GMO Patents: A Necessary Evil
To most, the term GMO evokes a feeling of uncomfortability—both out of the confusion surrounding the term and of the controversial issues concerning the use of artificially manipulated organisms. Out of the number of issues that have arisen, perhaps the pinnacle of disagreement is in the patenting of GMO crops by large, multi-national corporations. Supporters of the GMO patents argue that so long as food is sold like any other product, it should be entitled to the same level of producer protection as other commodities. Opponents to GMO patents argue that patenting crops allows corporations to steal money from farmers and turn food into a commodity rather than a right.2 For the sake of this dialogue, GMOs will refer solely to agricultural crops, as recent discussions on the issue have centered around the agricultural application of GMOs.
Recent years have seen food turn from a human right to a traded commodity. This transformation has not been a conscious decision on behalf of a single individual but instead has been the result of an ever increasing neoliberal market system whereby all social and political actions are informed by the market place. This firmly entrenched free market behavior has created a do-or-die environment for companies whereby to simply stay relevant, they must constantly develop their products in an ever expanding market for more-and-more efficient forms of production.4
Nowhere is this hegemonic corporatism more relevant than in the world of agriculture. With the top three seed companies, Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta controlling 39% of the world’s seed stock, the R&D side of the industry is as vital as the companies purchasing the seeds themselves. Monsanto alone spent 1.5 billion USD in 2015 alone on biotechnology research.1 In this lies the problem facing GMO proponents and opponents. In order to compensate for the high expenses related to R&D, these multi-national corporations are forced to patent their products in order for them to remain profitable and to ensure that similar products produced by other corporations are not released.
Would this be an issue if we didn’t have a neoliberal agricultural system? All things being equal, deconstructing free market agriculture would ensure that there is no need for GMO patents.3 Given exogenous market factors, such an ideal trading environment is impossible in agriculture. Instead, the world population is expected to exceed 10 billion long before the end of the century. Such exponential growth in population necessitate more efficient agricultural production. Larger agricultural operations lead to greater quantities of agricultural byproducts. So long as our population rises, we will need a food source that grows along with it.
This places humanity in a bind. We have the option of fighting to curb population growth or we can adapt to an ever growing world by whatever means necessary, including producing GMO products. GMOs are not a villain of capitalism but instead are a product of an growing demand on natural resources. Whether or not we choose to embrace GMOs is a question we need to answer before making our way forward both economically and environmentally.
Brown, L.R. Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company, 2012.
Haspel, T. “Unearthed: Are patents the problem?” WSJ, September 29, 2014.
Magdoff, F., and B. Tokar. Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2010.
- Zhou, W. “The Patent Landscape of Genetically Modified Organisms.” Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. August 10, 2015.