Environmental activists are accusing the U.S. Department of Agriculture of protecting the wealth of biotech companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta rather than exploring options for a future viable word food supply.

They say one of the objectives of the Department when it was formed in 1862 was to ensure U.S. farmers had access to agricultural crop seeds, with one third of its budget dedicated to this function. Now they say the Department is not only helping biotech companies patent genetically modified (GMO) foods and seeds, but also foods that have evolved naturally.

Just ten companies control 65 percent of proprietary, or intellectual property protected seeds. Activists say that if this allowed to continue, it will result in the age old practice of farmers and agriculturists growing, saving, and exchanging seed being wiped out, with seed production and sale being limited to the monopoly of a few corporations.

Monsanto has already attempted to patent a non-GMO tomato, and now Syngenta is trying to patent natural foods in Europe. In the U.S. non-GMO plants cannot be patented.

Syngenta has already obtained the rights to a pepper strain which has been naturally developed over hundreds of years. The pepper, which is high yielding and resistant to pests, was developed using SMART breeding, not GMO technology. SMART breeding is a long-used and conventional plant growing technique in which plants that have “desirable” qualities are cross bred with other plants.

Since Syngenta owns the patent, farmers cannot grow the pepper without permission. Furthermore, if the patented pepper strain cross-pollinates with other forms of peppers, one can be held legally responsible for growing a ‘proprietary’ secret.

The activists say there is nothing about SMART breeding that is proprietary as it has been used by farmers for thousands of years. Nonetheless, the European Patent Office granted Syngenta a patent for the pepper that is applicable in 38 European countries and which now through the Department of Agriculture, Syngenta is trying to enforce in the U.S.

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