THE BIOTECH BATTLE OVER THE GOLDEN CROP
In her book "Life in Guatemala", Rigoberta Menchu tells us about the rituals of baptism in a village:
"And then the child is told about maize, about beans and all important plants. The child is present during the whole ceremony, but wraped in so well, that it cannot be seen. (...) The child is told that it will live from maize and, naturally, that it is made from maize because already his/her mother was eating maize while it grew on her. The child will learn to honour the maize and collect every grain of maize that will lie on his path".
Reverence and respect for the very base of life has been and remains at the heart of people's relationship with maize through Latin America. The native Americans called maize the "Golden Crop", and it was given almost religious significance in their cultures. Ever since, art and literature have expressed the close ties between agriculture, food and culture, which are commonly shared among the people of Central America.
Scientific advancements, such as Mendelian breeding at the beginning of this century and the introduction of hybrids, introduced an entirely new perception of the crop. Maize became both "designable" and, in practice, "proprietary". The development of hybrids guaranteed the seed industry farmers' purchases year after year. It was in the seed industry's interest to ensure that farmers abandoned their traditional varieties, and many have. Maize research and development (R&D) began to shift to the private sector. As seed industries have grown, agglomerated into bigger and bigger corporate agrochemical industries and globalised, the "golden crop" of the Americas has been transformed into the privatised "green gold" of the life industry.
The Incas would never have imagined that anybody would dare to modify or believe they could own life itself. However, their collectively developed crop lures the ag-biotech industry more than any other and large corporate battles are now being fought as companies struggle for position in the brave new agricultural landscape.
Today, maize is the world's third staple crop in terms of production, with 502 million tonnes produced in 1995. The USA accounts for more than one third (38%) of global production, far ahead of the rest of the five top producers: China (21%), Brazil (7%), Mexico (3%) and France (2%). As a block, the North's share is not a great deal larger than the South's (58 to 42% between 1989 and 1991, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO). However, these similarities mask very different realities in both production and use.
One significant difference is in the source of the seed. According to the International Centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT), 99% of the maize sown in industrial countries in 1992 came from commercial hybrids. In the South, commercially marketed maize seed accounted for only 46% of the total maize sown. But the situation is more complicated: In China, all marketed seed is of public origin and is publicly distributed. In other countries, such as Brazil, Zimbabwe and Kenya, a large share of commercial hybrids are of public origin. As an average, multinational corporations account for nearly 34% of all commercial maize seed sales in developing countries, excluding China.
The progressive introduction of hybrids, especially commercial varieties, has led to, and continues to exacerbate, the displacement of local varieties and the introgression of alien genetic material into local populations. Only 20% of local maize varieties reported in Mexico in 1930 are still known. In addition to genetic erosion caused by hybrid introduction, decreases in the area of land planted with maize and its replacement with other more profitable crops have also played a role. Costa Rica, Chile, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand have also documented widespread genetic erosion in maize. In the North, even fewer maize varieties are available. Monocultures of hybrid maize dominate production: all commercial US hybrids are mainly derived from six inbred lines. As is the case for most widely grown crops in industrialised countries, genetic uniformity is a major plague in maize production, as illustrated by the vulnerability of Pioneer's hybrid to the gray leaf spot fungus (see the article on Food Security in this Seedling.)
Genetic erosion is a problem in the genebank as well as in the field. Besides gaps in the existing collections, genetic erosion has taken its toll on maize. The FAO Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture reports that "(In) the Latin American Maize Programme (LAMP), it was noted, in 1991, that only half of the accessions could be evaluated due to lack of viable seed, and that the lack of reliable storage facilities had resulted in the total loss of a large number of accessions and severe genotype deletions in many more".
Differences between North and South also arise in the way maize is grown. In the North, maize is typically grown in intensive, external input-led monocultures that may cover up to millions of hectares, as found in the US "corn belt". In the South, maize is cultivated in a large number of different agricultural systems, which include both monocultures and traditional systems based on intercropping with legumes such as beans, and other crops, like squash.
Perhaps the biggest difference between North and South is in the view and use of maize. In the North - with the USA in the front line - it is mainly, and increasingly, used as a raw material for the livestock industry. In Central America, South America, and Eastern and Southern Africa, it is the foundation of food security for families and communities. Maize is the single most important US crop. According to the US National Corn Initiative (`corn' is the American English word for maize), maize generates "US$20 billion in farm value and more than $4 billion in exports annually". However, only 1 to 3 % of the crop is used for human domestic consumption. In contrast, 62% of maize is used for livestock feed (for beef, pork, chicken and fish) and 20% is exported to compete in international markets mainly as feed.
But the days of maize being used only for food or feed are long gone. With the aid of biotechnology, the "golden crop" is becoming a cheap, reliable and controllable raw material for all kinds of industrial applications. The fastest growing market is for High Fructose Corn Syrup, which has replaced sugar as sweetener in the soft drink and many other food industries. Also widely used are corn ethanol and corn starch to finish paper and clothes. There are plenty of other examples, from polymers to pharmaceuticals. Already, up to 15% of the US corn crop is used as a raw material for more than 3,500 products, and a great deal of R&D is being carried out to increase this figure.
Maize: the Private Sector Crop
Maize has been and still is crucial to the income of seed companies and their agro-chemical and agro-business corporate owners. Since the first hybrid maize was introduced in the market by Funks (now known as `Novartis') in 1928, maize has been the most commoditised crop. Ever since the introduction of high yielding hybrids from crossing pure inbred lines, farmers using them have been obliged to purchase new seed for every planting season, because the seeds saved from the harvest do not retain the high-yielding characteristics of their parents. These de facto "property rights" created the financial security which enabled the development of today's large seed companies, most of which (with the remarkable exception of the leaders in the field, Pioneer Hi-Bred and De Kalb) were acquired by petrochemical and agrochemical interests in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, transnational corporations alone account for 56% of the hybrid maize seed sold in the North, and 34% of all commercial maize seed sales in developing countries, according to CIMMYT. Pioneer alone is responsible for a massive 46% of US maize seed sales.
The success of creating farmer dependency has turned maize into the private sector's favourite crop. In its drive to maximise hybrid sales, the seed industry has influenced maize R&D more than any other staple. This is especially true for the North, where, according to CIMMYT, only 20% of maize breeders work in the public sector (as opposed to more than 65% in the South). Another difference is that while hybrids are the only type of maize commercialised in the North, in the South 10% of the sales are of Open Pollinated Varieties (OPVs), which allow farmers to replant and further develop them. The importance of the private sector in maize R&D is also reflected in the fact that, of all the International Agricultural Research Centres, CIMMYT has directed the highest percentage by far of its samples to developed countries and the private sector: 72% and 8% respectively (according to the Report of the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture). These are shocking figures for an institution that is supposed to serve the South.
Maize: the Biotech Crop
The biotechnological revolution and its promises for increased yields and profits is accelerating the trend towards corporate control of corn production. As new technologies are developed and patents turn access to those technologies into the main condition for access to the market, new actors - biotechnology companies and agrochemical giants such as Du Pont, Dow Elanco, AgrEvo and Monsanto - have entered the scene. Research is not necessarily as crop-oriented as it has been up to now - increasingly, the emphasis is on developing traits that can be integrated into several species. Nevertheless, maize continues to be by far the most economically interesting crop. Maize alone accounts for over 40% of the release notifications for release of genetically modified crops and release permits allowed or pending by the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) until September 96. There is little doubt that ag-biotech money will best be earned by those companies managing to put more added-value maize into the markets.
Genetically Engineered Maize In The Lab
One way of assessing where the corporate mind is leading the maize crop is to look at the patents that claim property rights on genetically engineered maize. Since biotech research breaks down species boundaries, genes which confer a particular trait can often be inserted into a number of different crops. This means that in some cases, patents can be claimed on genetically engineered plants that have not been field tested. For example, a technique for increasing oil content may be developed and tested in soybean, but the patent application may include using the technique in maize. However, in other instances, it is the gene that is patented and separate applications are required for each crop in which it is used, as is the case with many Bacillus thuringiensis patents. According to Derwent Biotechnology Abstracts, between 1982 and June 1996, 138 patents were applied for that explicitly cover genetically engineered maize plants. (For research purposes, some other patents that claim property on entire plant categories that include maize but do not explicitly mention maize, such as the family Graminae, have not been included). Table 1 shows the main traits that are being patented.
The bulk of the patents (56.5%) are for particular agronomic characteristics. Pest resistance is the most common trait applied for. One third of these patent applications involve Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) as the source of resistance. The rest cover a number of options, from antibody fragments to spider venom, with the use of lectins being the most abundant. The same trend appears in the case of disease resistance (which includes viral resistance): five out of the 16 applications are related to virus coat protein. Research on herbicide tolerance is often highly diversified according to the herbicides produced by the patentee companies. Fungal and stress resistance are also in the corporations' agenda. Of particular interest for the industry are male sterility patents, since this trait has the potential to save corporations large amounts of both money and labour required for the detasseling in hybrid production.
The other important focus of research is maize quality (representing 24% of patent applications), with the modification of maize starch content receiving the most attention. This comes as no surprise, since maize starch is the base for many industrial applications. Because of maize's low content of the essential amino acids lysine and tryptophan, maize has always had to be complemented with other protein sources, both as food and feed. Improving the protein content of maize is thus also a focus. Patents on oil content very often also cover other more important oil crops, such as soybean.
From the above, it is clear that the scope of research into genetically engineered maize is pretty limited, while development is leading to an even narrower range of products.
Genetically Engineered Maize in the Field
Field test releases are another indicator of the spread and development of genetically engineered crops. The USDA's APHIS service maintains a database on authorised field releases in the US, which can be accessed and downloaded through the Internet (http://www.aphis.usda.gov/bbep). Research done last September 12, 1996, showed that 1,444 of the 3,534 approved release notifications and release permits - either granted or pending - involved maize. This means that up to 1,444 legal field tests of genetically engineered maize have been approved in the US alone.
Although maize has been field tested for a number of
traits, there is an important concentration of nearly 83% of the tests
upon insect and herbicide resistance. Within insect resistance at least
49% of the tests have involved the use of Bt. Of the
A look at the products that already have market permits shows an even narrower spectrum. On the insect resistance side, Mycogen and Ciba and Pioneer will soon market maize genetically engineered with exactly the same Bt gene for resistance to the European Corn Borer. Monsanto and Sandoz have also inserted Bt genes into maize. According to the specialised press, Ciba and Mycogen's engineered European corn-borer resistant maize will cover 160,000 ha in the USA next year. Two herbicide-resistant maize seeds may soon reach commercial release permission in the USA: one by Monsanto resistant to Roundup, and the other by Pioneers and AgrEvo's, resistant to AgrEvo's Liberty herbicide. Liberty is an new and a fancier name for the herbicide currently sold as BASTA, which the company plans to use in its future herbicide-resistance marketing strategy. DeKalb's Liberty resistant genetically engineered maize has already received US approval.
A trend can be thus found in R&D: as genetic engineered maize approaches the marketplace, the range of options for insect and herbicide resistance becomes narrower and single-gene approaches prevail. This trend might even become strengthened as pressure for supplying the market grows. As Andrew Barnes, executive vice-president of Mycogen Crop Protection puts it, "The key now is to concentrate on manufacturing and sales rather than the discovery of new products".
The Battle for Control and Corporate Survival
A closer look into the patent and the USA field test release applications and notifications also allow to identify another tendency: the progressive concentration of maize biotech activities in the hands of a smaller number of giant firms as the process of R&D goes on, as shown in Tables 3 and 4. While the top ten patent-holders own 60% of the patents, the top ten companies in field test releases account for at least 93% of releases, if we take into account current mergers and thus actual control of the results.
With the first biotech crops arriving at farmers' fields, the "hour of truth" has come. Both old players and newcomers are fighting over the handful of varieties genetically-engineered maize. The battle is raging in three main areas:
* control of current market distribution
* the acquisition of technology, through R&D and ongoing mergers, alliances and the absorption of patent-rich biotech companies
* patent infringement suits to gain monopolistic control on entire crop traits.
The recent purchase of Plant Genetic Systems by AgrEvo (the agrochemical joint venture between Hoechst and Schering) for no less than US$730 million after a tight battle (see Box) is only the latest episode in a mad rush of take-overs, stock purchases and agreements that has characterised the biotech industry in the last year (see Table 5). Virtually all of the top specialist ag-biotech companies have been absorbed, controlled or are have come under the influence of one or more of the previously controlling transnational (TNC) stock holders in agriculture.
Currently three corporate blocks are fighting over leadership of the maize seed industry: Monsanto out on its own; Pioneer, Novartis and Dow Elanco, who have chosen to rely on Mycogen's technology; and AgrEvo, which has assumed the formerly lonely Plant Genetic System's (PGS) position. Each giant is attempting to ensure the ownership of key maize technology in order to take control. But, with such wide differences in patent criteria in the world's various patent offices and such a huge number of patents relating to such a limited number of technological options (see Seedling 4/95 for the case of Bt), this is proving to be a difficult and very expensive task for all of participants.
Although the cloud has still to settle down, it has already changed the biotech industry landscape. As Bill Freiberg, publisher of the industry newsletter Biotech Reporter puts it, 10 to 15 years after the "start up" of the ag-biotech era, the "bunch of noisy, optimistic, rabble-rousing .. and fun .. upstart companies" have "either shut their doors, or their technology has been absorbed by the big companies. And (surprise) the same old names of the past are the ones remaining in power".
The reality is that TNCs are already in control of today's and any future genetically engineered corn. Corporate breeding is moving maize further and further away from a food in its own right, and more and more into feed and industry. It is becoming just a raw material. Contrary to the colourful advertisements, showing for example a proud African with Ciba Geigy's Bt-maize, there is little hope that the poor and the South will benefit from current biotech trends.
CIMMYT, 1994: 1993/94 World Maize Facts and Trends; Maize Seed Industries, Revisited: emerging Roles of the Public and Private Sectors, Mexico, D.F.: CIMMYT.
FAO, 1996: The State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Background Documentation prepared for the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources Leipzig, Germany, 17-23 June, 1996) Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations Rome, 1996.
Fowler, C., 1994: "Unnatural Selection; Technology, Politics, and Plant Evolution", International Studies in Global Change, 6. Gordon and Breach, Yverdon, Switzerland. ISBN: 2-88124-639-7.
Industry publications: Biotech Reporter, Agrow, Nature/Biotechnology.
THE BIOTECH BATTLE OVER THE GOLDEN CROPby GRAIN | 11 Oct 1996
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