Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are used more and more extensively by large corporate food manufacturers. They bring many potential benefits and problems and are a source of great controversy.
On the positive side, they promise improved crop yields and lower cost at a time when feeding a growing world population is a great challenge. The brevity of this statement belies its overwhelming importance. If true, this would be a vital interest to humankind.
Against this briefly stated but highly important benefit are many potential problems and hazards. Many GMO crops have an engineered resistance to pesticides, and then pesticides are used heavily in the growing of the crop. In some cases the plants themselves produce pesticides. There are two concerns here, the pesticides themselves and their effect on the surroundings, and the compounds and residues that may be in the harvested crops. In other words, there are serious concerns for health and the environment.
Another health concern is not strictly related to GMOs, and that is the general nutritive value of foods produced by corporate agriculture. There is an objection that already we are getting too many calories from too few crops, contributing to the obesity epidemic, and GMOs will only make this trend worse.
The use of GMOs enforces a kind of economic servitude on farmers with an uncomfortable similarity to the abuses of sharecropping earlier in American history. Farmers are now forced to buy expensive seed every year. The contract allowing them to use the seeds forbids the harvesting of seed to be used the following year, because it would be a patent violation. They usually must buy the pesticides from the same company, since that is how the resistance was engineered. There is not much choice: 4 biotech companies control 80 percent of the US corn market, 70 percent of the US soybean market, and over half of the world seed supply. The US Department of Justice conducted an inquiry into this but closed the case without comment.
Finally, another objection is that the promised yields and economic efficiencies simply are not there, keeping farmers in debt as seed price increases outstrip income from the crops.
Patents were established to protect inventors from the unauthorized copying and use of their invention. This was done at a time when most inventors were individuals who need to make a living. By having a reasonable assurance of income, inventors were encouraged to continue their innovation. Patents for plants go back to 1873 when Louis Pasteur received a patent for isolated yeast, and were expanded in the Plant Patent Act of 1930.
The genetically engineered seeds produced by biotech corporations are protected by patent. Anyone harvesting these seeds with the intention of using them without paying expensive royalties is in violation of patent law because they have made a copy of the patented seed. This is why farmers must sign an agreement to buy these very expensive seeds every year.
However, this also raises the specter of a farmer getting sued if pollen from a GMO farm drifts onto his non-GMO crop and the genes get into the seed stock. Technically, such a farmer can be held in violation of patent law for events he did not ask for, did not know about, and did not have any control over. Monsanto states that it will not "exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented traits are present in farmers' fields as a result of inadvertent means", but does not define "trace" or "inadvertent". The burden is on non-GMO farmers to protect their fields with a buffer zone, forgoing the full use of their property. This is a USDA regulation. A federal court judge dismissed a case from organic farmers that would have protected them from unfair lawsuits.
The Center for Food Safety (CFS) found that Monsanto filed 144 lawsuits for patent violation between 1997 and 2013. The CFS also used documents from Monsanto's website to show an estimated 2391 to 4531 actions filed for seed piracy that resulted in out of court settlements that are confidential. The settlements from lawsuits totaled $23 million and the out of court settlements total an estimated $85 to $160 million. This seems to turn patent law on its head as this corporation with over $7 billion in revenue is protected from small business farmers.
Thus the intentions of the founding fathers of our country when they instituted patent law has been turned on its head. It now appears that patents are being used by large corporations to subjugate the farmers who are their customers. There are many questions this raises.
Is there a problem with patent laws? Or is this a case of abuse of a basically sound law? Do patents need some sort of fair use provision as exists for copyright?
Given the original intent of patents, does it make sense for a multi-billion dollar company to get or need patent protection? This really gets at the question of whether a corporation is equivalent to a person and accrues the same rights.
Monsanto does spend about $1.5 billion in research and development. They do have an interest in protecting this investment. Should we go back to publicly funded research that is available for a small commission on proceeds from its use? This way no one needs protection and perhaps competition will keep seed prices down.
We need ways of getting answers to these questions based on sound science and economics.