The possibilities that genetically modified crops can bring about are incredible. Imagine nutrient-enhanced foods, higher crop yields in areas plagued by hunger, vegetable-based vaccines, and colored combinations of fruits. Despite all of these potential benefits, a number of concerns have come to light as genetically modified foods have grown more widely produced. Consumer advocates worry that patents on genetically modified plants may cause the price of seeds to rise excessively. This will burden the agricultural industry in general and strain the budgets of small growers and farmers in the developing world. At the same time, patent infringement remains a major problem for companies that invest large resources of time and money into perfecting a modified crop. Studies have shown that beyond solely economic concerns, consumers are concerned with the safety of eating genetically modified foods. Furthermore, while citizens attempt to navigate complex scientific reports, governments formulate policies that shape the role of genetically modified food.
The World Health Organization broadly defines the phrase “genetically modified organism” as an organism “in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” In other words, a potentially useful gene from an often unrelated organism is inserted into the genome of what will then become the genetically modified plant or animal. Since the introduction of genetically engineered crops in the United States in 1996, insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant corn, soybeans, and cotton have become the country’s most widely adopted types of modified plants. As for the developing world, “golden rice,” which is genetically engineered to have a higher vitamin A concentration, has been making gradual progress toward large-scale availability.
Though some genetically engineered crops have been highly successful, critics say turning mainstream agriculture into a more technologically sophisticated business will allow a small number of patent-holding companies to dominate the creation of much of the world’s food supply. The facts suggest that this point of view is not unfounded. Originally, farmers saved seeds that had produced desirable plants after each harvest, and, as an article from the Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property from Northwestern Law School makes clear, the practice of saving seeds to reuse or even distribute for free was central to agribusiness until recently. Today, however, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reports that the global seed industry has grown to $25 billion in size. More than simply altering tradition, the current patent structure allows biotechnology companies from developed nations to easily acquire raw, natural substances from the biologically diverse rainforests and other areas of the third world. These companies can then use the inexpensive resources and organisms they have collected to create new and patentable seeds that can be sold worldwide. Proponents of patent law revision see this system as fundamentally unfair to developing nations that do not see financial benefits from the revenue that the genetically modified seeds provide.
On the other hand, the increased yields provided by genetically modified crops could allow increased food production as the world population continues to expand. Plants that could grow under harsh temperatures or other natural conditions would be of instrumental importance in the event that climate change leaves key areas of the world less amenable to agriculture. To be sure, genetically modified organisms are a new and relatively unproven scientific possibility, but the societal benefits that they could provide are significant. For this reason alone, it is of great importance that research and progress continue. Perhaps the best solution would be something of a compromise. In order to encourage innovation, genetic modification patents in general should continue to be granted. Legal change is certainly needed in other areas, however—for example, the editors of Scientific American write that “only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal” as a result of stringent contracts enforced by seed companies upon buyers. In order to create the best crops, however, researchers must be allowed to study which types of modifications work best and whether a genetically modified food is safe for human consumption. Once reliable, independent research is available to confirm or question the efficacy and safety of these types of crops, government policymakers could move past regulations in place in countries including India, Australia, and many Western European nations that limit or ban genetically modified crops out of fear of unintended consequences such as widespread allergies, the transfer of unwanted genes from plants to humans, or the contamination of the traditional, non-modified food supply with new genes. Though it may require a balancing act between companies’ proprietary interests in their products, public and environmental safety, and the economic well-being of developing nations, maintaining research into and development of genetically modified crops has the potential to benefit the world in ways that are simply too important to ignore.
Alison Pease is a member of the Yale Bioethics Society