A new report by ETC Group[1] reveals a dramatic upsurge in the number of patent claims on ‘climate-ready’ genes, plants and technologies that will supposedly allow biotech crops to tolerate drought and other environmental stresses (i.e. abiotic stresses) associated with climate change. The patent grab threatens to put a monopoly choke-hold on the world’s biomass and our future food supply, warns ETC Group. In many cases, a single patent or patent application claims ownership of engineered gene sequences that could be deployed in virtually all major crops – as well as the processed food and feed products derived from them.

The patent grab on ‘climate-ready’ crops is a bid to control not only the world’s food security but also the world’s yet-to-be commodified biomass. In the fog of climate chaos, the ‘Gene Giants’ hope to ease public acceptance of genetically engineered crops and make the patent grab more palatable. It’s a fresh twist on a stale theme: Crops engineered with ‘climate-ready’ genes will increase production and feed the world, we’re told. Plants that are engineered to grow on poor soils, with less rain and less fertiliser will mean the difference between starvation and survival for the poorest farmers.

To gain moral legitimacy, the Gene Giants are teaming up with high-profile philanthro-capitalists (Gates and Buffett Foundations), big governments like the USA and UK and big-box breeders (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) to donate royalty-free genes and technologies to resource-poor farmers – especially in sub Saharan Africa. The quid pro quo is that African governments must ‘ease the regulatory burden’ that might hinder the commercial release of transgenic crops and embrace biotech-friendly intellectual property laws.


ETC Group’s report identifies 262 patent families (subsuming 1663 patent documents worldwide) published between June 2008 and June 2010 that make specific claims to abiotic stress tolerance (such as drought, heat, flood, cold and salt-tolerance) in plants. Just six corporations (DuPont, BASF, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow) and their biotech partners (Mendel Biotechnology and Evogene) control 201 or 77 per cent of the 262 patent families (both issued patents and applications). Three companies – DuPont, BASF, Monsanto – account for 173 or 66 per cent. The public sector has only 9 per cent. A detailed list of the patent documents is available here (see Appendix A).


A patent family contains a set of related patent applications and/or issued patents that are published in more than one country or patent office (including national and regional patent jurisdictions). Issued patents and/or applications that belong to the same family have the same inventor and they refer to the same ‘invention.’

In a recent interview with Business Week, Syngenta’s CEO, Michael Mack, explains the corporate grab on climate-ready traits: ‘Farmers around the world are going to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to technology providers in order to have this feature [drought-tolerant maize].’[2]The global market for drought tolerance in just one crop – maize – is an estimated US$2.7 billion, but the US Department of Agriculture predicts that the global bio-based market for chemicals and plastics alone will top US$500 billion per year by 2025. For the Gene Giants, the goal is to become the world’s ‘biomassters.’ The aim of corporate plant breeding is no longer to feed people, but to maximize biomass.


The term refers to material derived from living or recently-living biological organisms: including all plants and trees, microbes, as well as by-products such as organic waste from livestock, food processing and garbage. ETC Group warns that the bio-economy is a catalyst for the corporate grab on all plant matter and the destruction of biodiversity on a massive scale. An estimated 86 per cent of global biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics. With extreme genetic engineering, the world’s largest corporations are poised to manufacture industrial compounds – fuel, food, energy, plastics and more – using biomass as the critical feedstock.


The patent grab on climate ready crops is not limited to food and feed crops – the major players also support research related to biofuels and industrial feedstocks (i.e. biomass).

In 2007 BASF and Monsanto initiated the world’s largest agricultural research collaboration, jointly investing US$1.5 billion to develop stress-tolerant maize (corn), soybean, cotton and canola crops. In July 2010 BASF and Monsanto announced an additional investment of US$1 billion – which now extends to abiotic stress tolerance in wheat – the world’s second most valuable crop commodity after maize. Monsanto and BASF claim that the world’s first-ever genetically engineered, drought-tolerant maize variety will be the first product to emerge from their joint pipeline – scheduled for commercial release around 2012. Monsanto also is engineering drought tolerant cotton, wheat and sugar cane.

In January 2010 BASF announced a new collaboration with KWS (Germany-based, top 10 seed company) to develop sugar beets with improved drought tolerance and 15 per cent higher yield. Agrofuels – including genetically modified trees – are one of the big targets: BASF also collaborates with Brazil’s Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira (CTC) to develop sugarcane with better drought tolerance and 25% higher yield.[3]

Mendel Biotechnology, collaborating with Monsanto since 1997, is a major player in climate-ready crop genes. Monsanto has exclusive royalty-bearing licenses to Mendel technology in certain crops and vegetables. Mendel also partners with BP and Bayer. Since 2007, Mendel has been working with BP on second-generation biofuels.

DuPont (Pioneer Hi-Bred) refers to its work on drought tolerance technologies as ‘the next great wave of agricultural innovation.’ Pioneer focuses on both conventional breeding as well as transgenics. Pioneer also collaborates with Israeli biotech company, Evogene, on maize and soybean drought stress and with Arcadia Biosciences.[4] In August 2010 Evogene revealed its ‘Athlete 3.0’ – a proprietary computational technology for ‘cross-species discovery of genes, based on genomic data of over 130 plant species.’[5] The company claims it holds over 1,500 novel genes for key plant traits.

Arcadia Biosciences (Davis, California), founded in 2002, is collaborating with some of the world’s largest seed companies to develop genetically engineered, stress-tolerant crops. Although Arcadia is privately held, BASF’s venture capital fund has invested in the company since 2005. In 2009, Arcadia entered a partnership with Vilmorin (world’s fourth largest seed company, owned by Groupe Limagrain) for the development of nitrogen use efficient wheat. Arcadia has agreements with Monsanto, DuPont, Vilmorin, Advanta (India) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on projects related to nitrogen use efficiency, drought and salinity tolerance.

Syngenta unveiled its first generation drought-tolerant maize (‘water optimized hybrids’) in July 2010 – the result of conventional breeding (non-transgenic). According to Syngenta, the product offers the ‘potential to deliver 15% yield preservation under drought stress.’ Syngenta predicts that its second-generation maize hybrids – genetically engineered for drought tolerance – will be available post-2015.


Many patent claims related to climate-ready DNA are sweeping in scope. Most of the Gene Giants are staking claims on key nucleotide sequences – trying to convince patent examiners that the same bits of DNA identified in one plant are responsible for endowing similar traits across other plant genomes (known as homologous DNA). Because of the similarity in DNA sequences between individuals of the same species or among different species – ‘homologous sequences’ – the companies seek monopoly protection that extends not just to stress tolerance in a single engineered plant species, but also to a substantially similar genetic sequence in virtually all transformed plants. Armed with genomic information, Gene Giants are making claims across species, genera and classes.

The patent grab on key gene sequences in the world’s major crops is neither trivial nor theoretical. A decade ago, genomic companies and Gene Giants were routinely filing ‘bulk’ claims on huge numbers of DNA and amino acid (i.e. protein) sequences – over 100,000 in some cases – without specific knowledge of their function.

In 2002, rice (Oryza sativa) became the second plant genome to be published, and the first major crop genome to be fully sequenced; it quickly became the target of monopoly claims. In 2006, Cambia, an independent non-profit that promotes transparency in intellectual property, used its ‘Patent Lens’ project to conduct an in-depth analysis of US patents and patent applications that make claims on the rice genome. Patent Lens revealed that, by 2006, roughly 74 per cent of the rice genome (Oryza sativa) was named in the claims of US patent applications – due, in large part, to bulk sequence applications. They discovered that every segment of the rice genome’s 12 chromosomes was recited in patent applications – including many overlapping claims. Patent Lens’ remarkable visual display is available here.

Fortunately, Cambia’s 2006 analysis concluded that the corporate quest to win monopoly patents on molecular-level chunks of the world’s most important food crop had only partially succeeded – so far – and that most of the rice genome remains in the public domain. That’s due, in part, to recent decisions (by courts and patent offices) that attempt to restrict the number of DNA sequences claimed in a single patent application.


In 2001 and 2007 the US PTO put a brake on ‘bulk claims’ by issuing new rules requiring that claimed inventions must have ‘well-established’ utility, and then limiting the number of sequences claimed in each patent application. In July 2010, Europe’s highest court – the European Court of Justice (ECJ) of the EU – made a ruling that significantly restricts the reach of agricultural biotech patents on DNA sequences – and specifically reigns in the breadth of Monsanto’s monopoly on herbicide tolerant soybeans. The European Court affirmed that the purpose (function) of the DNA sequence must be disclosed in the patent, and protection of the sequence is limited to those situations in which the DNA is performing the function for which it was originally patented.

Recent rulings to restrict monopoly claims on DNA sequences are significant, and a major upset for Monsanto, but that hasn’t stopped the scramble for gene-based patents. In the words of one patent lawyer, ‘The challenge for patentees in this area will be to find alternative ways to protect these products.’[6]

Although some of the most egregious examples of sweeping patent claims identified by ETC Group are found in patent applications that have not yet been issued, there’s ample reason for concern. According to Patent Lens, applications alone may be used to scare off potential infringers, or used as leverage in licensing negotiations. The mere existence of the designation ‘patent pending’ is a powerful deterrent that may discourage others from using, making or selling a technology that is claimed in a patent application. The practice of over-reaching patent claims and unjust monopolies is far from over.


To gain desperately needed moral legitimacy, Gene Giants like Monsanto, BASF, Syngenta and DuPont are forging high-profile partnerships with public sector institutions that aim to deliver proprietary technologies to resource-poor farmers – especially in sub Saharan Africa. The public/private partnerships are hosted by a growing web of South-based non-profit institutions that exist primarily to facilitate and promote the introduction of genetically engineered crops. The immediate impact of these partnerships is to enhance the public image of Gene Giants that are donating royalty-free genes to needy farmers. But the longer-term goal is to create the ‘enabling environments’ (biosafety regulations, intellectual property laws, positive media coverage to promote public acceptance) that will support the market introduction of genetically engineered crops and related technologies. It’s a package deal – wrapped in a philanthropic façade – and it comes with strings attached.

’What we need in order to effectively contribute…are enabling business environments.’ – Gerald Steiner, Executive Vice President, Sustainability and Corporate Affairs, Monsanto Company, testifying before the U.S. Congress, July 2010.[7]

The Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is one of the primary deal-brokers in the South. Launched in 2003, AATF is a non-profit organisation that promotes public/private partnerships to ensure that resource-poor African farmers have royalty-free access to proprietary agricultural technologies that improve their productivity. Start-up funds were provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, the US Agency for International Development, and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). Two of AATF’s five projects are dedicated to the development of abiotic stress tolerance in crops:

1) Water efficient maize for Africa (WEMA)
2) Rice varieties suitable for soils that are low in nitrogen, and for drought and saline tolerance.

In addition to its role as African-based broker of public/private deals, AATF aims to ‘continuously monitor and document the evolution of regulatory frameworks for GM crops in African countries.’ AATF plays a major role in promoting and facilitating regulatory frameworks, by influencing public opinion and ‘overcoming the misconceptions about genetically modified organisms that slow down the adoption of biotechnology products’ in Africa.[8]

Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) is one of AATF’s five projects. The public/private partnership involves Monsanto; BASF; the CGIAR’s flagship research centre – the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT); and national agricultural research systems in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Launched in 2008 with US$47 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, WEMA’s goal is to develop new drought-tolerant maize varieties that are adapted to African agro-ecologies using conventional breeding as well as transgenics. In addition to proprietary germplasm, advanced breeding tools and expertise, Monsanto and BASF announced in March 2008 the donation of royalty-free drought-tolerant transgenes. Monsanto describes its donation as a ‘gem’ in its technology pipeline and predicts it could result in new white maize varieties that increase yields 20-35 percent during moderate drought.[9]

According to AATF, during the project’s first two years, more than 60 scientists have worked together to build ‘the necessary scientific testing, regulatory procedures and protocols for the proper evaluation of the maize in this project within each of the five countries.’[10] Non-transgenic water-efficient maize varieties (conventionally-bred) are now in the second year of field trials in Kenya and Uganda, and Tanzania recently planted trials for the first time.

As of September 2010, South Africa is the only one of five WEMA countries to conduct field trials of transgenic, drought tolerant maize. WEMA’s first transgenic maize varieties were planted in November 2009 at Lutzville, a testing site in the Western Cape of South Africa, to screen for drought-tolerance performance. According to AATF, ‘In the next 12 months pending necessary regulatory approvals, it is expected scientists will be able to proceed with the planting of biotech trials in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Mozambique will take steps towards completing the development of testing sites and secure regulatory approvals with a goal of planting in 2011.’[11]

Monsanto’s drought tolerant gene in adapted African maize lines will undergo ‘preliminary testing’ in Kenya and Uganda in late 2010.[12] According to AATF, WEMA partners are parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and ‘they have all committed to building functional national biosafety frameworks for managing GMOs.’[13] As of this writing, however, Uganda’s government has not yet approved its biosafety bill.

Another AATF project related to climate-ready crops seeks to develop rice varieties suitable for soils that are low in nitrogen, and for drought and saline tolerance. The project claims that rice varieties with these traits will help African farmers increase yields by up to 30 per cent. Partners include USAID, Arcadia Biosciences (USA), National Agricultural Research Systems in Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (Colombia), and PIPRA (USA).[14] Arcadia will provide a technology license to make the new rice varieties royalty-free to smallholder African farmers.

In February 2010 Pioneer (DuPont) announced its collaboration with ‘Improved Maize for African Soils’ (IMAS), a partnership that aims to increase maize yield’s in Africa by 30-50 per cent over currently available varieties – with the same amount of fertiliser. The project is led by CIMMYT, with US$19.5 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID. Other partners include the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the South African Agricultural Research Council. Maize varieties developed with the technologies and intellectual property donated by Pioneer (transgenes and molecular markers associated with nitrogen-use efficiency) will be made available royalty-free to seed companies that sell to the region’s smallholder farmers (meaning that the seed will become available to farmers at the same cost as other types of improved maize seed.) The project will initially introduce conventional maize varieties (non-GM). Varieties with transgenic traits will be available in approximately 10 years.

In April 2009 the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) signed a 3-year, US$1.2 million agreement ‘to strengthen the capacity for safe biotechnology management’ in sub Saharan Africa. The project is managed by FARA and implemented by the National Agricultural Research System in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Malawi. As Ghana Web reports, FARA is urging Ghanaians ‘to embrace the use and application of modern biotechnology to effectively solve food insecurity and the likely impact of climate change on farming.’[15]


The extreme complexity of engineering abiotic traits in plants is a technical feat that far surpasses what genetic engineers have achieved over the past quarter century. Fourteen years after commercial sale of the first genetically engineered crops, the Gene Giants have brought to market only two major single-gene traits – herbicide tolerance and insect resistance – in a handful of countries. A 2010 study points out: ‘The acclimation of plants to abiotic stress conditions is a complex and coordinated response involving hundreds of genes.’[16] The authors point out that a plant’s response to abiotic stress is affected by complex interactions between different environmental factors. The timing of the abiotic stress, the intensity and duration of the stress, and the occurrence of multiple stresses in the field must all be taken into consideration.

Setting aside the adverse social and environmental impacts of these products, the advantages of GE crops – even for industrial-scale farmers in the North – are elusive. In October 2010 the New York Times acknowledged that industry analysts are questioning whether ‘Monsanto’s winning streak of creating ever more expensive genetically engineered crops is coming to an end.’[17] The company’s newest product, ‘SmartStax’ maize – loaded with eight foreign genes for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance – has been deemed a commercial flop. But that’s not all. A huge percentage of the global area devoted to biotech crops contains at least one engineered gene for tolerance to Monsanto’s Roundup – the company’s blockbuster herbicide. But Roundup-resistant weeds are popping up all over the world, a reality that is ‘dimming the future of the entire Roundup Ready crop franchise.’[18]


The world cannot rely on technological fixes to solve systemic problems of poverty, hunger and climate crisis. A highly centralised agro-industrial food system controlled by a handful of corporate Gene Giants is incapable of providing the systemic changes needed to re-structure agricultural production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Proprietary research on genetically engineered abiotic stress tolerance is already diverting scarce resources away from more affordable and decentralised approaches to cope with climate change. Meanwhile, peasant farmers, civil society and social movements are actively building alternative food systems built on resilience, sustainability and sovereignty.

Climate resilience ultimately depends on agricultural biodiversity, local seed systems and agro-ecological processes in the hands of farming communities. Support is needed for breeding work with under-utilised crops and with plant diversity that offers natural tolerance to harsh conditions. Indigenous and local farming communities have developed and managed that diversity and their role in developing strategies for climate change adaptation must be recognized, strengthened and protected. Instead of being on the receiving end of corporate-inspired, high-tech ‘hand-outs’ – farming communities must be directly involved in setting priorities and strategies for climate adaptation and mitigation.


The Gene Giants are leveraging the climate crisis to win monopoly control of key crop genes and gain public acceptance of genetically engineered seeds. The corporate agenda focuses on proprietary, high-tech seeds that won’t be accessible – or suitable for – the vast majority of the world’s farmers. There is no societal benefit when governments allow a handful of corporations to monopolize climate-related genes and traits. Genetically engineered, climate-ready crops are a false solution to climate change, and the patent grab must be stopped.

Hope Shand is former research director at ETC Group. She writes on issues related to technology, development and diversity, and continues to work closely with ETC Group on special projects.

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