March 2, 2017

Open source design can be utilized in many different ways to increase agriculture and food production. For example, open source tool design can help farmers tend to their crops more effectively and open source developments in hydroponics allow regular people to farm their own food. However, the topic I find most interesting within the realm of food and agriculture is the production and patenting of genetically modified organisms. Early on, food scientists promised that GMOs would allow for greater food production to meet the needs of earth’s growing population (Slate). Since then, debates have raged over the impact of GMO use on agriculture as well as whether or not GMOs should be patented. First, I will examine the benefits and consequences of GMO use in agriculture. Then, I will argue that GMOs should be open source rather than protected under intellectual property laws.

Overall, GMOs can have negative health effects, but do hold potential for combatting climate change in the future. Scientists create GMOs by inserting genes from bacteria and viruses into plants (Responsible Technology). Many health professionals are concerned about this gene transfer because it causes humans to ingest genes that have never been part of their diet before (Responsible Technology). In several studies, health professionals found that GMOs are linked to allergic reactions, liver problems, reproductive problems, and infant mortality (Responsible Technology). However, it is important to note that many of these studies found these health problems in animals that consumed GMOs rather than humans (Responsible Technology). Despite the potential negative health impacts, GMOs do provide an interesting means by which to combat climate change. Because GMOs are plants that are modified to fit a scientist’s preferences, they can be made to withstand certain conditions (Slate). For example, a Professor at the University of California Davis, Pamela Ronald, genetically engineered rice to make it flood resistant (Slate). Therefore, when health considerations are fully taken into account, GMOs can actually be a valuable resource to combat climate change.

The question becomes whether or not we can harness the potential power of GMOs to combat climate change in the current Intellectual Property-driven environment. There are several arguments in favor of intellectual property rights for GMOs. GMO companies such as Monsanto argue that they need IP rights in order to recuperate the research, development, and regulatory approval costs put into the creation and production of new GMOs (BioTech). They argue that if companies cannot make up for these costs, they will stop innovating new GMO technologies (BioTech). However, IP rights have several negative consequences as well. In the past, companies like Monsanto have used these IP rights not to continually develop new technology, but to jealously guard the patents they already have (IP-Watch). Monsanto makes farmers pay for new seeds every year by genetically modifying the seeds so that they cannot be reused after one season (IP-Watch). In addition, Monsanto has been known to sue farmers whose crops become contaminated by nearby GMO fields (IP-Watch). When companies like Monsanto use their patents for their own benefit rather than to develop crops for social good, the problem becomes patent law rather than some of the negative health consequences of GMO plants (Tech Dirt). Instead, GMO technology should be open source so that everyone can benefit from innovation in food production (Tech Dirt). If a loophole was made for patent law regarding food, GMO companies could no longer take advantage of farmers for personal gain (Slate). Instead, everyone would have ability to access or develop new food technologies and these technologies could be used to combat some of our most pressing environmental problems (Slate).