In the early 1980s, seed companies learned to directly modify plant genomes through genetic engineering (GE).11 Then they patented the modified genes, using the patent system - originally meant for industrial inventions and designs - to claim exclusive rights over seeds and plants with the patented genes.12
This new weapon in the growing corporate arsenal of counter-productive practices was even more restrictive than plant variety protection: the novelty of the technology itself now justified excluding by law everyone from using patented seeds unless they paid some kind of royalty or technology fee.
The first commercially successful applications were soya and canola plants that incorporated herbicidal resistance and corn plants that incorporated pesticidal toxins. For the first time, seed companies held the power to sue farmers who saved the seeds of these crops and planted them in a subsequent season, simply on the strength of the patents they held over the genes incorporated in these seeds.
GE corn was also a poisoned pill, engineered to produce a modified version of a pesticidal toxin from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Organic farmers had used Bt for decades to control corn pests, prudently spraying the cultured bacteria only if pest damage reached significant levels. When the Bt gene was inserted into the corn plant, the resulting Bt corn now expressed the toxin throughout the plant's life, making it more likely for Bt resistance to develop rapidly among the target pests and sabotaging a resource that organic farmers - the nemesis of the agrochemical/GE industry - had used for decades.