Home / General / The TPP and Big Ag

The TPP and Big Ag



As I have stated many times, I don’t really care about GMOs in terms of thinking of them as any sort of health threat and I think concerns on that end are much closer to chemtrails than a legitimate issue. But the patent side of GMOs is highly concerned, as they make farmers dependent upon corporations to an unprecedented extent. That’s especially true as the ag companies push overseas. Even since the beginning of the Green Revolution, corporations have taken more and more control over developing world farming because of the expensive seed and fertilizer and heavy equipment required for this new farming. This has its benefits, but has also contributed to millions of people losing their land and becoming the easily exploited labor force for maquiladoras and sweatshops, not to mention contributes heavily to undocumented immigration into the United States. So while we can safely roll our eyes at any claims about GMOs being a particularly evil form of farming, we can be very worried over how the ag-tech companies used the Trans-Pacific Partnership as the next step in consolidating their profitable control over global farming and note that while the Obama administration has only paid lip service to labor and environmental standards in the TPP, it has also worked very closely with these corporate interests from the very beginning of the negotiations.

 And work closely they did. While the terms of the TPP were kept secret from the public and policymakers during negotiations, USTR negotiators relied heavily on input from the corporate insiders who populate the US government–appointed Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs). A representative from BIO sits on ITAC-15, the committee that focuses on intellectual property (IP) rights, and BIO spent roughly $8 million on lobbying each year while the TPP was under negotiation, paying firms like Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld $80,000 annually to lobby for “patent provision in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.”

The results of this lobbying blitz were unknown until the final text of the agreement was released in November of last year. Signed on February 4 and awaiting ratification by its 12 member countries—Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, United States, Vietnam, Chile, Brunei, Singapore, and New Zealand—the TPP is the largest regional free-trade deal in the world. While many have scrutinized its potential for offshoring jobs, lowering wages, and raising drug prices, few have paid attention to the TPP’s impact on the sector BIO prioritized above any other: agricultural biotechnology. Experts have called the TPP a “big win” for the biotech seed industry, and many warn that the trade deal will further enrich seed companies at the expense of farmers’ rights.

 While the United States and Japan did not succeed with their proposal of including patent protections for GMO plants—the provision, based on the US patent model, was removed in response to resistance from the majority of member countries—the TPP requires that member countries make patents available for “inventions that are derived from plants.” According to Burcu Kilic, a legal and policy director at the advocacy group Public Citizen who has written extensively on the TPP, the provision will likely translate to patents on genes that, once inserted into plants, render the plant patent-protected. So, for example, one could not patent an herbicide-resistant soybean, but one could patent the gene that makes a soybean herbicide resistant. The patent holder would then have the exclusive rights to the manufacture, sale, and use of any organism that contains that gene. In other words, the final language in the TPP became more palatable to skeptics whose approval of the agreement was needed, but patents on “inventions derived from plants” will likely be indistinguishable in practice.

“It’s ambiguous,” acknowledges Kilic with respect to how the language differs from the originally proposed patents on plants. “And when it is ambiguous, it’s scary, because the implementation will shape everything.” Currently, only three of the TPP member countries make patents available for plants, so if experts are right about the implications of this provision, nine other countries could see the introduction of US-style patents on plants.

The TPP also requires all member countries to join the Budapest Treaty on the International Recognition of the Deposit of Microorganisms for the Purposes of Patent Procedure, which Public Citizen says will “make it procedurally easier to apply for a patent.” Each member country must join the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991 as well, which effectively outlaws the saving of seeds from one season to the next, a practice the majority of the world’s farmers rely upon. “Farmers are prohibited from saving, replanting, and exchanging protected seed, and breeders are granted exclusive right to germplasm,” Maywa Montenegro, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley researching seed systems, says of the treaty. While farmers in some TPP member countries technically have this right enshrined in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the conflict between these agreements coexists without resolution.

As the linked article goes on to discuss, intellectual property rights for plant innovations serve the interests of first world corporations, not developing world peoples. The traits these plants are bred for are not to promote what consumers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America need, but rather, high yields and resistance to damage from the petroleum-intensive pesticides and herbicides used to kill off competition, rather than drought resistance or growing in salty soil. That’s not to mention the very real concerns about biodiversity that global agribusiness discourages.

And once again, we need to note that the TPP is not about free trade in a region with very few remaining trade barriers. It’s a global corporate rights agreement to benefit American companies and American foreign policy aims. It would be nice if its promoters argued honestly about the aims here.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    I’ve simply stopped taking seriously any discussion of GMOs that doesn’t deal with the intellectual property issues. Though I agree that GMO opponents bear a lot of responsibility for focusing too much on supposed health concerns, defenses of GMOs tend to avoid the intellectual property issues entirely.

    • NonyNony

      At this point I’m pretty unconcerned about the biology of GMOs. Initially I had a lot of concerns, but they’ve been answered for the most part. As the expert consensus has moved more solidly into the “safe” camp over the past two decades, I’ve been moving that way as well.

      But I agree that the legal concerns around patenting genes remain incredibly problematic. I understand that using patents as a prod to convince corporations to do research has a long history, and that if we didn’t let them patent the genes they engineer it would be a bigger risk, but patenting genes is just not a good idea. In a just world we’d be rethinking our patent system entirely – at least when it comes to food production, pharmaceuticals and medical devices – and coming up with a better system to encourage research and development that doesn’t give a handful of corporations a huge amount of control over these results.

      • Spiny

        but patenting genes is just not a good idea.

        Why? The rest of your comment seems to indicate your opposition is more to the companies involved, but this comment suggests a philosophical objection to mixing patents with genetic technology.

        • NonyNony

          I have a real problem with patents for anything that aren’t devices. Information about what gene combinations are possible and what their expressions are is a basic research question about our world, not an engineering question, and basic research results should be available to everyone without having to pay a monopolist for the rights to use them.

          To build on that – I don’t think chemical compounds should be patentable either for largely the same reasons. But that ship has sailed and I doubt we can get it to turn around.

          • Spiny

            I guess I don’t see why patents on devices are not also basic research about our world, if that’s your outlook. To me if we’re going to have a patent system, I don’t see a logical reason to separate out biotech from mechanical tech.

            • rea

              Down that road lies slavery–“We own your genes, pay us royalties for existing.”

              • Spiny

                This makes no more sense than right-wing fantasies about One World Government that surface every time the UN talks about regulating bananas.

                • shah8

                  Tell that to Henrietta Lacks.

        • L2P

          It’s super hard to tell the difference between things that are patentable as the result of “genetic technology” (whatever the heck that is) and things that are just life doing life stuff. We draw a ton of arbitrary lines here that, in the end, come down to something like “we used a lot of expensive, new science to make this thing instead of just being a bunch of rednecks doing stuff that we’ve known about for centuries.”

          I’m not opposed to patenting biological stuff, but I find it very problematic.

          • Spiny

            I can certainly see how the dividing lines would be harder to draw, but regulators have to deal with fuzzy distinctions all the time.

            • Hob

              That’s an awfully broad statement. You seem to mean it in the sense of “regulators have to deal with fuzzy distinctions all the time, therefore any kind of new gray area is not a big deal”. But if you look at the state of for instance software patents, it’s hard to argue that regulators are dealing well with things that are hard to define.

    • carolannie

      The health concerns about GMOs are hardly the biggest issue. The ecological impact of GMOs,encouraging monocultures, and increasing plant resistance to pesticides so that competing plants and predatory insects can be drenched in pesticides is extremely worrying. This is one thing no one ever talks about, but is the biggest danger. Increased agricultural pollution, increased exposure to episodic disease induced crop failure, decreased external gene pools to maintain biological hardiness, etc etc

      And of course the increased use of pesticides is somewhat problematic in health terms, but hey! It isn’t directly tied to GMOs!

      • witlesschum

        See, this just seems contradictory. Some GMOs are bred to require less spraying not more, but even leaving them aside, all this was happening in big agriculture long before GMOs.

        Big agriculture is worrisome because it’s big, but it’s never clear to me why GMOs make any of the things you listed worse.

        • Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoehenheim den Sidste


          A great deal of time and effort has been invested in demonizing GMOs as an undifferentiated category, for the purpose of spreading Fear and Uncertainty and Doubt (in the sense of Oreskes and Conway). With the FUD firmly in place, an ideologue can pay lip service to the fact that no evidence actually links GMOs to any sort of actual harm while knowing full well that everyone knows the subtext.

          This is important because few people actually care about monoculture and few people actually care about intellectual property rights. If some crusader set out to reform land tenure, people would laugh at him when they were not busy ignoring him. These harsh but simple facts are reflected in the way we seldom actually hear anyone addressing these important ideas.

          But lard it up with a swipe at GMOs and all of a sudden everyone cares. Because Reasons! You can’t say that you oppose GMOs because they cause cancer – at least, not without suffering the ire of the science dorks – because the early rumors turned out to be lies. You can’t say that you oppose GMOs because those cows in Germany ate GMO corn and fell over dead, because that turned out to be a lie as well. But link the small yet real issue of GMO monoculture to the huge, globe straddling problems of monoculture and habitat destruction under the trampling feet of seven billion voracious inhabitants and you are free to let your Righteousness Flag fly – against GMOs. In practice, people rarely if ever go on to lift a finger against monoculture.

          Which really is a problem.

          Which we really need to do something about.

          But we never will, so long as people use it only as a stalking horse to cover reflexive hatred of GMOs.

          I think, and this should come as no surprise to anyone, that we would get quite a bit more done about the very real problem of monoculture if we were to stop hurling ourselves into the GMO swamp at the first opportunity and to stick to the issue of monoculture itself. Or seed patents, or sustainability, or any of the other worthy goals. That way, by letting go of the emotionally charged enthusiasm that has been trained into the GMO discussions, we gain clarity of purpose and unity of effort and acheive a real chance at making a difference.

    • mcarson

      Focusing on stupid fears about Frankenfoods is playing into Big Ag’s hands. What makes a difference is the “round-up ready” gene. With round-up a probable carcinogen according to the UN and an endocrine system disrupter according to some US research, it’s the problem. Not only is round up hazardous, it’s addicting in the sense that once anyone in the area starts using it all the weeds in the neighborhood develop super powers, they become resistant to round-up.
      The migrating gene problem is completely un addressed, a farmer should be able to protect his farm from contamination by round up crops, but they can’t, and they can be sued for obtaining the genetic material inadvertently, through contamination, and forced to pay royalties to the company that made them lose their organic farm certificate, which allows them to charge a higher price for their food.
      Health benefits aside, I buy as much of my produce as possible from organic farms, they are much safer places for farmworkers to work. They also cause less water pollution, and often use less water in general because their mulching to prevent weeds also reduces evaporation.

  • CrunchyFrog

    There is a shitload of extremely well-connected money behind TPP. That, by itself, is reason to be fearful. Add in the massive veil of secrecy around it and the courts that will enforce it – no, this can’t be a good thing.

  • j_kay

    There’s alot of TPP lying going on, why Obama supports it. But it’s only slightly free trade, the lie on the ground.

  • Wapiti

    Forcing farmers to buy their seeds each year, preventing the retention of “seed corn”… This is just rent-seeking by the corporations and their supporters.

    • Spiny

      This is just silly. Many of the best yield advances for developing world farmers can be achieved by using hybrid seeds. Hybrid seeds by definition cannot be retained from year to year.

      There is no question that farmers should not be forced to switch to hybrids or GMOs, but this is not the same thing as convincing a farmer that the yield benefit from the new seed outweighs the costs incurred in purchasing it regularly.

      • This is just silly. Many of the best yield advances for developing world farmers can be achieved by using hybrid seeds. Hybrid seeds by definition cannot be retained from year to year.

        So what? If a farmer wants to replant what he planted last year, why shouldn’t said farmer be allowed to do that? Why does Monsanto need legal control over the seed of their seed?

        • Spiny

          I didn’t say Monsanto needed legal control over the seed of their seed, rather that it’s a biological truth that the seed of hybrid plants will not retain the same characteristics as the parent. Therefore encouraging buying seed each year is obviously not simply rent-seeking.

          From the perspective of a company selling the seed – and there are many smaller local seed companies trying to sell hybrids – it’s a question of establishing the efficacy of their product as well as revenue. Farmers learn from each other and if a seed is used in a way other than intended, and predictably doesn’t achieve the results expected, the ability of the product to succeed in the market is harmed.

          I don’t believe a smallholder farmer should be punished for reusing hybrid seed – and many players in this space recognize that would be counterproductive – but I see no problem with discouraging them from doing so.

      • DrDick

        Your complaint is self-refuting. If the benefits of the hybrid are not retained by its offspring, then how is that patent infringement?

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          patent infringement isn’t what Spiny was getting at in his/her original reply to Wapiti

        • Spiny

          My point is not about patent infringement, it’s about Wapiti equating selling a product which for biological reasons must be bought regularly from parental lines with rent-seeking behavior.

  • elm

    GMO-related IP issues are, indeed, very troubling and the WTO has certainly made that worse. (Part of the problem is that MNCs can threaten developing countries into giving them patents or protecting their property ‘rights’ even when the WTO rules would not require them to do so and the MNCs can win because WTO adjudication is complicated and expensive and may not be worth the fight. The most egregious example of this is the Gerber Baby and Guatamala’s pro-breastfeeding laws.)

    The TPP could make this even worse, though the fact that the stronger US language was defeated suggests to me that it won’t be as bad as Public Citizen suggests (they’re often right on trade policy but they do have a tendency to focus on worse-case scenarios and sometimes do not acknowledge this.). The implementation will be determined mostly by consultation amongst the members as well as dispute panels. Given that the overwhelming majority of the member states oppose the US rules, it is unlikely that such expansive patents will be agreed to in consultations and it is likely that the third, impartial chair of the dispute panels will also oppose such rules.

    (Each party to the dispute essentially chooses one panelist. The third panelist will usually be drawn from a roster of panelists agreed upon by consensus of all members. If the disputing parties can’t agree on someone from this roster then that person will be chosen at random from the roster.)

    That it is possible that the TPP could lead to biopiracy and other IP abuses is troubling, but it is far down my list of issues with the TPP as I doubt it will actually be implemented in such a disastrous way.

    • kateislate

      In terms of biopiracy, a significant number of TPP partners are signatories and likely ratifiers of the Nagoya Protocol. If the capacity-building mechanisms are effective, old-school biopiracy (taking genetic resources without permission and profiting off of them) should be able to be tackled. Whether it is effective against the actions described above will depend on how Protocol checks are integrated with patent systems (currently only being examined in Germany, I believe).

      • elm

        Interesting, thanks. Do you have any links or cites about the German examination?

  • If Bernie Sanders accomplishes anything, it must be to get a firm commitment from Hillary Clinton, with no room for backsliding, to send the TPP to the dustbin of bad ideas.

    • mcarson

      I applaud your sentiment, but there is no way in hell Clinton won’t shove the TPP through. If Obama can’t force it after the election she’s going to be all over it. There may be a few cosmetic changes, but nothing like allowing farmworkers and unions and tribal populations to sue corporations in the private courts for violations. They’ll be stuck in state courts and stay tied up for years without a hearing.

  • Aaron Morrow

    Do any liberal organizations currently lobby the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)? (I didn’t want to step on the discussion under Loomis’ fair trade agreement post, but now that I know that comments are desired, I’ll try to contribute.) I know I’m a structuralist when it comes to policy, but since corporations lobby for what they want in treaties, I’d like to contribute to whoever is lobbying for what should be and what shouldn’t be in treaties.

    • elm

      Most of the major labor unions and environmental organizations do. In fact, the USTR has a bunch of official advisory committees, including ones for labor and the environment. The labor committee has the presidents of such unions as the teamsters, SEIU, steelworkers and others. The AFL-CIO also regularly petitions the USTR for labor rights violations in our trading partners.

      How often these advisory committees and petitions matter is a question for debate, but progressive voices are involved in the trade policy debate.

  • heckblazer

    Just a reminder, not all GMO crops come from Big Ag. The Rainbow papaya is genetically engineered to resist the Papaya Ringspot Virus, and is available from the University of Hawaii at cost. Before the Rainbow variety came along the disease probably would have destroyed all papaya production in Hawaii.

    I’d also note that the patents for the herbicide glyphosate started expiring in 2000, and the first generation Round-Up Ready patents started expiring last year – theoretically you can now grow Round-Up Ready soybeans without one cent going to Monsanto.

  • shah8

    I do think GMO foods should be labeled, just so we can track issues easily. Just like meat from china can be labeled so athletes know not to eat them and fail drug tests.

    There *shouldn’t* be problems with GMOs, but who knows what sort of idiosyncratic issue that might arise, some not even quite about misbehaving genes.

It is main inner container footer text