Let’s Make Genetically Modified Food Open-Source

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July 9 2013 9:30 AM

Let’s Make Genetically Modified Food Open-Source

It will help fight climate change and stick one in Monsanto’s eye.

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Open-source GMO is a new idea for food justice activists, who have been concentrating their efforts on depleting Monsanto's market share through consumer advocacy and political reform. Labeling laws for genetically modified organisms in the retail foodstream are about to land in statehouses across the country. But genetic modification does not equal Monsanto and Pioneer. The time has come to separate the dancer from the dance and admit that it is possible to be against big-agriculture and for scientific advancement.

Open-source is the quickest way to undermine proprietary rights to food molecules, those rights that guarantee profit streams for transnationals while condemning the earth to a monocultural future of agriculture with no regard for agroecology. For the surest way to sabotage Monsanto is not to label  but to sap its income. Already, a number of biotech pioneers have followed the open-source examples of Apache and Wikipedia. The database of the human genome mapping project has been free since it was published in 2003. The genetic map of rice has been made available at no charge to researchers worldwide. And the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has made its “Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture” a transnational paradigm of free-flowing information. Agricultural researchers in developing countries need not pay a penny to review all the latest life science research published in more than 3,000 academic journals.

Like open-source software, open-source food genetics would advance biological research in this country, and our universities would soon become hothouses of innovation. Intellectual production without intellectual property would thrive, as scientists gained access to DNA code in all its infinite variety, along with the freedom to create derivative work and redistribute findings. No great leap of faith would be required, as open-source is one of food’s oldest dynamics. There’s no patent on a roast chicken, and the derivative work of Momofuku founder David Chang does not owe a fee to Marcella Hazan, Julia Child, or Colonel Sanders. Chefs and their recipes have long constituted a creative commons.

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Of course, even open source can be subverted. As intellectual property rights expert Séverine Dusollier observed two years after the genetic sequence of rice became public, “The rice genome project placed masses of information into the public domain, most of which enabled private companies to develop applications such as genetic markers, specific genotypes related to nutrition, new quality of fibers, or targets for herbicides for which they filed a patent application.”

Turns out that permissiveness requires police and plenty of lawyers. Which is why the so-called “patent left” and “copyleft” movements have created clever licensing agreements that infect any and all derivative products, thereby enforcing the free availability of innovations going forward. Open-source agriculture joined the patent left movement when Cambia Technologies, an Australian biotech company that researches and develops GMOs, offered a licensing agreement called BIOS, which allows for the free use of a technology called “transbacter.” Transbacter can be deployed to alter plant genetics, and its aim is not one specific modification for one specific corporate interest but to enable a slew of innovations.

But BIOS, like all the other open-source initiatives, is far from perfect, as it creates the paradox of endlessly replicating armies of anti-licensing licenses. The way out of the logical mire—and the way to marshal agri-tech to the cause of climate change—is an explicit exception in the licensing law, an intellectual property loophole for food.

Everyone interested in global food knows that agriculture has had a largely negative impact on global warming, but few have recognized that legal reform of food-related intellectual property laws can help ensure a path to a more ecologically secure future. No doubt, biological “input” is far more complex than computer “input,” but the idea of a swarm of bio-hackers bringing down Monsanto and Dow is too delightful to dismiss. Throw climate change into the picture, and the stakes are simply too high for continuing the status quo of patented food. Neither information nor lunch may want to be free, but eventually we will need to get around to the business of sequencing proteins that have less to do with quarterly profits and more to do with centuries of ecological abuse. And those will be the only inputs that matter when the big heat hits.

Also in Future Tense's July series on agriculture and climate change: Michael Pollan explains the difference between "sun food" and "oil food," and David Biello examines why so many farmers don't believe in climate change.

Frederick Kaufman is the author of Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food.