Breeding Sanity into the GM Food Debate

The issues of concern to critics are far more complex than advocates care to admit; it’s time for a more far-ranging discussion.

The debate over biotechnology seems to get ever more intractable, its costs higher, the disputants angrier. Europe is on the verge of requiring the tracking of all genetically modified (GM) food from farm to grocery store, despite strenuous opposition from the United States. Zimbabwe has rejected emergency food relief that contained unmilled GM corn. Germplasm used in agricultural R&D used to move freely among countries, but the flow has slowed to a trickle as developing countries rich in biodiversity restrict exports of wild plants, hoping to share in the profits from their hidden genes. With so much at stake, one would expect every issue in this arena to be exhaustively examined, argued, rebutted, and negotiated. But what is striking is how little actual debate there really is. There is conflict, but no engagement. Why? What keeps the debate a take-no-prisoners war rather than a spirited rational discussion?

Answering this question requires understanding what both sides think the most important issues are. This task is made more difficult because the views of biotech critics have not been widely disseminated in the popular press, whereas the views of advocates are well known. Describing the critics’ perspective and contrasting it with that of biotech advocates may shed light on the deadlock and on the reasons behind the rancor.

Biotech advocates typically cast the debate as about the safety of eating GM food and the possible ecological damage from growing it. They present the situation as a drama of knowledge battling against fear of the unknown. The fears of biotech critics, though, are about the social, political, economic, and cultural effects of biotechnology on global agriculture. The leading critics of biotechnology–the ETC Group, Genetic Resources Action International, Third World Network, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Oxfam, and others–are concerned about Third World poverty, globalization, economic justice, and many other social issues. To these critics, the biotech debate is not about the health effects of GM food but about control of the food supply. Their fears are not of the unknown but of the too well known: the concentration of industry power.

When biotech advocates recognize the social, economic, and political concerns of critics at all, they treat them as generic grievances against industrial agriculture or globalization, unconnected to biotechnology. But the crucial link that connects them is intellectual property rights, particularly patents on plants. It is because industrialized countries have elected to consider GM plants patentable that biotechnology threatens to take control of the food supply out of the public domain and hand it to multinational corporations. Until 1980, when a divided U.S. Supreme Court approved a patent on a GM bacterium that could digest oil, living creatures were outside the utility patent system. When the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office extended this decision from microorganisms to GM plants and animals, it opened the gates for a flood of patents, money, and power into the biotech industry. Thus, even though many worrisome trends in industrial agriculture date back 50 years or more, it is biotechnology that has extended, accelerated, and put the power of the state behind those trends through patents. This is what galvanizes the critics of biotechnology.

It is important to be clear that the critics are not opposed to biotechnology itself. This is one of the points most often misunderstood. Nor are they opposed to patents themselves. They are opposed to the patenting of plants, which biotechnology makes possible. They consider this new expansion of the patent system to be an ill-conceived transfer of the raw materials of all food production from the public domain to private control. Unfortunately, most biotech advocates seem to cavalierly dismiss such notions. They repeatedly turn away from the full range of issues and back to food safety, missing the opportunity for a genuinely productive exchange.

Fuel for conflict

The misunderstandings that flow from seeing the issues as exclusively ones of science and health are clear from comments by biotech advocate Norman Borlaug on the controversy over U.S. emergency food aid to Sudan that included GM food and seeds. According to Borlaug, Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss of the South African organization Biowatch stated: “The U.S. does not need to grow nor donate genetically modified crops. To donate untested food and seed to Africa is not an act of kindness but an attempt to lure Africa into further dependence on foreign aid.” Tewolde Egziabher of Ethiopia stated: “Countries in the grip of a crisis are unlikely to have leverage to say, ‘This crop is contaminated; we’re not taking it.’ They should not be faced with a dilemma between allowing a million people to starve to death and allowing their genetic pool to be polluted.” But Borlaug responds that, “neither of these individuals offers any credible scientific evidence to back their false assertions concerning the safety of genetically modified foods.” Notice, though, that neither of them has made any assertions concerning the safety of GM foods at all. Their comments are about the social, economic, and cultural consequences when GM grain sent as food is inevitably planted.

This issue of world hunger and biotechnology is one of the angrier disputes between critics and advocates, with each side accusing the other of indifference to the world’s poor. Yet both sides are concerned for the poor; what they disagree about is the relative importance of productivity versus social and political factors. Biotech critics believe that advocates naively equate increased food production with decreased hunger. The critics never claim that production does not matter, only that it takes place in a social, political, and economic context that will determine how and whether the food that is produced actually reaches people. Since these are central issues for the critics, we should look at them more carefully: first at dependence and then at genetic pollution.

If plants are patentable, there are two important direct effects: Farmers can no longer save seeds from each year’s crop to plant next year, and the price of seeds goes up. Critics see a cascade of consequences. Some of the benefits of GM seeds can be gained only by using other expensive technology, such as herbicides. Farmers have to be able to front the money for expensive inputs each year while waiting until harvest to see any income. The danger of bankruptcy in a bad year goes up. Economies of scale become more important, resulting in larger farms. Big farms use more machinery and fewer workers, increasing the importance of capital relative to labor. The effect is first to lower wages, then to drive the rural poor off the land where they cannot make a living. The dependence on foreign aid cited by Pschorn-Strauss comes with this whole system of industrial agriculture that patents on GM seeds promote: high-input farming with fertilizers and chemicals and seeds that farmers need to buy every year from multinationals, and the credit system they will need, and so on.

But couldn’t farmers choose to opt out of the patent system and stick with unpatented seeds? Critics don’t think so. There are many reasons, but basically farmers who do not buy the new seeds will not reap the benefits of them, yet they will still pay some of the costs. Here is a simple example. Suppose the new seeds raise productivity. When more food comes to market, the price will go down. Farmers who do not use the more productive seed will not produce more, but will still receive the lower price, so their incomes will drop. But isn’t the economic pressure on farmers to join the system of patented commercial seeds justified by the economic benefits to those who do join? It depends. In theory, more productive technology creates extra value that someone can reap. It is one of the lessons of history, however, that the producers of inputs (seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides), not the farmers, usually reap those benefits. Since the onset of the era of industrial agriculture in the United States, the portion of the consumer’s food dollar going to farmers has dropped steadily, from 41 percent in 1950 to 19 percent in 2000, while the shares going to input suppliers and food processors have gone up, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Even if one thinks industrializing agriculture is a desirable pattern of development, care must still be taken, say biotech critics. If farmers have to buy seed, then the country’s food supply depends on the seed market successfully delivering seed to farmers. In the United States, with its highly developed infrastructure, this might be taken for granted. In much of the world, it cannot. Suppose next year there is war, inflation, banking system collapse, or rebels cutting supply lines. Seed might simply not show up, or might be delayed those crucial weeks during which it must be planted, or farmers may have no money to purchase it. Dependence on a theoretically more productive technology can result in farm production that is more vulnerable to political and economic shocks.

Biotech advocates simplistically present the debate as a drama of knowledge battling against fear of the unknown.

Now step back and look at the larger picture of international relations and the widening gap between rich and poor. Patents are first and foremost an extraction of rent by owners from users. Since the developed world overwhelmingly owns the patents on new technology–about 97 percent now, and with little expectation of change–patents are a transfer of rent from the poor to the rich. This regressive effect is exacerbated in agriculture, where the developing world is the farmers and the industrialized world is the input suppliers. Recall the history of industrial agriculture in the United States: The portion of the food dollar going to farmers goes down, and the portion taken by input suppliers goes up. Only the effects will be worse this time, because now the two groups will not be from the same country, so there will be no government to ameliorate the damage with social services, tax transfers, and other subsidies, such as the $30 billion in emergency bailouts of U.S. farmers during the past six years. Furthermore, developing countries depend far more on agriculture than do industrialized countries, with most of their people making a living from it. It is in agriculture (and textiles) where monopoly ownership of an essential input does the most harm to developing countries.

Consider now Egziabher’s concern about pollution of the genetic pool. Once modified genes are in the pool, farmers can no longer sell to consumers averse to GM food. Genetic pollution can cost countries their export markets. Already, Canadian organic canola farmers have lost theirs, and U.S. farmers are losing billions of dollars a year in exports to Europe. It can also complicate ownership of farmers’ production. In the fall of 2001, modified genes were found in corn strains in Oaxaca, Mexico, the center of the world’s maize genetic diversity. Most attention has focused on the threat to biodiversity, but think about the patent issue. For centuries, farmers all over the world have traded wild maize varieties and farmers’ varieties from Mexico in efforts to improve their corn crops. What will happen to that trading once those varieties are polluted with GM traits? Will a Brazilian farmer now be able to buy corn seed from Mexico that is genetically modified to resist insects, without royalties or other restrictions?

The shape of things to come was foreshadowed by the case of Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian canola farmer who was sued by Monsanto for having its patented Roundup Ready (RR) canola in his fields. He had not bought the company’s seed, but his crops were contaminated with RR canola one year–spilled, blown, or cross-pollinated–and he used seed from the polluted section to plant the next year’s crop. Nor did he benefit from the GM seed, since he did not spray with Roundup herbicide. Nevertheless, the Federal Court of Canada found him guilty of violating Monsanto’s patent. Common sense would indicate that either the Schmeiser decision must be reversed or else Schmeiser must have done something wrong. But here is the catch: It does not matter under patent law whether he intended to plant RR canola or even knew he had it. As the court pointed out, “intention is immaterial” under patent law. Patent law was not written with living things in mind, but rather to protect steam engines and better mousetraps. If a patented engine or mousetrap is found in my garage, it is a sure bet that it did not grow there. Someone must have violated the patent for it to be there. Thus, patent law cuts out the usual issues of actions and intent and simply places responsibility on the unlicensed possessor of a patented item. But the same reasoning does not make sense with plants: A patented plant may have grown there, with no wrongdoing by anyone, and the perverse result is that the victims of genetic pollution are legally culpable.

Beyond the dangers of farm concentration and cultural dislocation, of unreliable seed supplies and the threat of famine, and of increasing poverty and dependence in poor countries, critics also worry that patented and centralized seed production endangers biodiversity. Critics widely consider the biotechnology industry to be intent on eliminating the ancient practice of farmers saving and exchanging seeds, forcing farmers (and all of us who eat) to depend on commercial seed suppliers. If seeds are sold, not saved, though, the seed market will tend to produce only a few varieties; the rest will disappear. But diversity of plant varieties is the source of genetic traits for future crop improvement.

For better or worse, then, the biotech debate is a political debate, not just a scientific one. But reasoned argument is not the province of science alone. Critics of biotechnology raise serious and legitimate questions and support their positions with economic, political, and historical analysis. This does not mean they are right. We do not yet know if their analysis can stand up to serious scrutiny. The prominent public and media discussion of GM food has focused on the advocates’ preferred issue: the science of food safety. Often this is not just a preference but a vigorous exclusion of other issues. The United States, for example, negotiates aggressively in the World Trade Organization to prevent labeling or regulating of GM products on any grounds other than science-based safety. The advocates of biotechnology think they can win the safety issue and win the acceptance of biotechnology–and all that comes with it–by showing that eating GM food is safe.

The critics, too, have a political reason to keep the safety issue in the public eye: It is their major source of clout. Compared to the biotech industry, biotech critics have negligible resources of money or the political access money brings. Their only source of power is public support. But the public’s eyes glaze over at the word “patents.” The public does care about its safety, though, and somewhat about damage to the environment. Critics cannot drop the safety issue, on pain of becoming invisible, and they have limited ability to shift the focus onto their major issues.

Unexamined issues

The lack of vigor with which advocates have considered critics’ real concerns is illustrated in a series of articles by some of the world’s leading plant scientists published on the Web site of the American Society of Plant Biologists under the title Genetically Modified Crops: What Do the Scientists Say? Every scientist-author mentions the social, political, and economic issues, but few go far into them. Maarten J. Chrispeels gives the most detailed analysis: “Those who oppose GM crops are also quick to point out that this technology primarily benefits the multinational corporations that sell the seeds, and that these corporations are more interested in their own bottom line (always referred to as ‘corporate greed’) than in ‘feeding the poor.’ True enough, the big corporations are not working on the crops of the poor.” He describes the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which greatly boosted agricultural productivity, and acknowledges some of its problems and the damage done to small farmers around the world, and even recognizes that these problems motivate critics. But rather than examining why the Green Revolution had these consequences and how we might make sure biotechnology does not repeat these mistakes, Chrispeels veers away from addressing the problems he has raised. Instead, he suggests “public/private partnerships,” despite admitting that such partnerships “must be based on mutual trust and common goals.” But since, as he acknowledges, “corporations are not working on the crops of the poor,” there is little reason to expect common goals or mutual trust. In the end, he has nothing to suggest but voluntary generosity by the private sector and a vague proposal for the creation of “an international clearinghouse or institute funded by the large multinationals (Am I a dreamer?) to foster such a partnership.”

This analysis is truncated just where biotech critics think it should begin: with the social and political conditions that can make public/private partnerships work for the common good, or fail. Critics are pessimistic because they believe that the circumstances that compromised the Green Revolution are much worse today than 40 years ago. Agricultural research has shifted dramatically from the public to the private sector, and corporations today have far more power and less accountability. Scientists and critics both want technology transfer to poor countries. But technology transfer is a difficult issue, and the strings attached in the transfer can be more important than the technology itself.

A central issue for almost all biotech critics is intellectual property rights, particularly patents on plants.

On the specific issue of patents on plants, the analyses by advocates prove similarly unsatisfying. One of the authors, Ingo Potrykus, had earlier been chided by civil society organizations for turning exclusive control of marketing “golden rice,” the result of millions of dollars of public and philanthropic research money, over to a private corporation, Syngenta. He writes in defense: “I was initially upset. It seemed to me unacceptable, even immoral, that an achievement based on research in a public institution and exclusively with public funding and designed for a humanitarian purpose was in the hands of those who had patented enabling technology earlier . . . At that time I was much tempted to join those who fight patenting. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that the development of ‘golden rice’ was only possible because of the existence of patents . . . Without patents, much of this technology would have remained secret. To take full advantage of available knowledge to benefit the poor, it does not make sense to fight against patenting.”

One often hears this claim, that patents motivate inventors to reveal their secrets. But this claim does not hold up, according to the following logic, which has been known since the 19th century. Inventors who patent will lose exclusive control after the patent term runs out. But if it is practical to keep an invention secret, then exclusive control can be maintained perpetually. So, a profit-maximizing firm will always prefer secrecy to patenting, whenever possible. Therefore, firms apply for patents only on inventions whose disclosure seems unavoidable, and thus patents have no effect on invention disclosure. Reality is messier than this, of course, but basically this is a powerful argument, and the idea that patents prevent secrecy is a minor player in patent theory. Thus, when Potrykus cites the threat of secrecy as his reason for supporting the patenting and exclusive licensing of golden rice, he is citing one of the conceptually and historically weakest justifications for patents. Yet the dismissal of “those who fight patenting” by scientists dabbling in patent theory helps prevent this vital topic from getting the wider attention that it needs.

Magnitude of the stakes

Many biotech advocates argue that biotechnology is not so different from the cultivation and breeding of plants that farmers have done for thousands of years. This is true. One of the scientist-authors, Channapatna Prakash, illustrates the evolution of crop plants with a picture of modern corn next to its wild maize ancestor, a tiny, scraggly, unappetizing cob. The argument is that humans already manipulate nature drastically, so critics are silly to be upset about the addition of a few genes, a tiny incremental change in a long history of plant breeding. This would be correct, if the issue were manipulation of nature–but it is not. The important point is that millions of farmers invested centuries of work in developing corn all the way from that scraggly relative to the modern wonder that it is, never allowing patents or private control of the plant germplasm. Now, on the basis of a tiny incremental addition, multinational corporations are trying to take ownership of this most basic of all public goods. This–not fringe complaints about manipulating nature–is the issue for biotech critics: that biotechnology is allowing the private takeover of our common heritage, the work of all the farmers of history.

This may seem like an exaggeration of the power of patents. After all, a patent’s term is limited. What is at stake, though, is not a temporary monopoly but a change in the rules of ownership, so that what has always been public will now always be private. Once plants are patentable, there will be the same constant stream of small improvements there has been for thousands of years, but now each improvement will start a new patent term. The issue, again, is control. Patents entitle their owners to control the uses of information, backed by the power of the state. If the current privatization trend continues, then owning patents in the information economy will be like owning land was in an agrarian economy, or owning the means of production was in an industrial economy. The biotech industry and its critics have both recognized this; the scientists who still think this is a battle between knowledge and ignorance have not.

To understand the magnitude of the stakes, consider the view of one group of biotech critics: supporters of sustainable agriculture. In their mind, they have been guarding the traditions of responsible farming through 60 years of dominance by agribusiness. Though they have been losing the competition in the marketplace, they see that as caused by industrial agriculture’s being massively subsidized, which they believe society cannot keep doing forever. In recent years, with growing hostility to crop subsidies and demand for organic food booming, sustainable agriculture seems to be finally coming into its own. But now its advocates see the rules being changed: The very companies that have driven industrial agriculture, the chemical and pesticide companies, are now claiming patent ownership of the germplasm that all farmers need.

This example points at the deeper sources of alarm among biotech critics, sources that revolve around the freedom of minority or eccentric or niche activities (or non-Western cultures) to compete against the mainstream. Advocates of patents counter that there has been no change of rules, that the patent system always in principle included plants (and everything else). Their argument is that plant science just did not allow enough specificity to meet the statutory requirements of patent law, until the advent of biotechnology. To critics, this is irrelevant. The issue is not whether plant science can meet patent requirements but whether patent monopolies have any business in this arena at all.

Consider this analogy: Suppose a sports trainer is allowed to patent a new exercise regimen. (Though this example is imaginary, anyone familiar with the rapid expansion of the patent system during the past 20 years knows it is not so implausible.) Now, you see your neighbor working out in the park, follow her example, and are soon charged with patent infringement. What is your intuitive reaction to this scenario? I think most people would be outraged, seeing this as a shocking and intolerable intrusion of the patent system into their lives, monitoring and controlling their behavior way beyond its legitimate sphere. Such, I believe, is the intuition of critics of utility patents on plants.

The point of this analogy is to separate two issues: whether statutory patent requirements can be interpreted to cover a given “technology,” and whether the patent system should have jurisdiction over that sort of technology. Although patent advocates claim that the patent system has no bounds other than what can meet its requirements, biotechnology has already created one issue where the patent system is running up against other jurisdictions: the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery and the owning of humans. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has rejected several applications on those grounds. The imaginary exercise patent illustrates, as does the antislavery law, that we do not accept that the patent system should have no limits; the question is what those limits should be.

Critics of patenting plants do not see themselves as enemies of the patent system, any more than sustainable farming advocates see themselves as enemies of agriculture. They believe they are safeguarding responsible practices in the face of corporate abuse. Their concern is that patents on plants are less a stimulant to creativity than a tool for plundering the public domain. Many patent scholars see the system shifting, from the patent monopoly being an exception that encourages and rewards exceptional innovation, to that monopoly being the business-as-usual norm that protects corporate investment in routine R&D. Far from challenging the patent system as a whole, critics of patenting plants base their position on a fundamental principle of the patent system: The government gives patents to increase, not decrease, the public domain. This idea has always been codified as the “novelty” requirement, probably the most basic idea of patents: You can only patent something new; you cannot take what is already there and transfer it from the public domain to private ownership. The principle is reinforced by the requirement that inventors disclose details so that their inventions will enrich society’s public knowledge. Extending the patent system to cover plants, however, is a dramatic impoverishing of the public domain.

Advocates do have a response, as seen by extending the exercise analogy. Suppose most people exercise at health clubs, which purchase site licenses for their members to use patented cutting-edge programs. With more money to be made from developing training programs, more innovation in training occurs, which benefits health club members and so causes overall public health to go up. The modest cost of this improvement in public health is merely that we must protect the investment of trainers and health clubs by cracking down on those fringe elements of society who insist on exercising privately or who live in rural areas far from health clubs.

Moving ahead will require of scientists a respect for other disciplines that has so far been lacking in the biotech debate.

What do biotech critics find so wrong with this line of reasoning? We must uncover the intuition that lies here, because it explains a lot of the passion that infuses this debate. Why shouldn’t everyone who wants to exercise do it how and where the exercise patent owners let them? Why shouldn’t everyone who wants to grow plants have to grow what the seed patent owners sell? After all, they give us better exercises and better plants. All we have to give up for this greater efficiency is some flexibility, some control, and some freedom. The patenting of plants means that we need permission from corporations to grow things. Those of us who do things in the approved ways–say, grow a garden from purchased seeds–probably will not have any trouble. But those who do something eccentric, like breed orchids (let alone follow Mendel and cross peas) could be liable. Perhaps exceptions would be allowed; perhaps for rose breeding, an amateur tradition. But it is this forced amateur status that galls: The corporate owners of the world’s genetic resources condescending to allow us to putter around with nature in approved ways, or with unpatented plants inferior to what we can buy at the store, like children allowed to play with worn-out or obsolete adult clothes and tools.

Clash of philosophies

Large philosophies of life are at odds here. Think of it as the clash between the virtues of democratic competition and the virtues of technocratic monopoly. Patents are always a suppression of freedom and competition in favor of monopoly, which we accept as a special and narrow exception to our democratic presumption that competition is better. Critics of corporate control of the food supply see such an expanded suppression of competition as shutting down alternative ways to live, to eat, and to relate to the natural world and also to the social world. In this view, the diversity of cultures and lives is at stake. These critics believe that the rough-and-tumble competition among many different perspectives, like that among species, is what drives innovation, adaptation, and progress; the source of future creativity and value and our protection against disease, shocks, mistakes, or whatever comes tomorrow.

The deep intuition that lies beneath the biotech critics’ passionate rejection of patents on life is that the balance between freedom and control that is patent policy is the same balance that democracy itself depends on. No one can enter the competition of life without resources, and a thriving public domain is where most of us get them, as well as being the arena in which competition takes place. Democracy, freedom, and competition come as a package, and its price is some inefficiency and duplication of effort. On the other hand, a dream of technocratic efficiency tempts us with the promise that we could raise the standard of living overall by just accepting a little more uniformity. But the danger of letting a special and narrow exception to our freedom become the norm, justified by its claim to benefit the most people, is called “the tyranny of the majority,” and it is a perpetual threat to democracy. When patents are carefully bounded and apply only to new things–the essence of the patent idea–then there is no threat of tyranny. But when the patent system recognizes no bounds, and the world’s food crops are considered fair game for monopoly control, then there is a threat.

I believe that many, though not all, critics of biotechnology see this debate as absolutely the most crucial event of our era, with democracy and more at stake. This is the reason for the depth of their outrage and for the slogan “No patents on life.” The critics’ question is: Who will control the world’s food supply? Will it be many individuals (mostly farmers) democratically competing, or corporate monopolists backed by the state power of patents? And implicit in that question is the question of whether humanity’s long experiment with democracy is over.

The current simplistic biotech debate has stalled serious exploration of a wide range of important issues. Moving ahead will require interdisciplinary work equal in complexity to the topic, not solo efforts by select groups of scientists. And it will require of scientists a respect for other disciplines that has so far been lacking in the biotech debate. When the many points of view complement one another in a complete picture of biotechnology, its costs as well as its benefits, then the biotech debate can begin in earnest–as a debate, a conversation, a productive exchange and evaluation of views. Perhaps then we will start to move beyond the present angry impasse.

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Cite this Article

Cayford, Jerry. “Breeding Sanity into the GM Food Debate.” Issues in Science and Technology 20, no. 2 (Winter 2004).

Vol. XX, No. 2, Winter 2004