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.
With due respect to Jon, I see this a different way.
First, GMOs do bring other global benefits. As Keith Kloor points out at Discover, study after study has shown that GMOs have helped reduce poverty among poor farmers who grow them in the developing world, boosting the food security of those farmers and their families. Those GMOs are primarily cotton, which is, to date, the only GMO that’s allowed to be grown in most of the developing world.
Second, global bans & politicking have stopped promising GMOs from being planted. As I pointed out in my piece on Why GMOs Matter, Especially In the Developing World, over at Grist, there are genetically modified food crops that have shown huge yield gains in parts of the world, and that have been banned from cultivation for no good scientific reason. As I wrote at Grist, Bt Cotton boosted cotton yields by a staggering 60% or so in India, as the figure below shows:
But we don’t eat cotton. And GM crops we can eat are banned from cultivation:
But the world’s poorest countries, and in particular India and the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa, don’t allow any GM food crops to be grown. India came close to approval for a Bt eggplant (or Bt brinjal). Studies showed that it was safe, that it could cut pesticide use by half, and that it could nearly double yields by reducing losses to insects. But, while India’s regulators approved the planting and sale, activists cried out, prompting the government to place an indefinite moratorium on it. Similar things have happened elsewhere. The same Bt eggplant was supported by regulators in the Philippines who looked at the data, but then blocked by the court on grounds that reflected not specific concerns, but general, metaphorical, and emotional arguments that Nathanael Johnson describes as dominating the debate.
From this, I conclude that one of the reasons that GM crops haven’t done more to boost food security around the world is that non-scientific bans have blocked them from doing so.
Third, we need more public-sector investment in GMO research focused on food security. The fact that Bt crops produce such huge yield gains in the developing world is largely a happy accident. Yield was never the primary goal. GM crops are designed primarily for the customers that have the most to pay (western farmers), and they’ve been designed primarily to save western farmers money rather than to boost yields. It turns out that saving western farmers money by reducing the need to spray insecticide also has an even greater win for countries where insecticide is sprayed by hand (rather than by machine). It, as a practical matter, dramatically reduces losses. That’s an effectively huge yield gain. But again, it’s a bit of a lucky accident of a product targeted at relatively well-to-do western farmers.
I’m a huge advocate of the potential for GM crops to boost yield. (Again, just look at what’s already happened with Bt cotton in India or what early trials showed with Bt brinjal as an example of what the technology can do, without even focusing on yield as the primary goal.) But if we want to see more of this as the outcome, we ought to specifically invest in R&D with that goal.
That R&D might come from the private sector. But it might better come from the public sector. Today the Gates Foundation funds R&D into GMOs that could dramatically boost yield, improve nutrition, and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer. That’s wonderful. What would be even more wonderful is to see large governments, many of whom worry about the climate-food-water nexus as a future source of instability, investing in R&D in this area as well. Raising food security in the developing world has a triple win of raising food output, lowering poverty, and lowering instability. That’s something we’d all benefit from.
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.