Anti-biotech activists plan widespread antitrust action

From PHILIP BRASHER of  Associated Press


9.40am (AEST) WASHINGTON: Biotechnology opponents plan anti-trust lawsuits in 30 countries accusing major companies of using genetic engineering to gain control of world agriculture.

Major grain traders and processors will also be named in the suits, said anti-biotech activist Jeremy Rifkin, director of the Foundation on Economic Trends.

The legal actions will force governments to consider curbing the power of a shrinking number of giant agribusiness companies, Rifkin predicted.

Eight major anti-trust law firms have so far agreed to handle the lawsuits, he said. In addition to Rifkin, the plaintiffs will include individual farmers and the National Family Farm Coalition. Plans for the legal action were first reported in today's editions of the Financial Times.

Biotech companies are genetically manipulating plants to make fruits and vegetables more attractive, speed the growth of crops or make them resistant to insects, disease and weedkillers.

The companies control the spread of the technology by patenting the seeds and then leasing them to growers, rather than selling them, to prevent the farmers from reproducing the seeds.

While the crops have grown quickly in popularity with American farmers, the technology has had trouble getting accepted by consumers in Asia and Europe.

Defenders of the technology say it can increase yields while reducing the need for pesticides and eventually will lead to nutritionally enhanced crops.

"Biotechnology is being adopted at an unprecedented rate by American farmers because it's giving them more choices than ever before in how they grow their crops. It's producing benefits for them in terms of higher yields and less use of pesticides," said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation.

But critics say the technology raises a number of environmental concerns in addition to giving giant agribusiness companies, such as St Louis-based Monsanto and Novartis AG of Switzerland, new power over farmers.

A third of the nation's corn crop and about 55 per cent of soybeans US farmers are growing this year have been genetically engineered. The soybean seeds are sold by Monsanto for use with its popular Roundup weedkiller.

Rifkin said the lawsuits would be filed before the next round of negotiations by the World Trade Organisation starts in November. Biotechnology is expected to be a major issue of the global trade talks.

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