Who will own soybeans?

20 November, 2015

Agrochemical giant Monsanto was founded in 1901, and has since become the world’s biggest seed producer, but now the agrochemicals giant faces the prospect of the expiry of some of its key patents which could have quite an impact on the market.

One of their most successful products is glyphosate, a herbicide sold as Roundup. Monsanto also produces genetically modified Roundup resistant crops such as soybean, cotton and canola. The USDA states that more than 94% of soybean is genetically modified in the US (Fernandez-Cornejo & Wechsler, 2015).

Soy-beans-large

Roundup targets the shikimate pathway enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate 3-phosphate (EPSP) synthase, which is a vital enzyme in the biosynthesis of the aromatic amino acids. Roundup Ready plants contain the gene coding for a glyphosate-insensitive form of this enzyme, isolated from Agrobacterium sp. strain CP4. Resistance to glyphosate is achieved when CP4 EPSP synthase, is incorporated into the plant's genome. Glyphosate binds to the CP4 EPSP synthase in a condensed, non-inhibitory conformation (Funke, 2006).

The two key patents (US5352605 and US5627061) protecting Roundup Ready Soybean have now expired. These patents protected and disclosed that genes coding for Class II EPSPS enzymes have been isolated from five different bacteria, Agrobacterium tumefaciens sp. strain CP4, Achromobacter sp. strain LBAA, Pseudomonas sp. strain PG2982, Bacillus subtilis and Staphylococcus aureus. Chimeric genes expressed in these plant cells utilized promoter regions derived from cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) and are ligated to heterologous coding sequences to form chimeric genes.

Monsanto is well known for rigorously enforcing their soybean intellectual property rights, amounting to around 150 court cases. However their investment in R&D which yielded these world leading innovations is only is recouped by charging premium prices compared to other soybean products.

Due to the expiry of these patents, open innovation is now an option gaining traction to combat Monsanto's monopoly over the US soybean market. The Universities of Kansas, Georgia and Missouri are launching a number of generics this year. There are also organisations such as the Open Source Seed Initiative, which was established as a repository of freely available seeds and promotes awareness of the “critical issue of access to plant genetic resources”. However, they may not be particularly open to generic genetically modified breeds as such organisations have tended to be critical of genetic modification.

 

Due to the expiry of these patents, open innovation is now an option gaining traction to combat Monsanto's monopoly over the US soybean market.

Monsanto itself is not fatally wounded by the recent expiration of these two key patents, as they have another batch of patents to protect Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield trait technology. This technology has been on sale since 2009 and has been planted in over 50 million acres, boasting high yield and profit to farmers while maintaining the weed control benefits of the original Roundup Ready system. Patents protecting Roundup Ready 2, confer improvements such as the incorporation of Arabidopsis Act8 and EF1alpha promoter sequences, along with detection of transformation event MON89788 shown below, allowing Monsanto to detect their technology (Marlanne, 2011):

Soybeans

Other techniques applicable to soybean in the pipeline from Monsanto include RNA interference sprays, which could deliver gene-silencing effects to pests, disabling their ability to spread agricultural diseases. This technique could also engineer temporary resistance to challenges such as drought, leaving the genome unaltered long term, and be far faster than producing a new GMO.

One could take the view that there’s a choice between using generic old technology or Monsanto's new patented technology. However, due to the mixing of soybeans in grain elevators and crushers from suppliers, there’s a risk that the generic old technology may suffer contamination. There have also been widespread concerns and court cases blaming wind-borne cross pollination for the contamination of organic farms with Monsanto's products.

As growing market demand, led by Asia, is seeing GM soybean being used in an ever increasing number of products such as milk, soysauce, tofu and soybean meal, a combination of factors including the price, supply and ownership of the soybean market could have widespread and significant effects over the coming years.

Philip Arvanitis

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Bibliography

Fernandez-Cornejo, J. & Wechsler, J. S., 2015. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/recent-trends-in-ge-adoption.aspx
[Accessed 21 August 2015].

Funke, T., 2006. Molecular basis for the herbicide resistance of Roundup Ready crops. PNAS, 103(35), pp. 13010-13015.

Marlanne, M., 2011. Soybean Event MON89788 and methods for detection thereof. EP, Patent No. EP2275561.

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