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GENETICALLY ENGINEERED CROPS U.S. Patent No. 4,940,835; 5,188,642; 5,484,956 Issued:Three key patents: Two issued to Dilip Shah and others, one in July 1990 and one in February 1993; one issued January 1996 to Ronald Lundquist and David Walters Assigned tMonsanto Corp. (Shah patents); Dekalb Genetics Corp. (Lundquist patent) Prosecuted by:In-house at Monsanto (Shah patents); Minneapolis’s Schwegman, Lundberg & Woessner (Lundquist patent) The idea of genetically engineered crops may still seem futuristic (if not a little bit frightening), but genetically altered corn, cotton, soybeans and more have already invaded the fields, the factories and, chances are, your dinner table. In short — you’ve eaten the stuff. By inserting specific genes into plants, scientists can make crops that do all sorts of newfangled things, like fight off pests and tolerate herbicides that kill weeds. The technology has been embraced by American farmers — genetically altered soybeans now account for 74 percent of the crop, and modified corn 32 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Monsanto Co.’s patents cover a technology used in roughly 80 percent of all genetically engineered crops. The technology makes seeds resistant to the weed killer glyphosate, marketed — also by Monsanto — under the brand name “Roundup.” The modification allows farmers to kill weeds without killing their crops, as well. Monsanto’s patents did more than spur sales of weed killer; they spurred other genetic modifications, including techniques that boost the nutritional content of foods, or allow them to grow better in hostile environments (a boon in many areas plagued by famine). Ronald Lundquist’s patent gives us corn that contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacterium that makes a toxin deadly to corn-eating insects. That means less corn for the bugs, more corn for us. Despite reassurances from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that biotech foods are safe for human consumption, many consumers remain wary, labeling the technology “genetic pollution,” and arguing that its long-term effects haven’t been adequately studied. The European Union halted biotech product approvals in 1998. Moreover, the poorest farmers — those most in need of the bionic crops — are often unable to afford the patented seeds. As the use of modified seeds increases, so, too, will the debate. Alan Cohen is a free-lance writer based in New York City. His e-mail is [email protected].

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