How Green Biotech Turned White and Blue
News May 11, 2010
- Lucas Laursen, Nature Biotechnology, May 2010, v. 28, P 393-395
'Argentina has blazed a trail as one of the leading genetically modified (GM) crop producers. Can other developing countries import the seeds of its success? '
This year, midway through Argentina's 2005-2015 Strategic Plan for Biotechnology, a long-stalled update of the Seed Law circulating in Buenos Aires may finally reach the legislative floor. The current law, which facilitated the rapid boom of transgenic crops in Argentina in the 1990s-60% of Argentina's soy crop was genetically modified for herbicide resistance within three years of the introduction of Roundup Ready soy-is a source of conflict over intellectual property rights, as it permits farmers to retain seeds without paying royalties.
However, the meteoric rise in GM crop production was not solely the function of the seed law. Compatible agricultural practices in the early 1990s and a welcoming government contributed. Critics and fans alike say it's a model from which other developing countries can learn important lessons. Critics warn of agribusiness's disproportionate influence on government, an influence they say has created an explosion of monoculture that jeopardizes the businesses and health of small farmers. Conversely, Argentine farmers and investors continue betting on GM varieties, arguing that the increased yields and financial returns have helped prop up the country's ailing economy. The question now is whether other countries will continue to look to Argentina as a role model in the adoption of GM crops.
Moises Burachik, a senior scientist at the Buenos Aires-based National Commission for Agricultural Biotechnology Assessment (CONABIA) and part of a team responsible for assessing the risks of GM crops, worked through his recent summer vacation to get through a backlog of applications. Together with his counterparts at the National Service for Food Health and Quality (SENASA, Buenos Aires), who study the impact of new products on human health, Burachik has a growing to-do list and brimming calendar.
Burachik is proud of the group's performance in enabling Argentina's biotech boom, but he is concerned that understaffing and outdated regulations are holding back field trials and commercialization. And although Argentina was once second in the world only to the United States in terms of transgenic acreage, this year the country slipped into third place behind Brazil, which has been expanding cultivation of biotech crops. Bureaucratic hurdles are not the only things slowing down GM crop adoption; there is also a lack of public investment in
agricultural research in Argentina. And although Argentinean regulators approved a new variety of maize (the Swiss-based Syngenta's Bt11xGA21 GM maize), which represents the next generation of transgenic crops, in Brazil a national research group recently independently produced its own herbicide-resistant form of GM soybean, something Argentina has yet to accomplish. In some ways, it's surprising that Argentina has been such a trailblazer for biotech crops; part of the reason for that was the willingness of politicians and their scientific advisers nearly two decades ago to create the necessary infrastructure. <cut>
Argentina's intellectual property laws helped to lower the cost of adoption. Argentina adheres to the 1978 International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV 1978), which permits creators of new plants to charge an initial license fee, but exempts growers from paying annual fees for new seeds. For maize, creators are able to earn their R&D costs back because the plants are not self-fertilizing and growers must buy the seeds each year. Soy is self-fertilizing and although Argentine farmers may not legally distribute seeds, under UPOV 1978, they are permitted to retain seeds for their own use. UPOV updated its terms in a 1991 convention to limit this practice, but Argentina and its partners in the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) have not signed on to the new convention.
When Roundup Ready soy arrived in Argentina, it was under license to Asgrow Argentina, a multinational owned at the time by the American-based Upjohn Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan, which seed and grain importer/exporter Nidera of Buenos Aires subsequently acquired. Nidera spread the seeds widely and legally throughout the country, but illegal trade, nicknamed 'white bag', had already begun. During that time, Monsanto made much of its Argentine income from selling the patented Roundup Ready herbicide that accompanied Roundup Ready-resistant soybeans. By the time Monsanto applied for a revalidation patent on its Roundup Ready-resistant soy in 1995, Argentina had signed TRIPS, the international "trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights" agreement that does not recognize revalidation patents. Argentine courts could deny the Monsanto application on the principle that the transgenic seed was already widely distributed and part of the public domain. In 2003, Monsanto withdrew its soy business from Argentina, though the firm still sells various formulations of Roundup Ready herbicide there and reported $183 million in gross receipts from Argentina in its fiscal 2008-2009 year, making Argentina its third-biggest regional market.
A consequence of the Argentinean legal environment was that the price of legitimately licensed seeds fell, giving Argentine exporters a small but noticeable advantage in global markets. This prompted the US government and the American Soybean Association, headquartered in St. Louis, to put pressure on developing countries like Brazil not to import Roundup Ready soybeans from Argentina. By then, however, the trade in illegal seeds had spread beyond Argentina's borders into agriculturally similar parts of Brazil and Paraguay.
The debate over GM crops is much louder in other developing countries. In Peru, which still lacks regulation to enforce its biotech law, opponents have called for a moratorium on the import of biotech products and claimed to detect transgenes in cultivated crops. A scientist who contested these claims is currently facing criminal charges for defamation (Nat. Biotechnol. 28, 110, 2010). Greenpeace is sponsoring a "Brazil Better Without Transgenic" advertising campaign and some consumer-facing food processors and retailers are hesitant to adopt biotech products, though they remain popular with producers3.
With growing markets in China, India and elsewhere, Argentina and its neighbors will continue trying to capitalize on their competitive advantages growing soy, cotton and maize. The new seed law under consideration in Buenos Aires may open the door to more private investment if international firms, such as Monsanto, are satisfied that their royalties will be more secure than under today's system. But the cost of distribution will depend heavily on international agreements, such as the pending EU approval schedules. Those challenges, which Argentina has navigated thus far, might be enough to make other countries think twice about how to implement their own biotech crop plans, but at least in Argentina, Yankelevich says, "there's no going back."
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