Not too long ago, popular wisdom ran that molecular biologists were going to save billions of people from starvation by genetically engineering crops resistant to flood, freeze, and drought; crops that could blossom from desiccated soil and bloom in salty sand; crops that could flourish despite an atmosphere saturated with carbon dioxide and rays of sunshine riddled with radiation. A waterless seed was the next killer app.
“With the help of our Gods and our science, we must not only increase our food supplies but also insure them against biological and physical catastrophes,” declared agronomist Norman Borlaug in his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
More recently, Cathleen Enright, executive vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, told me that since 1996, transgenic crops have “reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced pesticide runoffs, and reduced farm-fuel use. Because of biotech, there is more carbon sequestration in the soil.”
But despite the hopes of Borlaug and the hype of Enright, genetically modified crops as we know them have as a general rule increased agriculture’s reliance on a system of expensive “inputs” — agro-speak for the proprietary seeds and herbicides that have brought untold profits to multinationals such as Monsanto and Dow. The reputation of transgenic crops has tanked, as what was once a harbinger of green technology is now commonly perceived as a source of genetic pollution and has thus become anathema for many environmentalists.
The GMO story has become mired in the eco-wrecking narrative of industrial agriculture, and that is too bad for those who understand the real risks of climate change and discern our desperate need for innovation. And while the blue-sky hype of a genetically secured food supply has not become a reality, there have been a few breakthroughs. Even as climate change has increased the prevalence of many plant diseases, the new science can take credit for genetic inoculations that saved Hawaii’s papaya business. It’s also led to flood-resistant rice, created by Pamela Ronald of the University of California-Davis.
Of course, the party-line foodie dare not say anything positive about GMOs, at risk of being labeled a stooge of the foodopolists. And it’s true: Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, and Pioneer are not interested in GMO innovations that might help the bottom billion — molecular ramp-ups of crops like cassava, millet, or teff. They are not interested in low-insecticide eggplants that would help clean urban water supplies in South Asia. There’s not enough money in it for them.
But the truth is that GM products aren’t just necessary to help create an agriculture system that can survive in a post-climate-change world — they may actually help ameliorate global warming. As David Zilbermans, professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California-Berkeley has noted, “Adoption of herbicide tolerant varieties enabled transition to minimal tillage techniques, which reduced the greenhouse gas effect of agriculture equivalent to hundreds of thousands of cars annually. GMOs make it possible to produce food on less land, reducing the incentive of converting wild land into agricultural land.”
So the question looms: How can we harness the possible positives of GMOs without lining the pockets of the pharmers?
GMO agriculture relies on the relatively new science of bioinformatics (a mixture of bio- and information science), which means that DNA sequences look a lot more like software code than a vegetable garden. And if Monsanto is the Microsoft of food supply — raking in the rent on bites instead of bytes — perhaps the time has come for the agricultural equivalent of Linux, the open-source operating system that made computer programming a communal effort.
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.
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.
Frederick Kaufman is the author of “Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food.”
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy and culture.