A coalition of indigenous farmers in South America will today (12 January) launch an international protest against the multinational corporation Syngenta, claiming that its plans threaten their region's biodiversity, culture and food sovereignty.
In an open letter signed today by representatives of 34 indigenous communities in Peru, the coalition says Syngenta’s claims that its patent for ‘terminator technology’ potatoes is neither relevant nor applicable in the region are “deeply offensive”.
The Indigenous Coalition Against Biopiracy in the Andes says that by commercialising such potatoes, the corporation would threaten more than 3,000 local potato varieties that form the basis of livelihoods and culture for millions of poor people.
It wants Syngenta to publicly disown the patent, which describes a genetic-modification process that could be used to stop potatoes from sprouting unless a chemical is applied.
Terminator technology refers to genetic modifications that ‘switch off’ seed fertility, and can therefore prevent farmers from using, storing and sharing seeds and storage organs such as potato tubers.
Although there has been a global moratorium on the field-testing and commercial use of terminator technologies since 2000, research into them continues and some countries and corporations want the ban relaxed.
“Syngenta’s pursuit of terminator potato patents in Europe, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt and Poland — in addition to granted patents in Australia and Russia — demonstrates its investment in the technology and interest in commercialising it,” states the letter. “No trade barriers nor regulatory system would be in place in Peru to keep terminator potatoes from contaminating native potatoes.”
Peru and its Andean neighbours are the potato's centre of diversity — with nearly 4,000 unique varieties that farmers have developed over generations. Before reaching its position, the coalition undertook a lengthy discussion with farmers across the region.
Farmers are concerned that terminator potatoes will enter the Andean production system and destroy their traditions of storing and exchanging potato tubers for future planting. This is central to the farmers’ culture and has contributed to the region’s immense diversity of potato varieties. They also fear that pollen from the modified potatoes could contaminate local varieties and prevent their tubers from sprouting.
“We feel greatly disrespected by corporations that make a single genetic alteration to a plant and then claim private ownership when these plants are the result of thousands of years of careful breeding by indigenous people,” says Argumedo.
“Making farmers depend on chemicals they do not want to use, and preventing them from saving and reusing seeds and tubers, merely increases corporate control over the global food system.”
Last year, a Syngenta shareholder hand-delivered a letter outlining the coalition’s concerns to the corporation’s CEO Michael Pragnell.
“We received an insulting letter in reply,” says Alejandro Argumedo of Asociación ANDES, a founding member of the coalition. “Syngenta disregards our culture, values and our right to use the tubers of a resource that our peoples have nurtured for millennia. Introducing 'terminator technology' potatoes could create major problems for farmers in the Andes.”
Syngenta says it has a policy not to use terminator technology but defines the term solely as a “hypothetical process, which leads to plants with infertile seeds”, adding that it was patented by another company in 1998.
In March 2004, however, Syngenta was granted its own patent (US patent 6,700,039) for a genetic modification process that stops tubers — plant storage organs such as potatoes — from sprouting unless an external chemical is applied.
“While distancing itself from the prevention of seed germination, Syngenta remains keen to prevent potato tuber development,” says Argumedo. “For Andean farmers, this is the same thing.”
The coalition is calling for support from the international community, including the World Council of Churches, which lobbies for political change that supports the word’s poorest communities.
In May 2006, the council’s general secretary Samuel Kobia issued a statement condemning terminator technology. “Preventing farmers from re-planting saved seed will increase economic injustice all over the world and add to the burdens of those already living in hardship,” he said.
The coalition finalised its letter at a meeting held on 11-12 January in Lares, Cusco, Peru. The meeting was organised by Asociación ANDES (the Quechua-Ayamara Association for Sustainable Livelihoods) with support from the International Institute for Environment and Development.
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED (iied.org) provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development.
The Association for Nature and Sustainable Development (ANDES) is a non-profit Peruvian indigenous organisation that aims to improve the quality of life of Andean indigenous communities by promoting the conservation and sustainable use of their bio-cultural heritage through rights-based conservation-development approaches.
Founded in 2002 in Lima, Peru, the Indigenous Coalition Against Biopiracy is an informal network of indigenous communities, community-based organisations and individuals working together to protect their collective biocultural heritage, which is the basis of their culture and sustenance. The coalition primarily aims to create a space to analyse and discuss the threat of biopiracy to indigenous communities as well as strategies to confront its increasing influence on a local and global level.
Syngenta AG is a multinational corporation with staff in 90 countries that markets seeds and crop protection products. The company’s sales in 2005 were approximately US$8.1 billion. Syngenta is listed on the Swiss stock exchange (SWX: SYNN) and the New York stock exchange (NYSE: SYT).
Syngenta’s website states that: “Syngenta and its predecessor companies have a long-standing policy not to use the so-called ‘terminator’ technology to prevent seed germination.” It defines terminator technology as “a hypothetical process, which leads to plants with infertile seeds” and states that it was patented in 1998 (not by Syngenta and its predecessor companies). The website adds that: “Syngenta believes that other methods of controlling the activity of genes, such as chemical switch technology, will provide new benefits for farmers and consumers… Other techniques involving the control of the activity of genes in plants could bring a variety of benefits for farmers and consumers. These include boosting the natural disease or pest resistance abilities within a crop plant during susceptible periods of growth, reducing losses after crops have been harvested, or helping avoid frost damage by controlling the timing of plant development.”
In 2000 the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recommended that governments not field-test or commercialise genetic seed sterilisation technologies - thus creating a de-facto international moratorium. In 2006, the CBD rejected a proposal — backed by Australia, Canada and New Zealand — to allow field trials of the crops on a case-by-case basis.
The potato (Solanum tuberosum) originated in the highlands of South America, where it has been consumed for more than 8,000 years.