Friday, October 24, 2014

GMO's aren't worth the fight without patent royalties

It's interesting to see the debate around GMOs these days, centering on food safety and consumers knowing what's in their food. Those are important issues, but it's equally important to understand the motivation of the adversaries, Monsanto, ADM and Dow. They are spending millions to defeat local ordinances and state laws that require GMO labeling of food that contains GMOs. They are also spending millions to keep any federal law that requires labeling from ever passing, despite the fact that 64 countries around the world already require labels on GMOs in our food.

GMOs are genetically modified organisms, where a gene from one organism is transplanted into another. In one example, there is the humble tomato. In order to help the tomato survive cold snaps, they have transplanted a gene from a fish that can survive in freezing water into tomatoes to help them deal with the cold. We have very little idea how the gene is expressed in the plant, whether or not the result is toxic, and whether or not such a change reduces the nutrition value of the tomato.

They are also putting insecticide in the food so you can't even wash it off. The New Leaf Potato is a great example. The modified potato has a gene from an organism that causes a beetle that eats the potato leaves to starve by altering the digestive system of the beetle. While we know what it does to the beetle, we don't know what it does to the people who eat the potato. Maybe the harm done to us is not immediately apparent, and it may be years before we find out.

Companies like Monsanto like this arrangement because they can get a patent on the modified plant and sell seeds to farmers. The pollen from the plants that result from the seed can then pollinate non-GMO plants downwind. If a farmer is found to be growing a crop with that gene, he can be sued for patent infringement, even if he doesn't know what happened when he saves the seed from the last crop. GMOs are the perfect legal playground for lawyers who love them.

The primary motivation, above all else, IS NOT FEEDING THE WORLD. The commercials that air during Meet the Press on Sunday morning from ADM are hiding a thinly veiled motivation for money. Lots of money. In one year alone, Monsanto earned more than $2 billion from GMOs. They have a near monopoly on GMO soy, a variety of soy that is resistant to Monsanto's Round Up herbicide. Monsanto owns more than 90% of the soy seed market, that's what we call a monopoly. Lucky for them, this monopoly has government protection built in.

Patents seem nice and dandy until you realize that they are a government intervention in the market. Whenever you hear conservatives moaning and groaning about welfare queens, remember, they won't utter a peep about patents. They don't want you to know that they prefer public policy that makes money move up, not down.

We were originally sold on the idea of GMOs as herbicide and insecticide resistant plants that would feed the world. They don't. We were told we would need less herbicide with these genetically modified crops. Unfortunately, as Forbes reports, we are using more herbicide, not less. In fact, it may be that it was Monsanto's plan all along to sell more herbicide, too. Now, because we're using more herbicide, we're creating superweeds, weeds that are resistant to herbicide.

There are many who complain that our patent system is broken, and I agree it is broken, for many reasons. But one of the reasons it's broken is that we do not see patents in the holistic sense. Patents for GMOs are granted without taking their effect on the environment and our behavior in context. The superweeds, the effect on our digestion, the effect on how we use herbicides and insecticides - they're all factors that patent examiners are not trained to consider.

That's why there is such an overwhelming political response to GMOs. States are not passing laws against GMOs because Monsanto spends the money to convince state houses to look the other way. But county after county, city after city, upon looking at the problem, they are starting to wake up. Some states are starting to talk about it, too, as they see their member cities pushing for bans. Even Bill Nye, the Science Guy, offers a sobering look at GMOs.

Can we at least do the research on food safety? Or are we going to wait 20 years before we finally discover that we made a mistake, as we did with artificial sweeteners? While we're waiting for that to happen, we need to reframe the debate to include the patent royalties as the reason why Monsanto and their ilk defend their crops. Feeding the world just isn't a factor in their math.
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