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.
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.
First, a statement on my interests: I have no relationship whatsoever with Monsanto or any other ag or biotech company. I hold no Monsanto stock. I get no money from them. Nothing of the sort. My only interest is in advancing public knowledge of a technology that’s widely misunderstood and which, when well-managed, can benefit both humanity and the planet. All the research I presented was research I did when writing my bookon innovating to save the planet, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.
I do believe that we’ll eventually have labels on genetically modified foods. So long as those labels are in the ingredients section and not needlessly frightening, I think that’s fine. Clearly a set of people very much want labels, and the resistance to labeling gives the appearance that there’s something to hide with genetically modified foods. There isn’t. Genetically modified foods are safe.
Because there wasn’t enough time to go into detail on either show, I want to link to statements from the world’s most respected scientific bodies and journals on the topic of GMO safety. Here’s what they say. (Update: Below that I will answer some other common questions on GMOs which I receive.)
The US National Academy of Sciences
This is the premier scientific body in the United States. They have repeatedly found genetically modified food safe, noting that after billions of meals served, “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”
They’ve also found that genetically engineered crops are kinder to the environment than non-genetically engineered crops. The National Academy of Science’s 2010 report, Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, found that GM crops planted to date had reduced insecticide use, reduced use of the most dangerous herbicides, increased the frequency of conservation tillage and no-till farming, reduced carbon emissions, reduced soil runoffs, and improved soil quality. The report said that, “Generally, GE (GMO) crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science
This is the largest organization made up of professional scientists in the United States, and also publisher of Science magazine, one of the two most respected scientific journals in the world. The AAAS says “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”
The American Medical Association
The premier body of physicians in the United States. They have consistently found genetically modified foods as safe to eat as any other food, stating “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods”.
The European Commission
Europe is extremely anti-GMO. But even there, the scientific community is clear that genetically modified foods are safe. The scientific advisor to the European Comission has said “there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food”.
The European Commission’s 2010 report on genetically engineered food (based on independent research not funded by any biotech company) said: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”
Royal Society of Medicine
England’s top medical society, the British equivalent of the American Medical Association, published a review of all the information about genetically modified foods that concluded, “Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.”
“The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”
The French Supreme Court
The French Supreme Court isn’t a scientific body, but I mention them here because their recent decision was so remarkable. France is a very anti-GMO country. Yet the French Supreme Court struck down France’s GMO ban, ruling that the government had shown no credible evidence of any harm to humans or the environment. You can read about that here.
Don’t GMOs Cause Cancer in Rats? Or Infertility?
Thus far there have been several hundred studies on the safety of genetically engineered food. All but a handful have found them completely safe. The only studies that have found that genetically modified foods harm animals (the ones quoted as saying that they cause cancer and infertility) all come from one laboratory, that of Gilles-Éric Séralini in France.
Perhaps most damning is the way in which Séralini manipulated the press. He refused to allow science journalists to see the actual paper before publication day, preventing those journalists from going through their normal process of calling scientists to get opinions about the results before writing up their news stories. As award-winning science journalist Carl Zimmer (also not affiliated with any biotech firm) wrote, science journalists were played.
Even GMO opponents found the rat-cancer link hard to believe. My fellow guest on MSNBC, food policy advocate (and GMO opponent) Marion Nestle, herself said that she found the Seralini study linking GMOs to cancer hard to believe. Marion Nestle writes:
These results are so graphically shocking (see the paper’s photographs), and so discrepant from previous studies (see recent review in the same journal), that they bring out my skeptical tendencies. (Note: Although Séralini is apparently a well known opponent of GMOs, his study—and that of the review—were funded by government or other independent agencies.) … the study is weirdly complicated.
Another common myth is that Monsanto or other biotech companies control all biotech research, preventing independent research from happening. This is not the case. Two sets of independent studies:
– The European Commission Report I mention above includes 130 independent studies, paid for by the EU, conducted by more than 500 teams.
– BioFortified maintains a (largely distinct) list of more than 120 independently funded studies which were conducted outside the biotech industry and without biotech dollars.
Long Term Safety Studies
A common myth is that there are no long-term safety studies of GMOs. There have, in fact, been dozens of long-term studies of feeding GMOs to animals for their entire lives, sometimes for as many as ten generations in a row, with no ill effects discovered whatsoever. Here’s a good survey of long-term and multi-generation GMO safety studies.
A Scientific Consensus
All together, the scientific consensus around the safety of genetically modified foods is as strong as the scientific consensus around climate change. These foods have been studied more than any other, and everything tells us that they’re safe.
Update: Other Common Concerns on GMOs
I receive a few other frequent questions on GMOs that don’t relate to safety, so answering three of the most frequent here:
What About Superweeds?
Pesticide resistance is a real thing. It’s also an old thing. The first notion that it exists dates back to 1914, when A.L. Melander published a paper asking “Can insects become resistant to sprays?” Realistically, resistance has been evolving for the 4,000 or so years that humans have been using pesticides.
It’s clear today that weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate (Roundup) and that this is threatening the use of roundup. It’s not at all clear that this has anything to do with GMOs, however. The rate of the evolution of new pesticide resistant weeds appears to be the same for GMO vs. non-GMO crops. That doesn’t make the problem any less important. But it suggests that pointing the finger at GMOs is missing the point.
What About Farmer Suicides in India?
The allegation has been made that GMOs have been driving farmers in India to commit suicide. Farmers in India do commit suicide, and every one of those is a tragedy.
However, the farmer suicides started long before GMOs were introduced to that country, and the suicide rate has held steady or slightly dropped since GMOs were introduced.
Every suicide is a tragedy, but linking them to GMOs is false.
What About Corporate Control of Food?
Patents end. Monsanto’s patent on Roundup Ready I Soy expires in late 2014. Last I checked, that was the single most planted GMO in the United States. After that patent expires (and unlike copyrights, patents do actually expire) the seed and trait will be in the public domain, with farmers able to replant, seed growers able to cross-breed the strain, and academics and other companies able to tinker with the gene, without owing Monsanto anything.
The majority of GMOs planted in the US and the world today will see their patents expire in the next decade.
More advances in mind-machine interfaces this week. MIguel Nicolelis (a pioneer in neural interfaces) and colleagues announced that they were able to send touch sensory data into the brains of monkeys.
So the tally is now:
Vision: In and out
From New Scientist:
Monkeys have feelings too. In a mind-meld between monkey and computer, rhesus macaques have learned to “feel” the texture of virtual objects without physically touching a thing. In the future, prosthetic limbs modelled on similar technology could return a sense of touch to people with amputations.
Using two-way communication between brain and machine, the monkeys manoeuvred a cursor with their minds and identified virtual objects by texture, based on electrical feedback from the computer
MIT Technology Review on the incredible rise in number of genomes sequenced per year:
Exponential: The number of human beings whose entire DNA sequence is known has increased dramatically.
This year, the world’s DNA-sequencing machines are expected to churn out 30,000 entire human genomes, according to estimates in Nature magazine. That is up from 2,700 last year and a few dozen in 2009. Recall that merely a decade ago, before the completion of the Human Genome Project, the number was zero. At this exponential pace, by 2020 it may be feasible—mathematically, at least—to decode the DNA of every member of humanity in a single 12-month stretch.
The vast increase in DNA data is occurring because of dazzling advances in sequencing technology. What cost hundreds of millions of dollars a decade ago now costs a mere $10,000. In a few years, decoding a person’s DNA might cost $100 or even less.
Ghrelin is a hormone that helps regulate body weight and metabolism. Higher ghrelin levels lead us to expend less energy and to eat more in an attempt to conserve resources. Now a group in Portugal has shown that it’s possible to immunize mice against ghrelin, using their own immune system to suppress levels of the hormone. This is another avenue to reprogramming our metabolisms to avoid one of the largest health perils of our age: obesity. (Not to mention the obvious cosmetic appeal.)
Compared with unvaccinated controls, vaccinated mice—both normal-weight and obese mice—developed increasing amounts of specific anti-ghrelin antibodies, increased their energy expenditure and decreased their food intake, the authors reported. Within 24 hours after the first vaccination injection, obese mice ate 82 percent of the amount that control mice ate, and after the final vaccination shot they ate only 50 percent of what unvaccinated mice ate, Monteiro said.
Michell Zappa has a fascinating infographic attempting to lay out timelines for future technologies over the next 25 years. It’s an impressive job of collecting data and laying it out in a way that someone can explore. It’s worth playing with. Click through on the link and you can zoom in and drag the graphic around to see what he’s projected, based upon predictions he’s collected from a dozen or so thinkers.
I do wish the infographic were more of a starting point for exploration. I want to click on some of the circles depicting future technologies and see what he’s using as a basis for the projection.
There are some things missing from the graphic as well, and some things on there that I think are implausible.
In general, when we think about what’s going to come down the pipe in technology, it behooves us to think about economics. What are the costs and cost trends of various technologies (either in R&D or development) vs. the demand for them or their economic return?
For this reason I think his projections about space (a lunar outpost and a space elevator both around 2030, for instance) are either implausible or will happen at a small scale. True, NASA has announced plans for a lunar outpost, but it appears to be backing away from them. Such an endeavor would, after all, be incredibly expensive, and offers little in the way of economic return. A space elevator, on the other hand, would lower the cost of access to space, but its guestimated $1 Trillion cost puts it out of the range of capital outlays any country or set of countries will consider for the coming decades.
On the other hand, I think Zappa under represents the impact of biotechnology and energy efforts over the coming years. An aging population creates a nearly insatiable consumer demand for new and better medical treatments. A growing and increasingly affluent population creates a tremendous demand for more agricultural output (especially as people move increasingly to eating meat, which requires far more land per calorie) and for more energy. The combination of apparently stagnating worldwide oil output and the eventual realization by most of the planet that we need to tackle climate change will force us to make the increasing energy supply a greener one.
Zappa covers Green Energy in the chart a bit, but it doesn’t quite convey that solar photovoltaic electricity, for example, will likely drop below the cost of coal electricity by 2020 (if not earlier), or the likely importance of biofuels created by genetically engineered organisms as ‘drop-in’ replacements for gasoline and kerosene. These are both quite near term impacts that will have a larger impact on the planet than space technologies, robotics, or artificial intelligence.
Zappa has a “Biotech” node which includes both a bit of medicine and a bit of food, but again I would have loved to see a more quantitative approach. Between now and 2050, population will rise by 35% and food demand will rise by 70-100%. Arable land, on the other hand, will not increase. One of the prime applications of biotech (in a broad sense) will have to be the increase of food yields per acre to meet that increased demand. Similarly, as the population ages, there will be more and more demand for therapies against the indignities of age. Stem cell treatments are a fantastic advance, but the major killers will remain heart disease and cancer. And the elderly will pump more and more dollars into products that allow them to age more gracefully, helping them look, act, and feel younger.
I very much applaud Zappa for attempting to lay out such a broad view of the future in a single place. It’s a challenging task that required synthesis of information from a number of sources.
Some things, though, are best looked at quantitatively. I would suggest we all think of the future trajectories of technology as being driven by the intersection of consumer demand (how much money are consumers willing to pump into something) and underlying cost trajectories (is the cost of something dropping or rising, and if so how fast?).
In that vein, here are what I see as the biggest trends going forward (with apologies for placing this only in text).
GROWING CONSUMER DEMANDS
1. Health & Longevity:
Worldwide healthcare spending is almost $4 Trillion, or around 10% of the GDP of developed countries, and is growing faster than any other category. Today there are less than 1 Billion people on the planet aged 60 or over. By 2050 there will be 2 Billion.
That doubling of elderly populations in OECD countries and China will place increasing demand for therapies that either slow aging (best case and not guaranteed) or which address the illnesses and loss of function, vitality, and appearance with aging. All up, healthcare will likely more than quadruple in total spending and double as a fraction of worldwide GDP by 2050, to more than 25% of the economies of developed countries and as high as 40% in some.
For instance, the US Council of Economic Advisors predicts that, on current trend, by 2040, healthcare spending will consume 35% of the economy of the United States.
That projected level of spending is more or less untenable. The aging population and rising health care costs will create enormous pressures for new technologies that can address medical needs at lower costs. That is one almost certain prediction.
Worldwide food spending is around $3 Trillion. While worldwide population will increase only by 35% by 2050, growing affluence will lead to a growing demand for less efficient meat and dairy foods.
As a result, total demand for grain (which is needed in large quantities to produce meat) is expected to nearly double by 2050.
At the same time, there is virtually no additional arable land to expand farming into. For farmers to keep up with demand, yields per acre will need to nearly double in the next few decades. At the same time, overpumping of aquifers, debates about pesticides and GMOs, and the energy inputs required in modern agriculture all serve as brakes on productivity gains.
3. Energy & Climate:
Worldwide energy demand is at $4 Trillion today and will roughly double by 2050. At the same time, populations and governments will come around to the need to virtually reduce net carbon emissions. That will place tremendous demand on both low-carbon energy sources and technologies to capture and sequester CO2 and other greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.
Here is the US Energy Information Administration’s projections for world energy consumption through 2035.
4. Information Technology:
Information technology (including telecoms, computing hardware, software, and online services) is over $3 Trillion today and is growing at roughly 6% per year. Because it is so useful in so many different arenas of life, demand for it will continue to grow. While demand growth will likely slow over time, it could easily be three times as large in 2050, growing past all sectors except Health Care (which will almost certainly be the largest economic sector on the planet by a healthy margin).
Weighed against these consumer demands we have the underlying price and productivity trends.
1. Moore’s Law
Moore’s Law and its analogues for storage and bandwidth will, if they remain on their current paths, reduce the cost of a unit of computation, data storage, and data transmission by an estimated 100 million times by 2050. It remains to be seen whether these trends actually continue. Both physical challenges and potential saturation of consumer demand loom in the decades ahead. If they do continue, for many current applications, storage, bandwidth, and computation will be effectively free. (There will be exceptions for truly massive scale problems in physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence, where systems are incredibly complex and problems often scale extremely sub-linearly. These areas may be the prime economic drivers of continued improvement of IT power / $$ by mid century.)
2. The Dropping Cost of Genetic Information Processing
..will have a profound effect on biotechnology and medicine. We are much farther from personalized medicine than Zappa’s graphic would lead one to believe. But the Moore’s Law-like exponential drop in the cost of gene sequencing and gene printing will reduce the cost of sequencing a whole human genome to $5 by 2020 and pennies in 2030. In fact, the price of sequencing genes and of printing gene sequences has been dropping far faster than Moore’s Law:
The resulting flood of data, combined with the continued exponential rise in computing power, will start to make possible the large scale data mining necessary to truly extract valuable medical insights from the genome. Cheaper gene printing, cheaper proteomics, and cheaper experimentation systems based on similar trends will start to make an impact on delivering therapeutics, and also in turning manufacturing via synthetic biology into reality.
3. The Exponential Drop in Green Energy Price/Performance and Density
…if it continues, will herald a green energy revolution. Humanity’s energy use, from all sources, is roughly 1 / 6000th the amount of energy that the sun delivers to the planet. It is a huge and largely untapped resource with practically no greenhouse gas emissions. Solar power up until now has been uneconomical due to low efficiencies and high manufacturing costs of solar technologies. But over the last 30 years, solar photovoltaic cells have increased in energy returned per dollar of manufacturing cost by around 7.5% per year. On current pace, they will cross the price of coal-powered electricity between 2015 and 2020, and be half the price of coal around 2025-2030.
Solar does not solve all problems, of course. Intermittent power supplies (due to nights and cloudy days) make it an imperfect solution, but advances in energy storage will allow solar stations or home solar systems to store up energy during sunny periods and return it during the rest. By the 2030s solar should be fully competitive with coal (the cheapest fossil fuel energy source) for most of the world.
The predictions above could be wrong, of course. The world is full of surprises. Trends in consumer demand sometimes change. Exponential trends in technology are even more suspect and more likely to eventually flatten out. But whether these projections are right or wrong, if we want to have a rigorous look at the future, we should attempt to do so quantitatively, putting together our best data on what people want, on what’s possible, and on the trajectories of both.
As for how to sum this up in a single wonderful graphic, I leave that to someone else today. Perhaps Michell Zappa will take a shot. 🙂