In 1980, the US Supreme Court ruled that individuals and corporations could patent living organisms. Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, a microbiologist working for General Electric, had genetically modified a bacterium to break down crude oil, and GE wanted that tasty bit of biotech in the can. The decision paved the way for companies to market the most famous and most profitable genetically modified organisms developed thus far: herbicide resistant crops. Specifically, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Soybean. Now, as you’re likely aware, that stubborn GMO soybean has been engineered to be resistant to Roundup, a herbicide that kills pretty much everything else.
Since bringing the product to market, Monsanto has become one of the most controversial companies in the world, rivaling giants like Exxon and Dow Chemical in the amount of scorn it attracts. Sitting at the heart of that scorn is the fact that the company owns a biological organism, and owns the right to create them. Alarming incidents where the company strong-armed farmers who’ve refused to adopt the crop or have “allowed” the GMO seed to cross pollinate on their land (ie, wind blew the seed over from neighboring farms, or fell off of other farmers’ passing trucks) were recorded in the documentary the Future of Food.
There are a bunch of other reasons that people hate Monsanto—genetically modified food generally creeps folks out, biologists worry about the unintended consequences of GMO crops ending up in the wild, and there are a litany of allegations that GMOs are less healthy than the natural stuff—but it’s the corporate profiteering at the core of the debate that propels the other controversies.
Monsanto, after all, has a financial incentive to bully small farmers, to keep any deleterious impacts of GMOs under the radar, and to prevent anyone else from improving on and profiting off of its patented organisms. Monsanto controls 22% of the seed market for a reason.
So, it shouldn’t be surprising that it went after its closest competitor, DuPont, for allegedly infringing on its cash crop. A jury just awarded Monsanto $1 billion because DuPont was willfully violating its Roundup Ready soybean patent when it splicing the bean genes to create a new strain of crop. The New York Times explains:
“The verdict is a big victory for Monsanto because it maintains patent protection on Roundup Ready soybeans, the world’s most widely grown genetically engineered crop and in some sense the foundation of Monsanto’s business … More than 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States contains Monsanto’s Roundup Ready gene, which makes the crop resistant to the herbicide Roundup or generic versions known as glyphosate. That allows farmers to spray their fields with the herbicide, killing weeds while leaving the soybeans intact …
“DuPont had attempted to develop an alternative glyphosate-resistant technology called Optimum GAT. But it decided to combine that gene with the Roundup Ready gene, saying the combination worked better. Monsanto sued DuPont in 2009, saying DuPont’s license to use the Roundup Ready trait precluded combining it with another trait for glyphosate tolerance. It said DuPont wanted to combine the two because its own technology did not work.”
Now, no one is going to send any extra hate Monsanto’s way for sticking it to DuPont, its closest and equally nefarious-seeming food-engineering competitor. But it’s demonstrative of the pratfalls of corporate crop-engineering. GMO defenders argue that those products lead to more efficient crop production, and that the companies are merely engaged in a hyper-advanced form of cross-pollination; that we’ve been “engineering” crops since the dawn of agriculture.
But these arguments break down when applied to the onerous corporate restrictions placed on the product—the first falls victim to the same kind of criticisms lobbed at many patent-protected goods, namely, nobody else can improve upon it much without getting sued. So, if GMOs really can help feed the world as Monsanto and its ilk claim, they can only help feed it as well as their intellectual property will allow. And this goes for that second argument, too—nobody wins in the business of world-feeding if there are restrictions on the various crops we can use to best do so; nobody except the corporation that owns predominant protected biotech. Pro-free market hardliners should recognize that productive competition is being stymied here—where are the better, more productive and even more herbicide and pesticide-resistant crops!—everyone else should be already be plenty wary.
Opponents of GMOs often get labeled “anti-technology” for protesting Monsanto and co. The planet’s population is booming, the pro-GMOers go, we’ve got to step up industrial-scale production to feed everyone. There are plenty of organic and local food advocates who’d take issue with that statement alone. But factor in the notion that the company that boasts sole ownership of the leading GMO tech has just successfully filed a $1 billion lawsuit preventing another company from attempting to improve upon its ostensibly world-feeding product (DuPont ultimately gave up on developing its variant). And It’s another reminder of how much control a single profit-seeking corporation has over what is now a crucial cog in the global food system.
We shouldn’t just be wary of the myriad uncertainties GMO foods present—perhaps we should be looking more closely at the corporate culture and intellectual property laws that keep genetically modified crops under lock and key, and that keep the hate flowing.