Plant engineered to resist herbicide provokes dispute: Susan Watts examines the arguments over the development of herbicide-resistant crops

ENVIRONMENTAL organisations object to patents on life. Patents were designed to protect inventions - to cover the mousetrap, not the mouse itself, they say.

Their latest dispute is over the first patent to be granted on herbicide-resistant crops. Greenpeace has failed to persuade the European Patent Office to withdraw this patent - granted on plants engineered to resist the Basta herbicide.

The group's main concern is that the herbicide is manufactured by Hoechst, which was granted exclusive rights to exploit the resistant crops. Environmentalists argue that this type of 'monopoly' control over genetic resources should not be trusted to any individual, and certainly not to a multinational corporation.

But Plant Genetic Systems, the Belgian company that filed the original patent and settled the patent deal with Hoechst, argues that since the German company is not a seed company it is not in a position to set up a full monopoly - selling both herbicide-resistant seed and the herbicide. Hoechst would need to strike a development deal with a seed company to create the situation environmentalists fear, the Belgians argue.

Greenpeace is particularly opposed to the herbicide-resistance patent since it believes it promotes the use of harmful chemicals. Herbicides should be avoided, the group says, because they threaten human health, pollute the environment and risk the planet's natural biodiversity by killing plant species.

Dr Anne-Marie Bouckaert, director of the technology planning and protection division at Plant Genetic Systems (one of the two companies that filed the patent) disagrees. She said: 'Of course that particular herbicide will be used more often, but it will be replacing other herbicides which are more detrimental to the environment.' Greenpeace is also unhappy because conferring Basta resistance on crops involves adding only a single gene, taken from bacteria. The anxiety is that this increases the likelihood of the gene 'escaping' and passing into species via pollen. This would risk the spread of herbicide resistance to weeds, rendering these less easy to control.

Even Dr Bouckaert concedes this point. 'Because the trait is due to one gene it could more easily be transferred to another species,' she said. But she said that PGS was one of the most experienced European companies testing genetically-engineered crops outside the laboratory.

'There may be cross-pollination between wild species and cultured crops, but in practice you see that it occurs in very few cases.'

She added that the fact that the Basta transformation involves only one gene also makes it easier to track the gene if it does jump into other species.

'Escape of genes in either direction is a problem of which farmers are very aware. Farmers and breeders who pay a substantial amount for seeds need to avoid at any price cross-pollination with wild species. They are therefore already using natural barriers - taking care about which crops they plant next to each other.'

But Greenpeace argues that this is too big a chance to take. Sue Mayer, director of science, said: 'Farmers cannot control who grows what over the hedge.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003