(or How Gene Patent Trolls Stole Your Food)
This article is made of a few different parts. The first is a hypothetical dystopian scenario, but one very much rooted in our lives and perfectly possible trajectories of trends. Company names and product names mentioned are used only as EXAMPLES in that part of the article, and no bias or prediction of actual corporate actions or combinations is intended. The fact that I have to say this makes some of my point for me.
The second deals with the present in the USA, and places the reader in the position of an American plains arable farmer, finishing with a mild dipping of toes into conspiracy conjecture.
The third compares the direction of the GMO food industry with that of pharmaceutical firms and puts it against the backdrop of TTIP/TPP/TISA negotiation.
The fourth explains more reasons why banning GMOs will not help.
The fifth is to say you should decide what you CAN do, and makes suggestions.
YOU WOULDN'T STEAL A LUNCH
>> Imagine for a moment, sitting at the table in 2025 for a hearty meal. For the purposes of the point here, imagine you have a full recipe list and photos from some meals you ate a decade before, hovering in front of your face on your embedded Augmented Reality device's Heads Up Display (or however we do things by then). As you compare your meals, you notice a few interesting differences. It's not like this particular hypothetical you has chosen to diet per se, but your meals have been shaped by availability of certain foods, by advertising and by what seems to last the longest in the fridge. After all, the computer's recommendations, right there on the HUD next to your old recipes, show a selection of alternatives to the ingredients that just cost so much these days.
For a start, you can see that those alternatives, which you've had to buy as you have no choice when working a zero hours contract like most of the population do, all have very commercial and catchy sounding names, compared to their bland ten-years-ago ancestors. They even manage to make green beans sound fun, perhaps as 'Greenest Beanium(R)(TM)' or some similar nonsense. You can remember a time when a few people were even trying to grow their own green beans in their gardens not long ago, before planting seeds not grown by approved suppliers was outlawed in an after-thought amendment to the mighty TTIP act. The other foods have similar histories behind them and similarly trademarked names, hiding from the youth of today what some of their food even originally was, let alone the meaning of 'monocultured biodiversity dead zones'.
Genetically modified to eke the most crop from the least land, to ward off pests by allowing the plants to cope with oodles of weedkillers, pesticides and other poisons, supposedly washed off before sale – the sheen that remains on fruits' skins seemingly not withstanding, you note, looking at the slices of apple in your upmarket-feeling treat of a dish.
The marketing takes another sinister turn on the packaging as the same GM foods are branded and priced differently based on everyone's unique personalised advertising profile from Google and various big data firms. You can't even be sure that you're seeing the print on the carton of juice in front of you the same as your own mother would if she looked at it, not because of any differences in eyesight, but because of targeted advert nanobots in the label, able to change colours as viewed from different angles, giving the carton an iridescent appearance. Either way, what you see is a product marketed at you as 'brain function improving' and 'immunity boosting' because it contains Vitamin C and whatever other vitamins and minerals the latest innovations have crammed into the already selectively bred oranges.
Another difference from how things were is the expansion of end user license agreements. Once confined to software and web services, these now seem to be present on the very sturdy and nanotech-laced packaging of every food item, protecting the food within from being eaten by anyone who doesn't have an account with the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) producing company, which is needed to verify that they are using the food in an approved recipe. You look at your micropayments balance on Citicoin, tutting at how many royalties are dripping out of it so frequently – all of them added by Citicoin the moment you open a new food box of some comestible you haven't consumed before. Want to try eating or doing or watching or reading or learning something new? That'll be another direct micropayment debt on your tab. At least this way you get verified via the Internet of Things for cheaper health insurance with the Pfizer & Roche NHS. Given their prices, that's no small thing... <<
This chilling hypothesis is just a law change or two and a few years of scientific and regulatory work away, all in directions already being followed today. So, how will we all end up in this mess? Is there any clear way to avoid it? Are we better off without GMOs altogether? It's easy to jump to conclusions, with arguments so powerful as these, but let's examine the situation a little more objectively first.
EXTORTION, EXPIRY DATES AND EXTRAPOLATION
Curiously, the trigger for writing this article was not the patenting of any new genetically modified crop, but rather a patent for a GMO variety of 'Roundup Ready' soybeans and a few other such patents expiring. These patents had been approved for Monsanto in the USA back in the 1990s, starting the whole gene patent ball rolling.
I thoroughly encourage you to read the above article, as it outlines so much of what is wrong with gene and plant variety patents. What I will say next also also provides the context for my above hypothesis.
If you save up seeds from a patented crop and re-plant them the next year, like farmers have done with ordinary crops for many millennia to grow their next crop, you will be sued. Your right to grow food on your land (and that 'your' is assuming you are lucky enough to own it) is being enclosed. If you don't pay a license fee every year, you can't grow that crop. Since you have to pay every year to use the crop, lock-in develops where you want to maintain best value for money and keep up the genetic arms race as described more below, making you want to buy the latest version. A genetic patent expiry date has instead been turned into an annual expiry of rights that you must renew for fear of the expiry of the monoculture's defences and thus its point. A license to grow food. Remember, in this system you can't save the seeds from the plants that developed advantageous mutations and did the best in your fields. Selective breeding is no longer an option. This business model has a name: monopolist extortion. Indeed, if TTIP, TTP or TISA pass, nation states will be sued by corporations of the Monsanto ilk for not ensuring genetic 'intellectual property' is 'respected' by all 'intermediaries' and 'end users'. So, perhaps it's best to avoid using patented crops.
But, you have a problem. Everyone around your state is growing a monoculture of disease and pest resistant crops. Every attempt to grow the non-modified version in the area leads to the crops being pounced on by pests, diseases and the encroaching drought. Because the GMOs are able to withstand high levels of pesticides, the pests are immune to lower levels that you can apply to your non-GMO crops, and so eat them anyway. The diseases that used to only come once every unlucky few decades seem to torment your fields every year as your plants are no match for what is effectively a superbug, bred by the selective pressure of GMO crops in their arms race with the blight. Finally, the GMO crops can get by on less water than yours, masking how serious the climate change induced drought is in what would be a dust bowl were it not for irrigation and reduced water needs in the GMOs. Perhaps if there were more biodiversity in the area, the soil would still be fertile enough to grow something else, and perhaps the bees would still be around to pollinate a crop. Ever wondered why the industry wants bee-harming chemicals to remain on sale? I conjecture (posit, surmise without a lot of evidence) that they want you to buy their seeds. Bees being endangered could be extrapolated as an advantage to those who pay off the last few beekeepers to maintain the seed production facilities. I don't know if they do or want to do that, but as a rule, the most despicable commercial practices will happen at some point while shareholders and profits are the primary concerns. We have seen this proven time and again in every major industry on this planet.
FOOD IS A LICENSED DRUG
The thing about the expiry of a gene patent for soybeans or any food crop is that the generic and cheaper clones of the concept that appear afterwards will be made by people who want to make a fast buck and don't care for innovation. After all, innovation is something that needs huge labs and big money that you only get when you have large percentages of farmers hooked. Isn't it? I mean, sure, your local DIYBio space could try and create its own version of a gene mod that sidesteps the patent, but without the money to hire a specialist lawyer to keep up with the progress of the large corporations and their ever-growing patent minefield, you couldn't be sure that your community lab isn't about to be sued for trying. After all, Big Brother is watching. It's funny how easy it might be to construe attempting to find a new weedkiller resistant plant, and a new kind of fertiliser for it, as being a terrorist plot.
If patents never expired, of course, this situation would be even worse, as the monopoly would perpetuate without innovation even being required. The even further extension of copyright terms heralded by the likes of TTIP is therefore a very troubling sign.
Whether you grow the patented product or its ex-patent predecessor, you are still perpetuating the same system and the use of the same weedkillers and pesticides.
This kind of lock-in is what we already see presently in the pharmaceutical industry, where large corporations wave their drug patent phalli at one another, nauseatingly avoiding dealing with the fact that people die as a result of drugs being delayed from release by such patents and of doctors and pharmacists being biased, even possibly bribed in places, towards prescribing or effectively outright selling the products with the 'official' brand names as opposed to the generic alternatives or to more suitable drugs from rival firms. Although the NHS in the UK isn't quite so bad as the US health system for this, it is fast heading that way. The NHS was once the most cost-efficient healthcare system in the world, and that was in no small part due to pharmaceutical supplier neutrality. As ISPs have shown with the internet, neutrality of what you supply is not something naturally provided without regulation. We are now seeing this happen to food. When your local farms are all owned by the large corporations and rented out (as is the case near where my mum lives) to tenant farmers who drive their tractors in from miles away to harvest around someone's barn conversion, it's not a simple case of buying the land out to turn the farms co-operative, either, and nor is it environmentally friendly, even if the solar panels being installed on the barn conversion might have suggested otherwise at a cursory glance.
Arguments that buying local is not as efficient as buying from large corporations due to economies of scale have been raised by some friends of mine. I wish to point out that there are many ways to measure efficiency, and suing farmers out of business for not growing and dealing your 'drugs' your way is not an efficient use of farming experience.
We live in a dangerous time where we risk normalising the pharmaceutical industry's model of 'litigation for the maximisation of profit first, lives later' across the board. All this to protect 'intellectual property'. The Ferenghi would be proud, including of the lawsuit I, my political party or the video uploader might theoretically now receive from Paramount Pictures for me sharing this link, ironically (and in particular, how sharing such would be viewed after the passing of TTIP etcetera into the statute books has accelerated big IP's race to evenly spread the most draconian copyright laws worldwide). The result of it all is that food becomes something you have to license, and cannot own – but that large corporations, who in some places have the cheek to try to claim that they are effectively people in terms of rights because it suits them, can own. And don't think you're safe from that concept just because you're in a different country. Because of TTIP, TPP and TISA, that won't be the case for long.
SO BAN GMOS?
You could be forgiven, especially if you only scan-read this far, for thinking that GMOs as a whole are just a bad idea. The Scottish Parliament clearly thinks so by banning GM crops. However, in spite of all the compounded doomsday scenarios heretofore mentioned, to ban GMOs, though it may seem like a sensible avoidance of a whole can of worms, is both throwing the baby out with the bathwater and won't do much good anyway. The arrival of TTIP will soon render Scotland's efforts moot, quite likely in the months before any further independence referenda can be held, and by then it will be too late, as companies with vested interests in GMOs will be able to sue Westminster for letting Scotland go and sue Scotland for trying to ban GM crops. Even without those lawsuits occurring right off the bat, Scotland will probably end up signing these treaties anyway to be 'one of the gang' and to persuade other countries to do trade with it after all. Besides, if a country trades above a certain volume with a non-TTIP/TISA/TPP state, does it not run the risk of lawsuits?
In the meantime, Scotland has compounded its upcoming economic problems by scaring away would-be startups in the most zeitgeist industry of our time: Biotechnology. A country that has a strong anti-GM crops opinion likely will take umbrage at the development of any GMOs within its borders. In spite of dreams of setting up a lab by a nice Scottish mountain with a loch view and providing a quiet, relaxed place to do science with my colleagues, I now find its government legislating at odds with my fledgling business. The sensible entrepreneur doesn't let sentiments about location risk the success of the business, and so perhaps I'll be looking elsewhere now to develop my startup, maybe somewhere like Ireland, where things seem to be moving in a more conducive direction. Yet, TTIP etcetera pose serious concerns for me, and have a cooling effect of uncertainty and doubt about the creation of any business at all for the time being. This effect is largely due to the secrecy with which these treaties are being built. But if I can't even be sure what the law will be in any of the countries where I might start my company, how can I even begin to wrangle with the technological innovations, ideas and plans we have waiting in the wings?
As it happens, my business's innovations are intended to include (as just a taster) things that will disintermediate GMO crops, the entire pharmaceutical and healthcare industries and reduce the workload for the cosmetics and therapeutic industries. I knew I wasn't going to be popular with these people anyway, but now it looks like I'll just be among all the other common people who will wonder if their meal is a genuine food product or just a very good imitation that managed to copy all the Ts and Cs (and As and Gs) without resorting to Engrish, wondering at whether my ideas to change the world could ever have taken hold.
A GMO is not a bad thing. We (as in life) have been modifying them the slow way since we appeared in the primordial ooze somehow 4.5 billion years ago. We (as in humans growing food) have been modifying them by selective breeding ever since a farmer thought 'I'll just keep the seeds from the tasty, tall plants that grew the best'. Into the future, we will modify our own genes to eradicate genetic disorders, cancer and the like. We will probably do more zany things with gene modification too. Modifying genes is not an instant guaranteed disaster-maker, nor does it inherently create a monoculture. A business model creates a monoculture and greed breeds disaster. GMO seeds only grow where you plant them and companies only sue because they have people in them who actually have to decide that that is the right thing to do at the time. We can only pity them for the stressful lives these middle managers and gears in the metaphorical machine must live. So if you want to avoid getting burned out and crushed by this whole mess,
BE LIKE A PIRATE. BE POSITIVE.
Trample the enclosures. Your free will is still intact, whether free will is legal or not. You can decide how you can help people, based on your own circumstances. Everybody has a unique position and something individual to bring to the mix – or to do whatever we/they want with, really.
If you want to see a whole decade from now out without this kind of stuff happening, the time is now to do what you can to support the Pirate Party and to use disintermediating technologies that remove the power from the large corporations and put it into a peer-to-peer context with the people individually and collectively able to control their own lives. GMOs, cryptocurrency, biotechnology, virtual reality and nanotechnology – none of them are bad ideas in and of themselves, it's all about for whose benefit they are implemented and why. If you can say loud and clear enough to the right people that you don't want knee-jerk reactions to good ideas, but that you do want openness and transparency, that you want rid of the rot that is TTIP and its many clones, you will make a difference. If you can pick up a spade and grow your own vegetables or help your local Incredible Edible, Transition Towns or similar movement, you will help reduce our reliance on long distance food distribution and the big interests that fuelled such situations as the Horse Meat Scandal (summed up well here by the Good Ideas Channel on Youtube, although the conclusions they drew may require some debating). This, ladies and gentlemen, is the legacy you will leave your children. Well, this and mopping up after our parents' carbon emissions bender, anyway.