Selling Life: Why a Soybean is Not a Stereo
I heard a story on my way into work today and am feeling compelled to write something about it. It covered the Supreme Court case of a soybean farmer vs. Monsanto. The case, as I understand it, boils down to this: a man went to a grain mill, bought seeds, and planted them.
These seeds were Monsanto seeds: genetically engineered to produce incredible yields and illegal to replant. The farmer contends that he had always bought seeds from the grain mill to plant, and it wasn’t his fault that the Monsanto seeds were mixed in there.
Monsanto’s basic argument is that if farmers are allowed to replant their seeds without paying, there is no incentive for innovation. The Obama administration is behind them (which really pisses me off), on the grounds that the case has far-reaching implications for “self-reproducing” technologies in other fields (most notably medical devices).
Patents were created to protect inventors. If someone has the bright idea to make a better mouse trap (or stereo, or smartphone, or computer), then they should be able to maintain rights on that invention. If there is no protection, what’s the point of spending time creating it? This makes sense in most cases, and I understand why a court would argue on the side of Monsanto. If the decision applies to all technologies, then they would want set a precedent that is applied correctly.
But this is different. As genetically modified seeds become ever more ingrained in our food supply, it will be increasingly hard for farmers to refuse to use them. Even if they don’t buy them, seeds from neighboring fields could blow in, setting off lawsuits. Over time our food supply will become ever more dependent on the whims of these technologies, at the cost of thousands of years of slow selective breeding. This is just wrong. We should not treat our food supply like an iPhone; whether it’s similar in a legal sense is not the point. In a real sense, they need to be seen as worlds apart!
I'm not trying to fear-monger, and I realize that technology, especially bio-technology, has created some real wonders that have pushed us forward as a species, but the issue of patenting life is not only a food issue. A decision in a case like this could have more far-reaching consequences than we could imagine. Just one example is the fact that genes are now patented, and soon, I’m sure, more efficient forms of organs will be patented (grown in factories by handy 3D printers). What will the courts say then? What does a child owe for the superior genes that his parents bought from the lab, and what is it going to cost if he can’t pay? Health would be going to the highest bidder (although that's not too far from the reality at the moment). I know this is taking the issue to its most extreme reaches of science fiction , but all too soon. fiction will become reality. These are the real questions we should be asking ourselves. If we don’t, these questions that will be answered for us by the very companies who stand to profit from our lives.
So what do we do? I think the first step is simply letting people know that they are eating these foods. That is why I was so behind Prop 37. I feel like the issues of health are almost secondary to the issues that are being brought up in this case. One company should not have a monopoly on our food supply. Negative effects of GMO's are to this point unproven, but it seems that science has had one too many "oops" moments. Moments where something that was "proven" safe reveals itself to be anything but. These are bets. Bets that wager advancement of our species against some unseen consequence. The problem with this bet is that if we lose, the loss will be far greater than we can pay. It will be the loss of thousands of years of careful small advancements in food production, advancements that will be much harder to regain once they are lost.