Over the past several years I have spent a great deal of time in high-security, limited-access genetic modification laboratories. While researching my latest book, I peered at glow-in-the-dark grapes (their seeds spiked with jellyfish genes), inspected attempts to create square tomatoes (a yet-to-be-decoded DNA sequence may dictate the shape of all fruit), and marveled at rice plants engineered to be immune to Asia’s deadliest rice blight. None of the GMO cornucopia I ogled is commercially available—yet. But even if these laboratory specimens never make it to the shelves, about 70 percent of processed foods in U.S. supermarkets already contain genetically modified ingredients.
Should you be concerned about the healthfulness of such foods? This question monopolized a good deal of the recent diatribes deployed in the lead-up to last month’s vote on California’s Proposition 37, which would have mandated labeling on GM foods.
But this is the wrong question.
Here’s why: GM foods’ effect on health is uncertain, but their effect on farmers, scientists, and the marketplace is clear. Some GM foods may be healthy, others not; every genetic modification is different. But every GM food becomes dangerous—not to health, but to society—when it can be patented. Right now, the driving force behind the development of new genetic crop modifications is the fact that they possess the potential to be enormously profitable, and the source of those potential profits is a seemingly innocuous bit of legal code:
Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor.
That’s the gist of early American patent law (originally with the word art in place of the word process)—and the reason why molecular biologists are spiking grapes with jellyfish genes and pulling all-nighters in pursuit of the square tomato. Originally, patent law applied only to nonedible inventions, but since the Plant Patent Act of 1930 was passed, genetically altered food has been subject to intellectual property protection, and the creation of new foods has become a reliable way to ensure profit streams for whoever patented them first. In 1930, genetically modified food meant apples grafted from one tree onto another, but 40 years later the statute was extended beyond the fruits of grafted saplings to plants that grow from seeds, like corn. “Utility patent” protection came later, in 1985, and expanded intellectual property rights to methods of engineering a plant, including genetic sequences inserted into a species’s genome.
The impact of these laws has been enormous. In essence, plant patent laws created the industrial food system that the modern food movement rightly decries.
Monsanto, the most reviled agricultural corporation in the world, has committed manifold ethical sins that have been widely reported in foodie media. What isn’t widely reported is that plant patent laws are the legal framework that enables these sins. It was utility patent protection that opened the door for Monsanto’s present-day global seed and insecticide portfolio, including rights to its infamous “terminator” or “suicide seed” technology (which effectively sterilizes second-generation plants and makes it not only futile but a legal violation for farmers to gather seeds for next year’s crop). Monsanto has prosecuted farmers who discover GM corn or soy sprouts growing on their land after the wind carries seeds over from neighbors’ GM fields. The basis for such ridiculous lawsuits? Plant patent laws: These farmers are inadvertently violating Monsanto’s intellectual property rights. Worst of all, Monsanto has deviously developed an insecticide technology (specifically, a weed-killer known as “Roundup,” discovered and patented by a Monsanto chemist in 1970) that works best when applied to the corporation’s patented GM seeds. Patent laws, in essence, have allowed the corporation to establish a vertical monopoly—if you want Monsanto’s high-yielding Roundup Ready seeds, you’ll need Monsanto’s Roundup insecticide; and if you buy Roundup insecticide, you’ll need Roundup Ready seeds. (Since large-scale corn and soybean farmers want the highest yields they can get, they tend to go ahead and buy both.)
The sum total effect of these actions on the global food system has been overwhelmingly negative.