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.