virtually everything we eat.

For another, following this logic one could create a retro-virus containing some patented DNA, release it into the world, and claim ownership of anything thus infected.  Imagine a genetically modified HIV doing just this.

Owning life seems to me to be inherently wrong.  Monsanto, though they created the soybean plants and seeds that were glyhposate-resistant did not create the plants in the first place yet effectively claim benefits with all plants that breed with them.

Claiming ownership of offspring has some of its own issues.  Fortunately the original patents did a poor job of being specific about "owning offspring" and thus created some legal ins for those fighting this.

These products create a legal paradise for Monsanto when plants cross-breed by accident.  This web site offers some insight into the defenses used by one Canadian farmer who won his case against Monsanto.

Unfortunately this is not limited to soybeans.  The patents cover all manner of plants: rapeseed (canola),  corn and many others.

This situation has caused much anguish at many levels - for governments, farmers, and consumers and there is a loud cry to have the laws changed so this cannot occur.

The first Monsanto patents of this type expire in 2014 or so and Monsanto has claimed that people with these GM seeds will be free to save and reuse them.

Unfortunately (or, perhaps fortunately), there has been an increase in glyphosate-resistant weeds.

I for one am changing my life to consume non-GM plants and plant products.  Its sad that we have done this to ourselves in the first place and even sadder that no one for the most part knows that its even going on...

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