Agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto agreed in September to a global non-exclusive licensing agreement with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to use the ground-breaking CRISPR-Cas gene-editing tool.
The St. Louis, Missouri-based company, which is in the midst of a merger with Germany’s Bayer under regulatory review, plans to use the technology for agricultural purposes. “Genome-editing techniques present precise ways to dramatically improve the scale and discovery efficiency of new research that can improve human health and global agriculture,” said Issi Rozen, chief business officer of the Broad Institute. “We are encouraged to see these tools being used to help deliver responsible solutions to help farmers meet the demands of our growing population.”
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Around the world, plant breeders are resisting what they see as corporate control of the food supply by making seeds available for other breeders to use.
Frank Morton has been breeding lettuce since the 1980s. His company offers 114 varieties, among them Outredgeous, which last year became the first plant that NASA astronauts grew and ate in space. For nearly 20 years, Morton’s work was limited only by his imagination and by how many different kinds of lettuce he could get his hands on. But in the early 2000s, he started noticing more and more lettuces were patented, meaning he would not be able to use them for breeding. The patents weren’t just for different types of lettuce, but specific traits such as resistance to a disease, a particular shade of red or green, or curliness of the leaf. Such patents have increased in the years since, and are encroaching on a growing range of crops, from corn to carrots — a trend that has plant breeders, environmentalists and food security experts concerned about the future of the food production.
A determined fellow dedicated to the millennia-old tradition of plant breeding, Morton still breeds lettuce — it just takes longer, because more restrictions make it harder for him to do his work.
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