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The Worst Thing About GMOs Is That They're Not In the Public Domain

The biggest threat posed by genetically modified foods is not to human health but to the future of farming itself.

The biggest threat posed by genetically modified foods is not to human health—there are plenty of reasons to be adamant in observing the impact of GMOs, but there’s not much credible science suggesting current strains pose any great risk—but to the future of farming itself.

Three biotech firms, Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta, control 53% of the world’s commercial seed market. Since winning the right to patent their genetically engineered seeds, they have been ruthless in “protecting” their patents, suing small businesses and farmers they claim used their seeds without paying up.


A new report, Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers (pdf), details the damage they’ve done. Here’s a quick list of some of the stats:

  • Monsanto alone has brought 142 lawsuits against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses
  • As a result, it has extracted $23 million from American small farmers and businesses
  • Now, 93% of soybeans planted in the U.S. are now genetically modified
  • So are 86% of corn crops
  • Those same three big ag firms that control 53% of the global market control 73% of the American market

Taken together, those stats paint a familiarly ominous portrait—the vast corporate consolidation of the American seed market. If you’re a farmer in the U.S., you’re left with dwindling options—go organic, or buy ruthlessly patent-protected GMOs. But the most egregious trend evident here is the privatization of seeds themselves.

Debbie Backer, a co-author of the report and expert with the Save Our Seeds group, told the Guardian that “Corporations did not create seeds and many are challenging the existing patent system that allows private companies to assert ownership over a resource that is vital to survival and that historically has been in the public domain.” It wasn't until the mid-90s that patent-protected GMO seeds started sucking up market share:

That has always been the ugly heart of the GMO industry, and for good reason. GMO defenders are often fond of saying that humans have been “genetically engineering” crops for ages, by cross-pollinating and hybridizing and so on and so forth, and that biotech firms are just speeding up the process. Well, the obvious difference is that for 99.99% of human history, those farmers never claimed the rights to their particular brand of crop and demanded everyone else pay royalties on their “creations.” Which is exactly what Monsanto, DuPont, and co. are doing now—in fact, their business model depends on it.


For their part, the biotech ag firms claim that they need to protect those revenue streams to continue their research. On its website, Monsanto offers a rebuttal.

If … private biotech firms can no longer rely on the patent system to protect their ability to recoup their R&D costs by preventing such replication, there will be no financial incentive to continue investing in technologies with easily replicable features. In the agriculture sector alone, Monsanto and its competitors are spending billions of dollars annually on R&D in agricultural biotechnology, pursuing traits that make crops higher yielding and more resistant to various environmental stresses, and to make grains with increased nutritional value

Therefore Monsanto must sue the pants off of anyone who might be using their seed, or a variation of it, so that it can protect its revenue streams, which it ostensibly needs to keep making the world a better place with new and improved products.

But as the report makes clear, seeds and seed innovation have historically been in the public domain, where everyone could benefit equally from farmers’ and scientists’ improvements—not primarily corporate executives.

Most major new crop varieties developed throughout the 20th century owe their origin to publicly funded agricultural research and breeding. In 1980, the share of overall U.S. crop acreage planted with public sector seed was 70 percent for soybeans and 72-85 percent for various types of wheat.

Elsewhere, SOS points out that the "vast majority of plant improvement in American history has been accomplished by farmers and public sector plant breeders, and these tremendous advances were made without any system of 'innovation-promoting' intellectual property protection for plants."

Now especially, when we're deep into the information age, we’ve seen time and again the power of open, crowd-sourced research and widespread collaboration. There’s only one advantage to keeping GMO seed DNA secret, under patent lock, and that’s to protect Monsanto’s wealth-generating revenue stream. Which is to be expected—that’s what profiteering corporations are built to do.

But it’s also why they have no business hoarding seeds. Seeds are not smartphones or new kinds of plastic or a better mousetrap. Seeds are an existential necessity. If there's anything that should be returned to the public sector, it's genetically modified seeds. If ever there was a practice that should be open and transparent and subject to as much daylight as possible, it's this. Ideally, seed DNA should not just be made public, but ultra-public. Imagine a Human Genome Project for seeds of the top crops—imagine the innovation that might spur. As Obama pointed out in the State of the Union address last night, the HGP has generated $140 in private capital for every $1 invested by the public. And two years ago, an application to patent a human gene was shut down by the Justice Department—patent lawyers and the biotech industry jeered, but doctors and scientists cheered.

Meanwhile, Monsanto and DuPont and co. keep their patent-protected GMO seedstock under lock and key, amassing private profits and obscuring potential gains for the public at large.