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.