Take the case of Dr. Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant genomics at UC-Davis. Like many scientists, Dr. Ronald’s primary motivation is not profit, but insight into the workings of nature. After seeking to decode the rice genome for a decade, Ronald and her team came up with a genetically altered version that resists Xanthomonas, Asia’s worst rice blight. What better, more socially beneficial use for genetic modification could there be? Ronald and UC-Davis filed the gene with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, so that the genetic sequences for Xanthomonas immunity would become their intellectual property, and soon after that filing, Monsanto and Pioneer asked to license the gene.
But as the UC-Davis Office of Technology Transfer negotiated terms of the deal, Monsanto and Pioneer lost interest, and the commercial development of Ronald’s rice stalled. Disease resistance, it turned out, did not possess the same attractions for multinational food producers as it did for Dr. Ronald and UC-Davis, perhaps because the potential profits of blight-resistant rice couldn’t compare to those of Roundup Ready corn. Pamela Ronald’s rice held the promise of saving lives in Asia—but because of legal wrangling her grains remained in the greenhouse.
Eventually, Dr. Ronald effected her own patent protest by making the genetic information she discovered freely available to developing countries. And Ronald’s attitude toward the legal framework surrounding crop genetics is not atypical among scientists. Many of the molecular biologists I’ve interviewed over the last several years say that food patent laws stand in the way of their research, as molecular innovations become the intellectual property of the company or university that owns the lab that created it. The right to own your innovation sounds like a great thing—except for the fact that the overall effect stifles large-scale collaborative work, which has often been the foundation of scientific advancement. In fact, scientists interested in a freer exchange of ideas might be allies of the food movement in this battle against Monsanto and Big Ag, and rally behind reform of plant patent laws—if foodies took a step back from campaigning to label GM foods and looked at the big picture.
Intellectual property laws need to be rethought. A copyrighted movie or book remains the same movie or book, but when food becomes a legal construct or an intellectual property right, it stops being food. Of course, you can eat patented popcorn the same way you can consume its unpatented cousin. But unlike an iPhone or a flatscreen TV, everyone needs food, and we need it every day. The world’s largest purveyors of industrial agriculture would like to convince the rest of us that the global food market is as free as the market for any other widget—even though no one can opt out of purchasing breakfast, lunch, or dinner for any extended period of time, or in any meaningful way. Since everyone must participate in the food market to the tune of 2,700 or so calories a day, food property rights allow those who hold food patents a guaranteed portion of profits from a guaranteed purchase, which is fundamentally unfair. Why should Big Ag possess privileges beyond any other sort of business on earth? The rules that govern patents for electronics and entertainment should not be the same rules that govern the most vital element of human life.
More than eight decades’ worth of plant patent protection has formed one of the agricultural industry’s strongest bulwarks—and that’s why patent laws are exactly what the food movement should be targeting. The most direct and efficient way to undermine the food industrialist monopoly of the molecular seed business is to reform these laws (particularly the utility patent law of 1985), and make food property rights less exclusive, less lucrative, and less enduring.
If the goal of the American food movement is to offer an alternative to Big Food, if the goal is to foster small farmers worldwide, to develop better connections between rural and urban environments, and to support sustainable farming techniques—then labeling GM foods, as California’s Proposition 37 would have done, will not come anywhere close to doing the job. In order to overhaul the food system, the food movement must think strategically. To the Monsantos of the world, food has become a source of wild profit and a legal construct to be defended at all costs in court. That means the time has come for the food movement to take on patent laws. Instead of tilting at the windmill of food labels, food nonprofits should hire a fleet of I.P. lawyers and send them to Washington to demand reform of the Plant Patent Act. When there’s less profit in genetic modification, things will get better for consumers, farmers, and scientists—pretty much everyone except corporate executives.
Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.