In March of 2009, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the biotech industry’s trade association and lobbying arm, submitted a letter to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), which was in the early stages of negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The letter came in response to USTR’s invitation for public comment to help develop negotiation objectives for the proposed trade deal, which at the time involved seven other Pacific Rim nations. The USTR broadly outlined the areas that it was interested in input on—the economic costs and benefits to the removal of tariffs, environmental and labor issues that should be addressed, trade-related intellectual property rights that should be considered—and BIO jumped at the chance to respond. “BIO will focus its comments on issues relating to (i) agricultural biotechnology and (ii) matters concerning intellectual property rights,” the six-page letter read. “BIO appreciates this opportunity to comment on the proposed TPP FTA, and we look forward to working closely with USTR as this initiative proceeds.”
And work closely they did. While the terms of the TPP were kept secret from the public and policymakers during negotiations, USTR negotiators relied heavily on input from the corporate insiders who populate the US government–appointed Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs). A representative from BIO sits on ITAC-15, the committee that focuses on intellectual property (IP) rights, and BIO spent roughly $8 million on lobbying each year while the TPP was under negotiation, paying firms like Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld $80,000 annually to lobby for “patent provision in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.”
The results of this lobbying blitz were unknown until the final text of the agreement was released in November of last year. Signed on February 4 and awaiting ratification by its 12 member countries—Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, United States, Vietnam, Chile, Brunei, Singapore, and New Zealand—the TPP is the largest regional free-trade deal in the world. While many have scrutinized its potential for offshoring jobs, lowering wages, and raising drug prices, few have paid attention to the TPP’s impact on the sector BIO prioritized above any other: agricultural biotechnology. Experts have called the TPP a “big win” for the biotech seed industry, and many warn that the trade deal will further enrich seed companies at the expense of farmers’ rights.
Agricultural biotechnology refers to a range of tools used to alter living organisms, including the tools of genetic modification. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the major product of these tools, which are commonly known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are produced through techniques that alter the genetic material “in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”
Since the 1980s the United States has allowed genetically modified organisms to be patented. Because of the economies of scale at work in the research and development of seed varieties, most patent holders are corporations that can invest millions into experimenting with genomic characteristics. Patents offer holders exclusive rights over the production, selling, and usage of patented GMOs—crops like herbicide-resistant soybeans and drought-tolerant corn. Rewarding large agricultural companies with exclusive ownership rights has fueled consolidation of the seed industry, and today three firms—Monsanto, DowDuPont, and Syngenta—control the majority of the world’s GMO seed market, with greater consolidation afoot.
These firms and other GMO patent holders sell their seeds to farmers along with a legal agreement that they will not save and replant seeds produced from the seeds bought from the company. Farmers found in violation of these agreements are subject to lawsuits from the patent’s owner, even if this violation is accidental. While the United States is the top grower of GMO crops, since 1995 the federal government has negotiated intellectual-property and trade treaties that have allowed seed companies to expand their business into foreign markets by exporting our IP laws. The TPP will further extend their reach.