Another day, another chilly morning combining in Iowa, USA, where 95% of its corn is genetically modified, compared to 93% nationally.
THE GMO STRANGLEHOLD
How Big Agritech is Crushing Competition
Persuasive marketing campaigns make us want to believe that organic produce is categorically better and safer than Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Yet, GMOs have existed as long as pollen has been able to travel between crops. Plus, there are relatively few raw GMOs available in supermarkets, and organic just means that something is made of carbon—by this definition, we are organic.
However, this debate over labels leads to GMO patents being overlooked, allowing big businesses to manipulate the food sector to their advantage. As meat prices continue to rise and biotechnological advances push the bounds of crop yields, GMO companies have the chance to expand their solid control of plant-based products. GMO companies’ patents kill, rather than spur, competition in the United States, giving private businesses too much market control over which foods are accessible.
Patents exist to protect innovation: they offer government-backed exclusivity to new inventions, designs, or processes for a set time frame (typically 20 years). GMO companies with patents have the same exclusivity, although it's rarely the actual seed that gets patented. GMO companies instead focus on the molecular differences engineered within the seed’s DNA. This kind of protection is called a utility patent, and it is the most common kind of patent used among GMO companies
In the current agricultural industry, farmers without millions to spend on research and regulatory hoops are at substantial disadvantage to large GMO businesses. While filing and gaining a patent seems expensive from a small business perspective—the entire process can range from $7,000 - $20,000—this is only a fraction of the roughly $136 million it costs to create and authorize a new GMO. When considering the costs that go into the equipment, property, and staff, farming is already an expensive business that can fail even with the best of plans. Adding intellectual property competition to the list of expenses famers incur limits which farmers will innovate products within the industry.
The reality of the agriculture industry is that small to medium-size farmers cannot compete against GMO companies with in-house research scientists and lawyers.
23 May 2015 Environmental activists in New York City joined a global day out against Monsanto's GMO programs & demanding that foods be labelled. But this debate leads to the more serious issue of GMO patents being overlooked which allows big businesses to continue to manipulate the food sector to their advantage. Credit: a katz.
GMOs have minted a standard for crops in the United States: the market expects produce that offers greater yields, more pest resistance, and is free of imperfections. Farmers who want to plant these crops must pay licensing fees to the GMO companies, in order to benefit from the companies’ proprietary genetic edits. And farmers who do not renew their licenses must deal with legal battles.
Two Supreme Court cases, both brought by GMO company Monsanto, set two important legal precedents. The first is that farmers cannot plant or save patented seeds without the express permission of the company. The second precedent is murkier because it establishes the notion that cross-pollination between a GMO crop and a non-GMO crop is a violation of patent rights. While this model was misrepresented in the media, and only a handful of farmers have actually been sued for this type of infringement, this court case only strengthened GMO companies’ legal supremacy. Ultimately, large businesses’ legal presence dissuades smaller famers from fighting against hordes of experienced lawyers and lobbyists.
The most common GMOs are found in corn, soybean, sorghum, apples, and potatoes. Although the list is small and there are countless FDA approved GMOs that have not been commercialized, 60-70% of processed foods have in them at least one GMO product. Considering that the United States is littered with food swamps—areas where only highly processed, calorically empty, inexpensive food is available—GMO companies inadvertently decide which foods are accessible to the most vulnerable.
Patents protect large businesses’ stake in processed foods, and an inexhaustible supply of lawyers can strategize their patent lifespan to go past the initial 20-year protection (evergreening). And again, farmers are at the whim of a market that demands they produce these GMO crops. This combination of advantages continually strengthens GMO companies’ hold on our accessible food supply.
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Genetic advances within the agricultural industry or GMOs themselves are not inherently bad. Instead, the issue lies with GMO companies and their legal precedents and resources to manipulate the food sector. As arable land becomes a more precious resource, GMOs’ presence will dominate their current market and expand to others. But, the answer to this problem can’t be found shopping only for organic produce or at local farmer’s markets—neither alternative is accessible, monetarily or geographically, to a large portion of Americans. The answer lies in limiting the quasi-monopolies GMO companies have amassed because the reality is that agricultural giants do not provide an accessible and nutritious food supply to the majority of Americans.