The world’s biggest biotech companies are manouvering to extend their domination of the global food supply chain. It’s time to show that the future can be written a different way, writes Thomas Fertl
Last month the European Commission cleared the mergers between Dow and Dupont on the one hand, and ChemChina and Syngenta on the other hand. It still has to give its opinion on whether the merger between Monsanto and Bayer would infringe competition law. Bayer offered $66 billion to buy Monsanto, while ChemChina put $43 billion on the table to take over Syngenta.
If these mergers take place, the resulting three companies would control nearly 70 percent of both the global seedstocks and of the global pesticide market. But these companies are also making a bid to control much more than seeds and pesticides. Monsanto, for example, is already making a play to control many other facets of modern agriculture – including tools for precision planting and high-tech weather prediction. And of course they are heavily involved in the development of new genetic engineering techniques, such as the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology. The main difference between so called gene editing and classical genetic engineering is that the former allows scientists to manipulate the genetic makeup of an organism – by changing or “knocking out” the function of a gene – without introducing genes from other organisms. On the ground that no foreign DNA is inserted, these companies try to convince policy-makers that such new techniques should not be regulated like GMOs, and should therefore escape risk assessment, as well as traceability and labelling requirements. But CRISPR/Cas9 is known to trigger numerous so called off-target effects, meaning unintended changes of the genome or other parts of the cell with unknown effect on the organism.
It is therefore good news that Dr Barbara Hendricks, German federal minister for the environment, confirmed in a reply to the research organisation TestBiotech, that products of synthetic biology and organisms generated by genome editing should be subjected to a risk assessment within the framework of the EU GMO legislation.
In the last 30 years agriculture research has been increasingly funded by private money, allowing multinationals to control the research agenda, to buy whole research departments in American universities and to put pressure on researchers who have different views on the risks and benefits to be expected from their products. Monsanto and Bayer have pledged to combine their R&D budgets to the tune of $16 billion over the next six years, or $2.7 billion a year.
These mega-mergers will aggravate the massive asymmetry that already exists between research on genetic engineering and pesticides and other input- based approaches on the one hand, and research on systemic agroecological solutions on the other hand.
the Washington Post called the Bayer-Monsanto deal the ‘mega-deal that could reshape [the] world’s food supply.’ But the growth and trust in organic agriculture is a proof that future can be written in a different way
Independently of how one is looking at the potential and risks of gene editing technologies one should remember that traits which that are valuable to low input farming are unlikely to be of interest to these companies and their business models. After 30 years of genetic engineering, the vast majority of GMOs on the market, such as the ones the European Commission could authorise anytime now for cultivation (Bt11, 1507 and Mon810), is still herbicide-tolerant plants and Bt plants.
On the day it was announced, the Washington Post called the Bayer-Monsanto deal the “mega-deal that could reshape [the] world’s food supply.” But the growth and trust in organic agriculture is a proof that future can be written in a different way.
Thomas Fertl is head of the department of Agricultural Policies at BIO AUSTRIA and an IFOAM EU Board Member Board and Rapporteur for Farming
• This article is taken from the latest edition of the IFOAM EU newsletter (issue 93, April 2017) and is published here with permission. For more news and information about IFOAM EU visit ifoam-eu.org