Could Open Source Make GMOs More Palatable?

from the it-worked-before dept

As a recent DailyDirt noted, opinions on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are sharply divided. But that heated argument tends to obscure another problem that Techdirt has often written about in other fields: the use of patent monopolies to exert control, in this case over the food chain. By inserting DNA sequences into plants and animals and obtaining patents, the biotech industry is granted surprisingly wide-ranging powers over how its products are used, as the Bowman case made clear. That’s potentially problematic when those products are the foods that keep us alive.

But we have been here before in the world of software, where companies had broad control over how people could use applications. The solution was free software — code licensed in such a way that it granted users permission to do practically anything they wanted with it. So why not try something similar for GMOs? asks this article in Slate:

Like open-source software, open-source food genetics would advance biological research in this country, and our universities would soon become hothouses of innovation. Intellectual production without intellectual property would thrive, as scientists gained access to DNA code in all its infinite variety, along with the freedom to create derivative work and redistribute findings.

The column points out that a licensing system for plants already exists:

Open-source agriculture joined the patent left movement [inspired by Richard Stallman and his copyleft approach] when Cambia Technologies, an Australian biotech company that researches and develops GMOs, offered a licensing agreement called BIOS, which allows for the free use of a technology called “transbacter.” Transbacter can be deployed to alter plant genetics, and its aim is not one specific modification for one specific corporate interest but to enable a slew of innovations.

Utlimately, though, the article’s author Frederick Kaufman foresees the need for a more radical solution:

BIOS, like all the other open-source initiatives, is far from perfect, as it creates the paradox of endlessly replicating armies of anti-licensing licenses. The way out of the logical mire — and the way to marshal agri-tech to the cause of climate change — is an explicit exception in the licensing law, an intellectual property loophole for food.

The carrot, so to speak, would be that open-source GMOs would allow the creation of raw materials and foodstuffs without today’s problems of ownership and control, and that might finally make them more palatable to the many people and countries worried about those issues.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+

Filed Under: , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Could Open Source Make GMOs More Palatable?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

A copyleft license would be a good first step. DNA is basically biological software coding anyway.

Although, I don’t think messing with the food supply before scientists are able to code a synthetic DNA double helix completely from scratch, is wise.

Scientists don’t seem to fully understand everything about DNA yet, so they’re just kind of hacking around with existing bio-code, and adding little programs ‘scripts’ to existing DNA.

I guess it’s alright for them to hack around, as long as our supply of the original ‘stable’ DNA bio-code (natural plant seeds) doesn’t run out.

Otherwise a few decades or centuries down the road, we might find out the DNA in our synthetic plants isn’t as stable as we thought, and that could be disastrous.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Otherwise a few decades or centuries down the road, we might find out the DNA in our synthetic plants isn’t as stable as we thought, and that could be disastrous.

Not a ‘few decades’ RIGHT NOW !!!!! and in the past, it is already a MAJOR problem. Thankfully there are people working hard to save and store old and native varieties and their genetic diversity.

Problem with genetic plants are they are ALL the same, and do not have the natural variations to withstand environmental changes.

Whereas the local types have better ability to withstand problems, you might not get as big a crop, but if you have a problem with GM you will get NOTHING, with local seeds you will get less, BUT SOMETHING.

It’s the difference between eating or not, for a lot of subsistence farmers.

MM_Dandy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Problem with genetic plants are they are ALL the same, and do not have the natural variations to withstand environmental changes.

I’m not sure where claims like this come from, but this simply isn’t true. Even small seed companies (and there are a few out there) develop 10s to 100s of crop varieties, and keep a base stock of the major strains on hand. Some varieties are generally more hardy, others are specifically geared towards shorter growing seasons, different soil types, and so on. The major seed companies offer a few varieties which have higher chance for success in different localities (for example, shorter season varieties in North Dakota as opposed to southern Illinois), and the rest is up to the farmer buying the seed.

While it is true that because of patenting, GM crops are not usually exposed to long-term environmental pressures and so aren’t subject to natural selection. But, since most (if not all) seed companies maintain a wide variety within their stock, this isn’t a problem because environments change slowly enough for companies to change tact in the lab and focus on the strains which would have the higher chances to succeed in the new environment.

Having said all that, crop success on a season-to-season basis (which is how nearly every farmer measures it) has everything to do with much shorter term effects. Weather and pests can ruin GM and non-GM crops alike. So, if you’re a farmer, you have the same choice whether you use GM or non-GM seeds. Plant a single variety (GM or non-GM – but God and Monsanto forbid that you do both), and hope that the vulnerabilities in that strain are exposed (higher risk – usually higher payoff/bigger yield); or diversify and plant several varieties of either GM or non-GM and you’ll probably have something to harvest at the end of the season.

Anonymous Coward says:

not going to work

It’s not like people develop GMO’s because they enjoy doing it, or do it as a hobby, as OSS is developed.

Also the Open Source model has not been what anyone would really call a raging success, nor has it stopped the non-open source models from continuing to produce quality, quantity and profit.

Profits that clearly result in better products and more developments.

Open Source is very good at copying what others have done, but not very good at original developments or innovations.

Also being open source does not make you immune from the patent system, or any other in place laws you have to abide by (agree with or not).

So you have to ask yourself what you expect to achieve, it’s clear it’s not be achieved with Open Source principles ?

So, basically it’s a nice idea, but if it does not work with software, it’s most certainly not going to work with GMO’s.

Being open source does not get you a loophole with current legislation, nor does it circumvent the patent system, and historically has not led to significant technical developments, or much in the way of commercial success.

There is still a poorly defined method of paying programmers and developers and rewarding them for their efforts. With no prospect of commercial returns there is little incentive to develop commercial grade products.

There is a very good reason why open source products are offered for free, because most people are not willing to pay for it, simply the quality and completeness, (the commercial shine) is not there.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: not going to work

you might not think so, but many will beg to differ, and it is without question in regards to quantity and profit.

Open source software has gone to great lengths in the past to emulate what MS does, why would they do that ??? I wonder. ??

Would it be because of it’s massive commercial success ?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: not going to work

Open source software has gone to great lengths in the past to emulate what MS does, why would they do that ?

You must be talking about OSes here? You’re both right and wrong.

If you’re talking Linux, then you’re just incorrect. Linux in no way emulates Windows. The underlying architecture is more mature, more stable, older, and of higher quality than Windows.

Now, it is true that the GUIs tend to emulate Windows. The reason isn’t that Windows is so awesome, it’s that Windows is what most people are used to. If you’re going to design a new car, you’re going to go to great lengths to make the UI comprehensible to people used to driving the other cars.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: not going to work

Android is a bad example to use, but a good example of how Open Source fails as soon as there is a potential for profit and advantage in not releasing software developments, but at the same time paying some form of lip service to the Open Source community to keep them on side.

It shows how Open is not so open when money is involved !! and a minimum standard of commercial quality is necessary.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 not going to work

Please cite one concrete example.

OpenOffice tried that, it got forked and now people use OpenLibre.

MySQL got forked and now you got MariaDB.

Nessus did that and now we got OpenVAS.

So I have to ask where are those failures?
All I see is the code morphing, changing names and still being wildly distributed.

With millions of projects started, you sure can find some instances where what you say is true, still I don’t see that happening, so please provide the source of your allegations for further scrutiny.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: not going to work

Also the Open Source model has not been what anyone would really call a raging success

Why do you say that? It absolutely looks like a raging success to me.

Profits that clearly result in better products and more developments.

[citation needed] The worst you can say about OSS is that it is no worse than commercial software. In many areas, it is far superior.

Open Source is very good at copying what others have done, but not very good at original developments or innovations.

This is just demonstrably wrong. The norm is to see the new ideas, improvements, and features show up in OSS a few years before commercial software incorporates them. I know there must be exceptions to this, but I honestly can’t think of a single one right now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: not going to work


Being open source does not get you a loophole with current legislation, nor does it circumvent the patent system, and historically has not led to significant technical developments, or much in the way of commercial success.

Being open source actually could make the law work in their favor, you cannot patent something that is published.

Open source science could have millions of amateur scientists, looking around thousands of paths while a group of great minds would only be able to search a fraction of those paths.

I just read about some bug lovers using photo websites to track, identify and do some science. The researchers used gps location, with data stamps on insect photos taken to do it, and see migration patterns, species cataloging, etc.

Now imagine thousands of people trying every combination under the sun for genetics and posting their findings online into an open database.

People could turn the patent system against itself by making it virtually impossible to patent anything.

Anonymous Coward says:

So I can see how you could license source code under something like the GPL, but what or how are you going to license a genetic sequence ? or a gene modification ? how are you going to be able to modify it and pass that ‘improvement’ back into the community ?

Also the GPL, and other Open licences are copyright licenses only, they use copyright laws to exert their legal authority. So are you for copyright ?

It’s copyright, it does not solve the patent problem (if it’s a problem), it does not lead to significant technological advancement. It is and will always been seen as a hobby activity, and a copy method.

So it does not get your around patents, but forces copyright laws onto you, and it’s advantageous why ?

Anonymous Coward says:

DNA is basically biological software coding anyway.

So if you take it as such, then you have to believe that DNA sequence is derived from nature, with no license or legal restrictions. You have not received that ‘code’ under a license, yet you feel you can take that code, and if you modify it, you then declare the entire genome as ‘licensed’ by you, because you modified a single genome ?

that would be the equivalent of taking “Linux from the wild”, modifying one variable and licensing it under any scheme you feel like !!!.

Al Lelle says:

Where to start

Several points:

* You can already buy a do it yourself PCR kit, and hack away at GM in your own home.

* The original and not nearly so well regulated method of GM used tiny pellets shot into living tissue (vs viral phage vectors) – you can do that at home in your spare time too.

* Many open source GM tools already exist – sequencing softwares, open databases, etc.

* Many folks around the world are hobbyist plant breeders – the seed collectors, heirloom strain keepers, etc. With a little time and training, folks like that might take up GM too.

* Most Gm work is for money – the ‘plant breeders rights’, and gene patenting has made Monsanto a vast amount of money. You can be sure they’ll litigate you to your grave i fthey think you might cut into that revenue.

* It’s a funny world, and you may not want the biopunks moving cannabinoid genes into lawn grass or tomato, or more sinister things, like putting them into the common cold virus, or making transmissable synthetic genetic defects.

* If I recall correctly, William Morris was the first person to be jailed for a software worm – he was putzing around in a software lab and the thing escaped and ate a lot of bandwidth. Fugitive life forms would be harder to constrain.

* I think Open Source Bioware is as good an idea as any in the GM world, and manifestly, I think it is basically dangerous hubris .

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Where to start

just what I said about Open Source software, thanks for supporting my claims.

Sure, you can do ‘genetics’ as a hobby, just as you can write software.

That has nothing to do with licensing, IF you get GPL code and modify it, you are obliged to return that code (back to the community), it’s a form of viral copyright.

But you don’t get natural genomes under a GPL or any other license. So do you expect to be able to enforce the GPL on something free and natural and without any restrictions?

GPL is a copyright license, so that process would be assigning the copyright of that natural genome (and any modifications you make) under copyright !!!!…

That is better how ?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Where to start

No, you can’t copyright the genome, but you cannot patent something that is already known either, you just need to show that you publish something before the claims about some part of the genome where made.

Imagine millions of amateur bio-engineering monks publishing every bit of information they can gather?

That could actually pose a problem to patents since numbers count, no matter how brilliant some people can be, you can’t work 24/7 for 365 days every year and focus on thousands of details at once, those monkeys can.

Anonymous Coward says:

A better argument

It’s simple genetic modifications result in a new species, You cant patent a species, you can name it, claim discovery of it. But you cant copyright or patent it.

we share 99.9% the same DNA as a chimp, so that tells me you don’t have to modify DNA very much to creating something VERY DIFFERENT !!!

Instead of genetically modified organisms you should call it, Genetically controlled species creation.

Anonymous Coward says:

To create open source bio engineering one needs first the tools, in software all the tools where there(i.e. the computer) the rest is history.

That is why initiatives like PublicLaboratory are essential, they are creating the tools needed to actually do some affordable science.

With their spectrometer you actually can detect heavy metals(e.g. mercury) in soil samples.

There will be no open source GMO without the tools.

Cheap PCR machines which are easy to produce, but this is one tool and to do some bio-engineering you actually need an array of those tools.

Dies, electrophoresis, DNA injectors(e.g. Gene Gun), microscopes, electron microscopes, gas spectroscope, and so forth.

The tools are coming(cheap affordable, good enough) but they are not there yet, there are some that people still didn’t bother to produce.

Once that is done, the science can start.

The Old Man in The Sea says:

Genetic Modification is a very old technology

Just to clear up what appears to be a misunderstanding here. Genetic modification of biological systems is very ancient, thousands of years old. Most, if not all, foodstuffs we use around the world today have been altered by man. These plants and animals are not what were originally available. There are exceptions of course, tribal groups in hunter-gatherer mode.

However, where there is farming of any sort, the crops and animals being grown are a modified form. They have been genetically modified for increase production. This also applies to many of the ornamental plants and animals we have. The tools used can be simple selection for a particular trait but it is still a form of genetic modification.

Just because someone develops a term to describe a specific process does not mean that the term in question is actually restricted to that specific process.

Some of the tools today may not have been used in the past, but then again they may have been. We just do not know.

I recently came across article on nanotechnology where the authors were investigating how 15 and 16 century goldsmiths and silversmiths were able to achieve results that we at this point in cannot repeat, but through nanotechnology are on the road of duplicating.

One thing we do know is that there are many things that have been done in the past that we either cannot repeat (we don’t have the technology) or we have finally redeveloped the technology or we have created another way of doing the same thing. There really is nothing new under the sun.

Just an aside, many years ago, I watched a historical documentary on medicines and hospitals during the middle ages. One thing that stood out for me was a very small segment that covered a medicine they found in their investigations. It was used for purpose that I no longer recall. What was interesting was what it had been made from. There were three ingredients found in the medicine in very specific proportions. Each of the plants that made up the medicine was poisonous. Any combination of two ingredients was even more poisonous, but all three together became a useful non-poisonous medicine. The three poisons react together to neutralise each other. My base question here was how did they work this out?

Today, we have a tendency to be very arrogant over our “scientific” and “technological” achievements (even against the recent past). We do not recognise that many of the things we do today are variations on a theme of what has been done in the past.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Genetic Modification is a very old technology

short answer is your wrong..

they are been selected for specific traits, BUT NOT MODIFIED by humans.

You select cows for breading that produce more milk, this IS NOT genetic modification, it is the selection of natural variation for advantageous traits..


This is NOT what occurs in genetics labs today, Surly you must,,,, MUST KNOW THIS !!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Ima Fish (profile), Aug 2nd, 2013 @ 7:50am

The point of GMO foods have nothing to do with higher yields or increasing quality. It’s solely to do with patenting food. They’re imagining a society where we have to pay patent licenses fee to live.

The forces behind GMO foods will never allow it to go open source. Never. Ever.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...