Monsanto, intellectual property and organo-mysticism

I read something funny today that I wish to share with you. It is about the contemporary plant breeding industry, agribusiness and the ownership of life. The latter, with particular regard to the issue of patenting human genes, is the hottest of hot topics at the moment. For a review of some of the coverage see this recent blog post on the IPBio Network website (the site, by the way, is an essential resource for anyone interested in biology and intellectual property). My own subject of interest – plant breeding – tends to receive less public attention with regard to intellectual property, but this is more than made up for by GM (as seen most recently with the passing of the so called ‘Monsanto Protection Act’). Happily the issue of intellectual property in plant breeding is alive and well amongst historians of science, so I share this here with you and they.

Another GM. Image from Wikipedia. Because blog posts look better with pictures.

The popular history of plant breeding goes like this. Around 1900 Mendel is rediscovered. Geneticists can now manipulate plants and animals in a more fundamental way. They assume the primary position of authority in breeding industries and take over the breeding of plants and animals. Eventually large cooperation’s emerge to pay geneticists to breed plants and animals on their behalf. They all get rich and the world gets fed. (It should go without saying that this doesn’t pass the threshold of history, but for our purposes it will do just fine.)

Within this story one would expect a ‘scientisation’ of breeding. All those old ideas about plants – the ones that used to be used by breeders to capture the imagination of farmers and other potential customers – get scrubbed out. Where once a local merchant might give a variety a local name, to emphasise its suitability to the region, we now expect varieties to have the same name everywhere (and preferably come from a stock labelled 2X046P etc.) Where once a farmer might have developed familiarity with a variety over a number of years by growing it on his own land and making selections, IP legislation now makes this at best difficult and at worst illegal. Instead the assessments of agricultural scientists are to be trusted, and these tend to conjure up all the romanticism of a good Alan Titchmarsh novel. Things get more sensible, more lab coat, more scientific!

Imagine my surprise then when I read the following passage. It is referring to the results of some trials conducted on a Monsanto variety bred to be resistant to Corn Root Worm (CRW). A puzzle had emerged from the trials. No matter how badly damaged the roots of the Monsanto variety appeared to be after an attack of CRW, even when they seemed to suffer more damage than the roots of traditional control varieties, the Monsanto var. still gave a much higher yield than the control. For the scientists involved this lead them to think that root damage was insufficient as a measure of CRW resistance, thereby calling into question the relationship between root damage and yield in the first place. Still, how to explain the results?

“Our discussion with seed company executives suggests that these additional yield increases are real and that they can be explained by the ability of the new traits to allow the full genetic capability of the plant to be expressed. The logic is that traits protect against pests and diseases that cause plant stress. When these stresses are eliminated, genetic potential that previously had not been fully expressed due to plant stress can now manifest.”

Now I am not trying to cast doubt on this possible explanation, far from it. Rather, I want to point out how easily some unknown ‘company executives’ can provide highly romantic – one might say mystical – explanations for the performance of their varieties when given the opportunity  This kind of explanation wouldn’t look out of place in the C19th, let alone the much maligned texts of organic farmers developed throughout the C20th.

What is more, this episode is related by authors looking to interrogate the assumed link between intellectual property (IP) legislation and improved yield. They argue that other scholars have too often focussed on the supposed negative consequences of IP in plant breeding.

It is possible that authors believe that the benefits of this research are so obvious that they chose to focus on negative aspects simply to make a point. However, it may then follow that the combined impact of all these negative forces actually serves to obscure the message about benefits.”

Their paper then goes on to argue strongly for IP providing the necessary (almost the sufficient) cause of rapid increases in crop yield up to the present day. Now, speaking as but one humble historian, I doubt very much that those scholars who have convincingly, and repeatedly demonstrated the damaging results of aggressive IP legislation have done so ‘simply to make a point’.  What is more, their own CRW story quoted above, points precisely in the direction of this more sophisticated story. When one considers that the rise of large multi-national corporations was achieved at the expense of the more ‘holistic’ approach to plant breeding touted by many conventional breeders, one which shares much in common with the ‘logic’ of ‘plant stress’ espoused by the executives quoted above, it is a little rich for these authors to then conclude that “If this logic is correct, then trait research like CRW-resistance may end up motivating more traditional breeding.” That it may, but it’s nothing that couldn’t have been learnt elsewhere. In fairness to these authors, only one of the three has a biological background. In unfairness to them, I wonder if it matters that their research was given funding and data by the American Seed Trade Association? I wonder.

P.S. in case you missed it, the funny part was in the last paragraph.

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