The Patents Argument Against GMOs Just Ended With the First Off-Patent GMO

I argued in my 2013 book, The Infinite Resource, that the “seeds shouldn’t be patented” argument against GMOs and specifically against Monsanto was invalid for a very specific reason:  Patents end.

As I wrote then, the patents for Monsanto’s first commercial genetically modified crop, Roundup Ready Soy I, would expire at the end of the 2014 growing season. After that, farmers would be free to save seeds to replant, universities would be free to tinker with the  genetic trait, seed breeders would be free to cross-breed it into other strains, and so on.

What wasn’t clear at the time was how likely that was to occur.

Well, now we know.

The University of Arkansas has released a free, replantable version of Roundup Ready Soy. Any farmer can take this seed, can plant it, doesn’t have to pay any technology licensing fee, and can re-plant seeds from the resulting crop for the next year.

Add to that the fact that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, went off-patent years ago, and so generic versions of Roundup are available, and this means that farmers can use this product developed by Monsanto without paying Monsanto a dime.

That’s how patents are supposed to work. The inventor gets a temporary monopoly to reward them for their research and development, and in exchange, society gets the permanent benefit of their invention.

And, of course, the scientific consensus is that Roundup Ready plants and other approved GM crops are safe.

I believe this is the beginning of a new era in genetically modified crops, one of much more diversity as the cost of research drops, as more work is done by non-profits, and as more and more patents expire. As I wrote in the book:

In 2014, Monsanto’s patent on Roundup Ready soybeans will expire – the first of a wave of patent expiries that will let anyone take advantage of that gene to create new seeds that can reduce the use of toxic pesticides like atrazine, while being licensed in much more open ways.

At the same time, a host of other competitors have biotech crops that have recently come onto the market or will in the next few years.  And non-profits and universities are producing GM crops that will be free to the poor and which are often developed in the ‘open source’ model.  Golden rice and C4 rice are being co-developed by a network of universities and non-profits, for example, and will be available free of charge to farmers in the developing world.

In the early days of computing, the only computers were giant IBM mainframes that cost millions of dollars.  Today, you have more computing power in your pocket than the entire planet possessed 40 years ago.  The dramatic decline in the price of computing over those decades has democratized computing tremendously.   Proverbial ‘garage startups’ like Apple, Google, and Facebook start with humble resources but can revolutionize the world.  Open source networks of unpaid developers build software used by hundreds of millions.

That revolution is on the very edge of hitting biotechnology.  The cost of gene sequencing has dropped by a factor of 1 million over the last 20 years.  That’s faster than the cost of computing has ever dropped.   Research is dropping in price.  The ability to create new GM foods, tailored exactly for local conditions and needs, is growing.   Already there are dozens of different projects to create GM crops that deliver better nutrition, higher yields, or lower need for pesticides or fertilizer underway. Some are from private companies, who’ll compete with one another to provide the best products, prices, and terms.  And many more are from non-profit foundations and universities.

What we’re going to see in the future is not a monopoly on the technology of food. We’re going to see wide open competition between dozens of companies, hundreds of universities, and some day thousands of different GM foods.   And that is exactly what we want.

I write more about the environmental and humanitarian case for genetically modified foods, agriculture in general, and how to provide enough food, water, and energy for the planet, while beating climate change, deforestation, and other challenges, in my book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.  If you think GMOs are a problem rather than a solution, if you think we can’t beat climate change, or if you think that doing so means giving up on our way of life, then I challenge you to read this book.

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