Published: 07/02/2005

Cecil Rhodes, the notorious British imperialist for whom the former Rhodesia was named, once said that he would annex the planets if he could. His ambitions were modest compared to today’s “life sciences” corporations, whose appetites are boundless. Rhodes had to content himself with Southern Africa. Backed by a predatory notion of “intellectual property rights” and the WTO TRIPS Agreement, Monsanto seeks to patent an entire species, the soy bean. Syngenta is even more ambitious: the company is going after the plant kingdom, and has applied for a patent on the process by which plants produce flowers.

In June 2001, Syngenta, the Swiss-based corporation which is the world’s largest agro-chemical company and number three in seeds, filed a patent application (PCT/EPO2/06968, Publication Number WO03/00094) with the World Intellectual Property Organization for exclusive rights to the genetic sequence governing “development and timing of flower formation in plants and which can be used to modulate flower development, architecture and flowering time.” The patent application was an outgrowth of research into the rice genome, one result of which has been the notorious “Golden Rice”, the vitamin A-enriched GMO rice touted as the solution to poverty-induced vitamin A deficiency. This patent is virtually limitless in its scope, as it lays claim to the genetic processes regulating flower formation not only in rice but in flowering plants in general. Because the process of flower formation in rice is broadly similar in a number of other plants, the patent application extends to a number of staple food and cereal crops such as wheat, maize (corn) and bananas, including 23 major food crops listed in the annex to the Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Syngenta’s application explicitly claims patent rights over plants containing these genetic sequences which are as yet undiscovered or which have not yet been taxonomically classified. Though it contains no invention, it is a patent on the future as well as the present.

The threat to global food security in this patent on life is enormous. GMO rice is the biggest prize by far in the corporate rush to impose on farmers patented seeds and inputs. Even without the GMO spinoffs, the patent would impose a straightjacket on publicly-funded agricultural research by erecting a patent-protected wall around research into the process by which plants flower and reproduce.

The company’s international patent application has now progressed to the “national phase” of the patent protection process – and Syngenta has indicated it would seek approval in 115 countries for its gene monopoly.

Unless international action is taken to induce Syngenta to withdraw its applications, the patent will have to be challenged in each of these countries. The IUF has therefore joined with the ETC Group, (formerly RAFI), the organization which first uncovered and sounded the alarm over the patent, to seek to block it. The IUF has written Dr. Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in which the IUF has consultative status, calling on him to request that the patent be blocked in each of the countries in which application is pending.

Plant genetic resources and information belong in the public domain, where they can be utilized for the benefit of all. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources is supposed to secure this human right, but the TRIPS Agreement and loopholes in national and international patent law are facilitating the corporate plunder of genetic resources which belong to and must serve all of humanity. We will be working with ETC and other similarly engaged groups at national and international level to effectively insure that Syngenta’s attack on global food resources is defeated.