In the global fight to preserve what’s left of agricultural biodiversity from the ravages of the multinational chemical/seed giants and their government lackeys, no civil-society organization stands taller than the ETC Group. Among other projects, ETC documents the growing dominance over the global seed market by a handful of firms: Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dupont.
The following guest post, by ETC research director Hope Shand, details Monsanto’s quest to enforce its patent-protected monopoly over all genetically modified soybeans sold in Europe, which it’s using to squeeze farmers in Argentina.
Patents, globalization and social injustice are the stuff of public protest across the world. This week, however, a drawn-out battle against corporate monopoly will come to a head — not in the streets, but in an arcane technical hearing at the European Patent Office. ETC Group, an international civil society organization, and environmental group Greenpeace (supported by 19 other civil society organizations worldwide) will be in Munich pursuing a 13-year legal battle against Monsanto over the humble soybean.
Patents, exclusive legal monopolies granted by governments, are a favorite tool of big business to exercise power over the little guy. Giant pharmaceutical firms have most notoriously used patents to price anti-HIV drugs out of the reach of poor people in the global South.
Less familiar are biotech battles in the agricultural sector, where multinational seed companies are using patents to deny farmers — or entire nations — the right to use and sell seeds from patent-protected crops.
Patents, we are told, are designed to promote innovation. Instead, they are allowing giant seed companies to secure exclusive monopolies that undermine the economic security of farming communities and jeopardize access to seeds — the first link in the food chain. And lest we forget: Whoever controls the seeds controls the food supply.
Instead of fostering agricultural research, breathtakingly broad patents are shutting down competition and stifling research. Perhaps no patent symbolizes the brokenness of the patent system more than Monsanto’s European patent on all genetically engineered soybean varieties and seeds — European Patent No. 301,749. Critics call it a “species-wide” patent because its claims extend to all biotech soybean seeds– irrespective of the genes used or the genetic engineering technique employed — unprecedented in its broad scope.
The livelihoods of Argentina’s soybean farmers are directly affected by this patent because Monsanto, the world’s largest seed corporation, is using its exclusive monopoly to deny Argentine soybeans from entering European markets. Why? Because Monsanto alleges that Argentine farmers aren’t paying royalties to Monsanto for using the company’s patented soybean seeds.
Over the course of a single decade, Monsanto devoured dozens of seed companies (and their patents) to become the largest seed corporation in the world and the only soybean seed superpower.
Back in 1996, Monsanto’s name didn’t even appear on ETC Group’s list of the world’s top 10 seed companies. Today, Monsanto tops the list and accounts for one-fifth of the global proprietary seed market. (See top 10 seed company list below.)
According to industry sources, Monsanto’s soybean seeds and traits accounted for about 90% of the GM soybeans planted worldwide in 2005. What’s more, genetically engineered soybeans reportedly account for almost 60% of the global soybean area — an increasingly dominant share of one of the world’s most important food and commodity crops.
Civil Society Fights Back
On 3 May 2007 at an appeal hearing at the European Patent Office in Munich, ETC Group and Greenpeace will argue that Monsanto’s patent must be revoked because it is technically flawed and morally unacceptable.
Monsanto’s legal defense of its patent may not be surprising, but it is hugely hypocritical. Before Monsanto acquired it in 1996, the company vigorously opposed the patent, which was then owned by US-based biotech company Agracetus.
In 1994, Monsanto submitted an exhaustive, 292-page opposition statement to the EPO that shredded the technical merits of Agracetus’s soybean patent. Monsanto’s lawyers wrote that the soybean patent should be “revoked in its entirety,” is “not … novel,” “lacks an inventive step,” and “sufficient disclosure [of scientific method] is woefully lacking.” But after Monsanto acquired Agracetus in April 1996, Monsanto withdrew its challenge, reversed its position and announced that it would defend its newly acquired patent!
In 2003 — more than nine years after the patent was first awarded and legally challenged — an EPO patent tribunal heard legal arguments against the notorious patent. Opponents were shocked when EPO upheld Monsanto’s monopoly in 2003. Today, nearly two-thirds of the patent’s 20-year term has expired. On 3 May 2007, EPO’s appeal tribunal will have one last chance to revoke Monsanto’s unjust monopoly on one of the world’s major food crops.
Failure to do so, after 13 years of bureaucratic delays, will simply confirm that corporations can use unjust patents to monopolize markets, destroy competition, and jeopardize worldwide struggles for food sovereignty.
World’s Top 10 Seed Companies
Based on 2006 Seed Revenues, US $ millions (Source: ETC Group)
- Monsanto (US) $4,028
- Dupont (US) $2,781
- Syngenta (Switzerland) $1,743
- Groupe Limagrain (France) $1,035
- Land O’ Lakes (US) $756
- KWS AG (Germany) $615
- Bayer Crop Science (Germany) $430
- Delta & Pine Land (US) (acquisition by Monsanto pending) $418
- Sakata (Japan) $401
- DLF-Trifolium (Denmark) $352
According to Context Network, the global proprietary seed market was worth $19,600 million in 2006.
- Monsanto — the world’s largest seed company — accounts for one-fifth of the global proprietary seed market.
- The top 3 companies — Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta — account for $8,552 million, or 44% of the total proprietary seed market.
- The top 4 companies account for $9,587 million, or almost half (49%) of the total proprietary seed market.
- The top 10 companies account for $12,559 million, or 64% of the total proprietary seed market.