Biotech behemoth Monsanto was recently in the news for its merger with German pharmaceutical giant Bayer – a $66 billion deal which is reportedly the biggest yet this year and, if it goes through, may mean the end of the controversial Monsanto brand name. But if that massive merger is newsworthy, and it most certainly is, the company has also made other headlines recently which if anything warrant perhaps even more attention.
Last week, Monsanto announced that it had “reached a global licensing agreement for the use of the CRISPR-Cas genome-editing technology in agriculture with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.” CRISPR-Cas9, or simply CRISPR, is a genetic engineering technology that has been developed in the last few years, which allows for more precise editing of DNA than older gene splicing techniques.
While Monsanto’s license with the Broad Institute to use CRISPR is non-exclusive, as Lulu Chang of tech news site Digital Trends explains, Monsanto’s interest in the new genetic engineering technology is very much related to its longstanding business model of manufacturing biological intellectual property.
Monsanto genetically engineers plant seeds. “Agricultural companies such as Monsanto are able to patent seed trait technology because it is considered intellectual property, and intellectual property rights are protected in the U.S.,” Monsanto frankly states on its website.
The company genetically engineers seeds with special traits, such as resistance to the pesticide Roundup, which it also makes, and then sells them to farmers under “a stewardship agreement and contract agreeing not to save and replant seeds produced from the crops they grow from Monsanto seed.” The agreement locks farmers into ongoing dependency on their seed supplier: Monsanto.
While Monsanto officials have said they support labeling of food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), that claim is to be taken with a grain of salt. The company has backed legislation such as the recently passed law known in some circles as the DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act. While the DARK Act claims to make GMO labeling mandatory nationwide, it contains a significant loophole, allowing companies “to use QR codes or 1-800 numbers as a form of GMO labeling, forcing consumers to scan the code or make a call to get more information.”
But it seems even a 1-800 number to call may be too much information for Monsanto to divulge to its customers. As Chang of Digital Trends writes, an altered seed engineered using CRISPR “technically, is not the same as creating a GMO. A GMO sees a plant’s genes swapped with DNA from an entirely different organism, which often gives people the heebie jeebies. But with CRISPR, everything is much more precise.” Indeed — precisely calculated to create seeds that count as intellectual property, but not as a GMO requiring an identifying label.
Monsanto is not the only well-funded organization to take an interest in the Broad Institute’s genetic research. A year ago a facility at the Institute known as the Foundry was awarded a $32 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for its work in “DNA design and manufacturing.” The government, however, appears wary of gene editing. Despite its gung-ho attitude when it come to developing things like humanoid robots, DARPA seems to be taking a more cautious approach to CRISPR with its announcement of a new “Safe Genes” program this month.
“DARPA wants to develop controls for gene editing and derivative technologies to support responsible research and defend against irresponsible actors who might intentionally or accidentally release modified organisms,” said Renee Wegrzyn, DARPA program manager, according to a press release. The goals of the Safe Genes program include the development of “a capability to eliminate unwanted engineered genes from environments and restore systems to their genetic baseline state.”
Indeed, earlier this year James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, included gene editing in a list of potential “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.” And he is probably correct in viewing the technology as a threat. If government agencies obsessed with monopolizing control of information and agribusiness companies obsessed with monopolizing control of the world’s food supply can agree that it’s worth paying attention to, it’s probably something you can’t afford to ignore.