GM Free Cymru

Is genetic engineering just like breeding?

By Prof. Jack Heinemann*

Dr. Nina Federoff, the science advisor to the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, voiced more blatantly in New Zealand what many other advocates of large-scale plantings of genetically engineered (GE/GM) plants sought to imply for years:

“There’s almost no food that isn’t genetically modified. Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution.”

This stance is grossly misleading. Genetic engineering/modification, as defined in the international agreements governing it, was not even in existence before discoveries of the 1970s. Her misuse of language is an attempt to wave away people’s (and by this I also mean scientists’) concerns that the safety testing of this technology could be better, should be better, and must be more transparent and independent of the vested interests driving it (Editors, 2009, Pollack, 2009).

What Federoff didn’t mention was that GE plants are protected by an intellectual property (IP) instrument called a patent (Figure). This is unprecedented in the history of agriculture and is fundamentally different to plant variety protection (PVP), particularly as described by the UPOV convention of 1978 (Heinemann, 2007), a convention subscribed to by most of the world (Heinemann, 2009). Throughout a large chunk of the 20th Century, breeders (and farmers) could innovate under the protection of PVP, which helped to foster the plant diversity behind the Green Revolution (IAASTD 2008).

PVPs are different from patents because PVPs allow farmers and public researchers to continue to improve on varieties. They can save and reuse the seeds to breed to their conditions. It is seed savings coupled with local and regional exchanges that promote rapid dissemination of the most productive plants, which must be adapted to local conditions to flourish: to feed us, to build wealth and health, and to limit the impact of agriculture’s ecological footprint.

Patents stop that.

That is why in the United States, which once had one of the largest seed savings and exchange communities, saving and sharing seeds in the major crops is now illegal (Mascarenhas and Busch, 2006, NDSU, 2007). Too much of a chance that some seed will have a transgene, and a transgene will have a patent (see box quote).

The largest ever international study on agriculture for the future, the World Bank and United Nations’ report called the IAASTD (IAASTD, 2009), found this undermining of traditional seed savings and exchanges a potent threat to food security.

“In Wisconsin alone 90% of the soybean crop planted in 2008 was herbicide tolerant (USDA –ERS, 2008). Herbicide tolerant varieties are classified as patented varieties or possess patented genes. ‘If the variety is patented or has a patented gene, no seed may be saved for planting purposes and no farmer seed sales are permitted’ (Spears and Randy Weisz, 2004). Remember as a grower you agree to this statement when you accept delivery (legal statements are on the invoice and/or on the tags attached to seed containers). It is likely given the economic climate we are under that field monitoring procedures will be ramped up in 2009 to “catch” growers that plant patented varieties. It is also apparent that those growers that are caught will be prosecuted and fined to the legal extent of the law to discourage other growers from attempting this practice” (Conley, 2008).

Patent and patent-like PVPs, which are being pushed by the US through UPOV 1991 (although this is being resisted by some caring governments) and TRIPS (trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights), force farmers to knock on the door of biotechnology companies to restock every year (Adi, 2006, WHO, 2005). No user innovation is allowed, crushing farmer-lead innovation. Yield drag (Fernandez- Cornejo and Caswell, 2006) is one result, because no matter how big the biotechnology company is, it will never be able to breed useful traits at the scale and pace that farmers across the globe, acting in their small and distributed ecosystems, will spread those traits (Heinemann, 2009).

And these companies wouldn’t even try. Why would Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and DuPont want to spend investor dollars producing seeds for extremely small niche markets in sub-Saharan Africa, the steppes of Asia, or a paddock in the Solomon Islands? But their patents give them ownership of germplasm and at a global scale, thus inhibiting any country that joins the World Trade Organisation from also conducting its own research and development of plants for food security. Even the World Bank has been uneasy with the concentration of the biotechnology industry (Table).

Only in the last decade have “transgenes”, or “biotech plants” started to approach proportions of production where their patent and patent- like protections may pose a real threat to food security. In the US, for example, it is difficult and in some cases impossible to source the most important yield-enhanced varieties separate from those carrying patented genes. This isn’t because the transgenes increase yield significantly; it is because one transgene in a genome gives the biotechnology company control of hundreds of actual yield-enhancing genes that are not transgenes but are in the same plant.

As a trusted advisor to the Obama administration, why not agitate for the removal of patent and patent-like PVPs as instruments for the commercial protection of GE products, thereby opening the doors to independent safety and efficacy evaluations? Until then, Dr. Federoff, don’t try to tell me that GE is just like breeding.


Adi, B. (2006). Intellectual property rights in biotechnology and the fate of poor farmers’ agriculture. J. World Intel. Prop. 9, 91-112.

Conley, S. P. Why bin-run soybeans don’t pay. Date of Access: 13 February 2010

Editors (2009). Do seed companies control GM crop research? Sci. Amer. August.

Fernandez-Cornejo, J. and Caswell, M. (2006). The first decade of genetically engineered crops in the United States. EIB-11. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.

Heinemann, J. A. (2007). A typology of the effects of (trans)gene flow on the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources. Bsp35rev1. UN FAO.

Heinemann, J. A. (2009). Hope not Hype. The future of agriculture guided by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (Penang, Third World Network).

IAASTD, ed. (2009). International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (Washington, D.C., Island Press).

Mascarenhas, M. and Busch, L. (2006). Seeds of change: intellectual property rights, genetically modified soybeans and seed saving in the United States. Soc. Ruralis 46, 122-138.

NDSU. Brown-bag seed sales illegal. Date of Access: 13 February 2010

Pollack, A. (2009). Crop scientists say biotechnology seed companies are thwarting research. In New York Times (New York).

WHO (2005). Modern food biotechnology, human health and development: an evidence-based study. Food Safety Department of the World Health Organization.

WorldBank (2007). World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development. World Bank.

Author:* Professor Jack Heinemann, College of Science (Biological Sciences), University of Canterbury