The Main Problem With Patented GM Food Is The Patent, Not The Fact That It's GM

from the hard-to-swallow dept

The acrimonious debate and serious lobbying that developed around California's Proposition 37, which would have required the labelling of genetically-modified ingredients in food products had it passed, is an indication that the subject inspires extreme views and involves big money. But an interesting post in Slate argues that GM labelling is really a minor issue compared to the main problem -- gene patents:

GM foods' effect on health is uncertain, but their effect on farmers, scientists, and the marketplace is clear. Some GM foods may be healthy, others not; every genetic modification is different. But every GM food becomes dangerous -- not to health, but to society -- when it can be patented. Right now, the driving force behind the development of new genetic crop modifications is the fact that they possess the potential to be enormously profitable
As the article points out, the leading player here, Monsanto, has built its empire on this fact:
It was utility patent protection that opened the door for Monsanto's present-day global seed and insecticide portfolio, including rights to its infamous "terminator" or "suicide seed" technology (which effectively sterilizes second-generation plants and makes it not only futile but a legal violation for farmers to gather seeds for next year's crop). Monsanto has prosecuted farmers who discover GM corn or soy sprouts growing on their land after the wind carries seeds over from neighbors' GM fields. The basis for such ridiculous lawsuits? Plant patent laws: These farmers are inadvertently violating Monsanto's intellectual property rights.
The author of the piece, Frederick Kaufman, notes that GM technology isn't necessarily about money. He cites the case of Dr. Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant genomics at UC-Davis:
After seeking to decode the rice genome for a decade, Ronald and her team came up with a genetically altered version that resists Xanthomonas, Asia's worst rice blight. What better, more socially beneficial use for genetic modification could there be? Ronald and UC-Davis filed the gene with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, so that the genetic sequences for Xanthomonas immunity would become their intellectual property
Initially, Monsanto and Pioneer asked to license the gene, but then lost interest for some reason. So eventually Dr Ronald made the GM rice freely available to developing countries, thus allowing them to exploit it for their peoples' benefit without needing to pay.

The post concludes by calling for patent reform, explaining why patents on food are deeply problematic:

A copyrighted movie or book remains the same movie or book, but when food becomes a legal construct or an intellectual property right, it stops being food. Of course, you can eat patented popcorn the same way you can consume its unpatented cousin. But unlike an iPhone or a flatscreen TV, everyone needs food, and we need it every day. The world's largest purveyors of industrial agriculture would like to convince the rest of us that the global food market is as free as the market for any other widget -- even though no one can opt out of purchasing breakfast, lunch, or dinner for any extended period of time, or in any meaningful way. Since everyone must participate in the food market to the tune of 2,700 or so calories a day, food property rights allow those who hold food patents a guaranteed portion of profits from a guaranteed purchase, which is fundamentally unfair.
Now that patent reform is being widely discussed, perhaps it's time to consider whether food patents are really beneficial for the public, or just for the giant corporations like Monsanto that own and enforce them so ruthlessly.

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Ninja (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 9:51am

    Monsanto is an aberration that is a direct result of the current rotten, failed system. If the MAFIAA manage to do whatever they want with the laws they'll be next.

    How do we stop this destructive cycle?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 10:01am

    I am with Glyn Moody on this issue.

    Nothing wrong with becoming a super hero from eating GM foods.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Michael, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 10:06am

    What about the corn farmers!

    Oh, wait, this actually does have something to do with them.

    Never mind.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Michael, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 10:09am

    GM Food

    GM foods' effect on health is uncertain, but their effect on farmers, scientists, and the marketplace is clear

    It's interesting that companies are more worried about patenting genetically modified food sources than they are in making sure they are safe to eat.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 10:49am


    By killing them all and taking their stuff, but that would probably have a few problems with it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Aliasundercover, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 10:51am

    Excessive Pesticides

    Yes, the patents are a problem.

    Another important problem is toxic chemicals. The usual genetic modification is to make the organism resistant to a pesticide or herbicide. Then massive quantities of chemicals are used taking advantage of the crop's genetic resistance. The problem is we humans are not similarly resistant and neither is the rest of the environment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 10:55am

    When did GM expand to the foods? They can barely make cars.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Michael, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 11:00am


    If Ford can make charcoal, GM can make the burger you cook with it...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 11:05am

    Re: Excessive Pesticides

    Ummm...wouldn't pest resistant GM plants ultimately remove the need for pesticide?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 11:19am

    The thing is genetic modification could happen naturally through normal mutations. The genetic modification could occur once in a trillion years or next year. That is the amazing thing that normal mutations occur in nature - some good and some bad. The diverse plants and animals we see today are a result countless generations of genetic mutations.

    A fellow co-worker was employed to genetic modification food to match certain criteria. Once achieved the company now had a target genetic code to work towards. To avoid the bad stigmatism around ‘genetic modified foods’ they repeated grew the source seeds and looked for mutations that leaned towards the target. After several years they had, through selective breeding, achieved the same ‘genetic’ figure print as the frankenfood - although now achieved through selective breeding (seed selection).

    Who is to say that somehow in the past that the version of the genetic modification did not already exist? Pre-existing art?
    Or that through normal evolutionary process the same ‘genetic’ figure print could be achieved.

    The ability to patent the genetic food is a bit scary but to offset the development costs of achieving the features desired in a short period of time is a fair trade off IF the patent duration is short enough (IE: less than 10 years).

    The part that really worries me is that Monsanto can successfully sue neighboring farms when their genetic modified seeds trespass on their land. It is like saying my kid broke into your home and now I am going to sue you for my kid being in your home (or calling you a kidnapper). The farmers need to sue Monsanto for invading and corrupting their crops.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    DannyB (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 11:20am

    Re: Re: Excessive Pesticides

    In the short term yes.

    In the longer term, no.

    The pests continue to evolve. Yes, evolution happens. Some pests, even if only a tiny percent of the population, can eat or at least nibble on your GM plants. They now have a survival advantage in terms of additional food not available to other pests. They therefore reproduce in larger numbers. After some number of generations, all pests are eating your GM plants.

    Now what are you going to do? Engineer your plants to naturally produce an even worse insecticide? At what point are you inadvertently engineering plants to be non edible by larger animals, and even humans?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    balaknair, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 11:30am

    Re: Re: Excessive Pesticides

    It would over time probably give rise to newer types of pests to which the plants were not resistant, as pests too can evolve.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Michael, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 11:35am

    Re: Re: Re: Excessive Pesticides

    Genetically engineered plants creating pests resistant to the genetically engineered anti-pest plants causing us to spray pesticide on the genetically engineered plants and producing pests resistant to genetically engineered plants and pesticides would open a whole new market for genetically engineered pesticides to kill the super pests!

    Stopping this would clearly be anti-job creation.

    Plus, we will eventually need military support against these pests and anything that helps expand the military is good because they stop terrorism.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Michael, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 11:36am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Excessive Pesticides

    ...for the children.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Mr. Applegate, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 11:40am

    Re: GM Food

    Just wait till you eat that genetically modified corn and it starts growing in your intestines. You will then have the wonderful opportunity to:

    Pay for the hospital visit; be sued for growing corn without a licence; have the government charge you with agriculture violations.

    So eating that genetically modified corn will bankrupt you. Not to worry, the doctors, hospitals, agriculture industry and government will all be better off for it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    PRMan, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 11:41am

    Remember kids...

    The Monsanto that is testing your food safety is the same Monsanto that declared Nutrasweet to be headache-free after putting MSG (a similar headache-causing substance in the same test subjects) in the placebos and calling all incidents false positives. They used each as the placebo for the other (even though Nutrasweet was not approved for human consumption when MSG was being tested), and then wrote off all complaints of headaches.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    Greevar (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 11:56am

    Re: Re: Re: Excessive Pesticides

    This is why biodiversity is a far better plan than monoculture. Even if one variety of corn is plagued, the other varieties may be resistant or even immune. What Monsanto is doing is putting all of our eggs in one basket making monoculture super crops. If that basket falls, we lose all of our eggs.

    This whole GM idea is bad on its face because it's done for profit and they aren't doing it for our benefit. That GM research is done for their benefit, so they can reap a greater profit and externalize the risk on us. They always externalize the risk on us.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    Greevar (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 12:16pm


    It could happen through artificial selection, no GM required. Take two varieties of the same crops with the most desirable traits and cross breed them. Then see if you get useful results in the subsequent generation. Also, take the best seeds from the latest yield and plant them, resulting in better crops in the next generation. Artificial selection is the process of taking the best of a generation and attempting to pass on those traits to the next.

    "The diverse plants and animals we see today are a result countless generations of genetic mutations."

    Now, your understanding of evolution is a bit misaligned. It doesn't happen by "mutation" it happens by way of the best of a generation using their most effective traits to get them to the age of reproduction so that they can pass on their genes. Those that have the traits that keep them alive to pass on their genes are the ones that are dominant in a species. If greater height is more adaptive, more tall people than short will live to pass on their genes. Also, one parent's genes can modify how a trait from the other parent is expressed, gradually resulting in new traits over time. Random mutation doesn't drive evolution. Mutation is a very rare occurrence that has very little bearing on the evolution of a species.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    art guerrilla (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 12:31pm

    Re: Excessive Pesticides

    yep, the westboro fan in the another thread needs to wake up and smell the estrogen-mimics...

    i am pretty sure that saying 'poo poo' and 'pee pee' does not make babies gay, but i am not so sure about the body burden of toxins and endocrine disruptors we all carry...

    it is entirely possible we are feminizing our boy babies, and hyper-feminizing our grrl babies with the unknown mixture of hormones, antibiotics, and estrogen mimics we are exposed to all the time...

    when we are developing babies, especially, we are SUPER vulnerable to a stray MOLECULE of this or that hormone (OR hormone mimic)which can completely screw up our development process for our sexuality (not to mention other characteristics)...

    when i read 'our stolen future' years ago, the author made the point that many hormonal switches and triggers when we are babies/kids depend upon INCREDIBLY small amounts to activate the process they normally do...
    she was talking about picturing a train with miles of tanker cars which hold X thousands of gallons each, and the effective amount to trigger these biological responses is on the order of a couple drops in the miles long train of tanker cars...
    these biological triggers and switches are incredibly sensitive, and incredibly time-dependent: one minute you are ripe for a certain process to be triggered, the next minute the window of opportunity for that process has closed, no matter how much it is now 'activiated' by the hormone being released...

    in short, we have no fucking idea what we are doing to our meat machines by soaking them in an endless bath of toxins and endocrine disruptors...
    ...but it sure looks like it is increasing the stupid ! ! !

    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    art guerrilla (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 12:44pm

    Re: Re:

    unless i missed it, you are both missing a key point:
    in the olden days, squash was bred with squash, pigs with pigs, etc...
    NOW, they are putting a gene trait from jellyfish in a chicken, or a trait from a plant in an animal, etc...

    'cross breeding' that would NEVER occur 'naturally' (whether by chance or by a farmer penning bossy bull with flossy cow)...
    *THAT* is -you know- just one tiny difference between 'unnatural' GM and 'natural' breeding and mutations...

    and -again- WE HAVE NO FUCKING IDEA what we are doing with these chimeras... ANYONE who tells you otherwise is peddling bullshit...

    nearly EVERY assurance and prediction made by the pro-GM'er has been proven false: yes, these genes HAVE 'escaped' in the wild, yes, there HAVE been deleterious side-effects not studied (ON PURPOSE); yes, they HAVE mixed GM and non-GM corn such that you have no idea if you are exposed to it or not... (hint: you are)

    this has NOTHING to do with a 'green revolution' or feeding the starving masses, etc; it has EVERYTHING to do with forcing ALL farmers into a market they have no control over, and thus Big Agra can squeeze every penny out of every human on the planet... the endgame is NOT to feed everyone delicious hot-buttered popcorn, but to have TOTAL CONTROL of agriculture EVERYWHERE...

    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 1:29pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    While it is true that intentionally introducing genes from other species is a modern development, cross species gene transfer in and of itself is not new, or even unnatural. For instance, there is a type of sea slug right now that seems to be evolving towards having working chloroplast genes. These genes originate from the algea the sea slug eats, which it then incorporates into its own cells to enable it to grow chloroplasts and thus photosynthesize. (Becoming the first grass Pokemon... :P) Other methods include horizontal and vertical gene transfer by virus or bacteria.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 1:34pm

    Re: Re: Excessive Pesticides

    Pesticides built into gm foods can't be washed off.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. icon
    DannyB (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 2:06pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Excessive Pesticides

    Monsanto may be putting all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak, but at least it's a patented and profitable basket.

    If the lack of biodiversity has a devastating effect on the food supply in the future, at least it was profitable for a few quarters or years. So why complain?

    The monoculture vs biodiversity fears aren't anything we'll ever have to deal with this quarter. Its like people who needlessly worry about oil and energy. Or the global warming alarmists. What could possibly go wrong? Don't worry, be happy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 4:41pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    'cross breeding' that would NEVER occur 'naturally'

    Actually, it's hard to assert that with confidence. It is now quite well established that cross-species gene transfers do happen, and some of them were critical to our own development as a species.

    For the technically inclined, they happen with the help of third-party microorganisms.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. icon
    nasch (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 5:09pm

    Re: Re:

    Mutation is a very rare occurrence that has very little bearing on the evolution of a species.

    I'm not sure it's that small.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. icon
    nasch (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 5:11pm

    Re: Re:

    Here's a better reference from the same site: "Mutations are essential to evolution; they are the raw material of genetic variation. Without mutation, evolution could not occur."

    Emphasis is mine.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. icon
    Greevar (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 8:29pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    I'm well aware that GM technology can cross a firefly with tobacco plant to make the plant glow, but I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the genetic processes that occur without the influence of GM and I agree that GMO crops are unpredictable in their effects on human physiology, which requires far more caution than the biotech companies exercise.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. icon
    Greevar (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 8:31pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    You're right, we wouldn't have a mitochondria in our cells were it not for its integration into our mono-cellular ancestors. Without them, we'd have a hard time processing all the energy we consume.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    Greevar (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 11:35pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Excessive Pesticides

    Yes, at least they were rich and lived in luxury before the extinction of the human race occurred. I'm sure they can take all that wealth and power with them into the world. /sarc

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 8th, 2013 @ 1:53am

    This is a good point, food is not a TV show, you can't go without it and allowing monopolies on food production can only aggravate production problems that we are already start to feel.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. icon
    R Andrew Ohge (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 7:38am

    The other fun fact about Biotech Patents.

    To GET a patent with a Genetic Trait, I would assume you would have to have a formulation or Gene Map that corresponds to the Trait's behavior/function.

    These traits have migrated and mutated. If one were to examine the genes of products years after the original patent, would it even resemble the original genetic footprint?

    Interesting Legal talking point-no?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 9:15am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    which requires far more caution than the biotech companies exercise.

    This is one of my two major concerns with GM technology. The first is what this article discusses -- the issue of patents and the potential that patenting has to lead to wholesale disaster. We already see warning signs of this type of problem.

    The second is Greevar's point. GM companies are pretty cavalier about this sort of thing. I'm less concerned about effects on human physiology than the effect on the environment, though. Both during and after development, these engineered crops are allowed to spread their genes into the wild -- and there's very little, if any, testing as to what the risks to other species are from that.

    Also, even without GM crops, we make enough food for everybody on the planet. The reason some people are starving is political, logistical, and market-based, not because of a lack of production. As such, GM crops are not some kind of necessary technology to feed the world. At least, not yet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. icon
    Brandon Rinebold (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 3:50pm

    Re: Re:


    Actually, your understanding of evolution is a bit misaligned.

    Random mutation is the only reason the natural selection is possible. Identical copies cannot be subject to natural selection because there is no effect regardless of which survive. Without mutation, there would be no tall or short members of a species to select from, only a handful of simple amino acids endlessly creating perfect 1:1 copies ad-infinitum. The variations you claim drive evolution are, in fact, solely the product of mutations.

    Let me phrase it this way, differences in genetic code drive natural selection but mutation is the only method of creating those differences. I agree that natural selection is not a random occurrance but it is a nonrandom process (natural selection) that requires the results of a random process (mutation).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 8th, 2013 @ 5:24pm

    There is one other problem and that is with food allergies. There is no way a person will know if they are eating something that also contains genes from something they are allergic to - in serious cases results in death. The warning labels if a food item was made in a factory with nuts, milk, etc. are there for a reason.

    If genes are added from species not normally associated with food, say an insect, then we could very likely be seeing an outbreak of associated allergies, however they would be nearly impossible to identify the source.

    There is a problem with patents on biologicals as a whole. Bird flu could be an example. In the past if there was an outbreak, there would be scientists working on it around the world, 25,000 (example) using a "safe" strain distributed by WHO. Now that "safe" strain is patented and requires payment so there might be only 250 working on a vaccine that can afford it.

    That's bad enough, but often outbreaks and spread of illness happen in poorer countries and now 1) they can't afford to help cure their own population as a matter of public health or 2) they have to use an unofficial strain that might not be "safe" which could lead to developing a vaccine that also wasn't effective or the black market strain could escape. The third potential is that while someone was attempting to create a black market strain, it escapes or they develop something else that's even worse.

    The diseases we erradicated were done because everyone worked together and one person's discovery lead to the next, then the next, until the problem was solved. Patents interupt that process and slow it way, way down.

    Of all things, health sciences and biologicals should be open and shared information. With patents how do scientists do peer reviews and testing for results? Peer reviews are critical, and the more the better. This is slowing the whole field down to a crawl and it makes research and development much more expensive - like we really need more of that in healthcare.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35. identicon
    staff, Jan 10th, 2013 @ 12:43pm

    another biased article

    Good for Ronald and UC -Davis. However, most inventors are not so fortunate as to have secure jobs to pay our bills so our inventions have to pay or we go broke. Many of us simply cannot afford to be benevolent -we have to provide for our families.

    Masnick and his monkeys have an unreported conflict of interest-

    They sell blog filler and "insights" to major corporations including MS, HP, IBM etc. who just happen to be some of the world’s most frequent patent suit defendants. Obviously, he has failed to report his conflicts as any reputable reporter would. But then Masnick and his monkeys are not reporters. They are hacks representing themselves as legitimate journalists receiving funding from huge corporate infringers. They cannot be trusted and have no credibility. All they know about patents is they don’t have any.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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