17 June 2010
The hunt for agrofuel and drought tolerant crops has propelled a huge commercial interest in sorghum, including a spate of patent claims over different components of the sorghum genome.
Patent claims have been lodged by US companies, Ceres and Edenspace as well as the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University (Texas A&M) and Rutgers University. Key sought after traits include sorghum flowering, plant growth (biomass), sugar content and cold and salt tolerance. Patent claims are designed to control a set of promoter genes and other genetic components of sorghum to create sorghum cultivars. According to author, Edward Hammond “This move is the contemporary biotech equivalent of an 18th century European explorer planting his flag on a little understood foreign land and claiming it for himself or his sovereign, as if by divine right subordinating all other interests in the territory.”
Author: Edward Hammond
About the briefing: The interlocking problems of climate change, emissions from fossil fuels, and limited oil reserves have stimulated interest worldwide in the use of plant crops to produce fuel. Agrofuels are not a new idea. Brazil, for instance, has used them on a large scale for many years. The potential scale of production and use of agrofuels in the coming decades, however, is unprecedented.
Presently, most of the world’s agrofuels are produced from common crops including maize and sugarcane (for ethanol) and soya and rapeseed (for biodiesel). But dozens of companies and public sector plant breeding institutions, funded by private and government investment, are furiously researching other crops that could be optimized for agrofuels. This is in part due to the criticism that has been levelled at production of agrofuels from edible grains, particularly maize, and its effect on food prices.
Sorghum, native to Africa and grown world-wide, is fast emerging as a leader among the “energy crops” and may play a major role in the international agrofuels industry. Seed companies are showing new interest in African farmers’ varieties of sorghum, which may have characteristics useful for industrial agrofuel production. Companies and government plant
By Edward Hammond December 2009.
A gene recently isolated from a Tanzanian farmers’ variety of sorghum may yield tremendous pro?ts for multinational companies and government researchers in the United States and Brazil. Called SbMATE, it is not only useful in sorghum; but also may be used in other crops, including genetically engineered (GE) maize, wheat, and rice as well as GE tree plantations.
Government researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and the Texas A&M University (US) have patented the gene in the US. They have also ?led an international patent application in which they state that they will seek patents on the Tanzanian gene across the world, including in Africa.
The commercial potential of the gene is strong. Although it was only recently identi?ed, the giant multinational Dow Chemical is already negotiating with the US government to license it. Japan’s second largest paper products company has also expressed interest in buying access to it.
Uncertainty and apprehension often afford opportunity to the cunning. This is certainly the case with climate change. The multinational seed and agrochemical industry see climate change as a means by which to further penetrate African agricultural markets by rhetorically positioning itself, even if implausibly, as having the solution to widespread climate concerns. Their so-called ?final solution? to deal with the impact of climate change on African agriculture depends on mass adoption of GM seeds and chemically intensive agricultural practices. This model poses serious biosafety risks and demands the surrender of Africa‘s food sovereignty to foreign corporations and the widespread acceptance of patents on life in Africa.
Despite its obvious pitfalls, this model is being aggressively promoted by multinationals, private philanthropy and some African national agricultural research programmes, often funded by the first two. The money and public relations forces backing the seed giants threaten to drown out other voices and other possibilities for African agriculture.
In this briefing, we expose the forces behind ?climate ready? crops, including the central role played by gene giant Monsanto and provide data on patents on climate genes in respect to key African staple and other food crops.