The Future of Food: Patenting Life 2020
Should people or companies be able to patent and own life? Well, technically, they can and do. The Future of Food, an excellent documentary I found on the Film for Action’s Wall of Films! shares insights from 15 years ago that are still relevant today. The lab creation and patenting of seeds and plants, and granting large corporations legal right to a lion’s share of the global market. It also begs the internal question of where ownership ends and life begins. A thought experiment in the balance between morality and industry.
The Future of Food Synopsis
Let’s say that you are a farmer. You maintain a family-owned property whose main yield is corn.
One day, a representative of Monsanto informs you that their genetically modified corn has been detected on your property (acquired without your consent) having cross-pollinated with your crop, and you are now legally liable for distributing their intellectual property; patented corn.
This was the reality for the farmer’s presented in the film. “The farmers state that they are held legally responsible for their crops being invaded by “company-owned” genes. This happened throughout the country, and over time has vastly increased our dependence on food corporations, and the then dangerously under-regulated GMOs. The film generally opposes the patenting of living organisms, and describes the disappearance of traditional cultural practices.”
What is a patent?
The US Patent Office defines their role as “to serve the interests of inventors and businesses with respect to their inventions and corporate products, and service identifications… Through the preservation, classification, and dissemination of patent information, the Office promotes the industrial and technological progress of the nation and strengthens the economy.”
Well that is a mouthful, but what does that mean? How do its intentions actually apply to us today? With the advent of biotechnology and the increasing complexity of proprietary properties, is the function of this agency still solvent in it intended purpose? Or, perhaps, is the legislation attempting to protect innovation and invention too far behind, and serving larger interests without regard for the common man?
In short, a patent is a document representing an intellectual property, something you own exclusively, for a limited number of years in exchange for publishing an enabling public disclosure of the invention.
3 Patent Types:
Utility patents: any new and useful process or improvement, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter.
Design patents: new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture
Plant patents: (Invents or discovers) and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.
This third kind of patent is the subject of the 2005 documentary The Future of Food. Still maintaining its relevance today, let’s dive into how this has evolved over the last 15 years, and where it can go from here.
What does it mean to OWN a plant?
While it may seem counterintuitive to some to manufacture and claim ownership of a living organism, the food we eat everyday has been generationally bred to be a more stable, higher yielding crop. The concept alone of producing more food and better food for our species is a positive one.
Claiming ownership of a plant evolved through genetic engineering is done through filing a patent with the USPTO.
What are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)?
As technology has evolved, scientists have been able to genetically engineer improvements to plants, permanently altering their DNA.
“Genetic engineering is the process of using technology to change the genetic makeup of an organism – be it an animal, plant or a bacterium. This can be achieved by using recombinant DNA (rDNA), or DNA that has been isolated from two or more different organisms and then incorporated into a single molecule, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).”
Are GMOs Dangerous?
Well, the answer 15 years ago was, we didn’t know! The reason this topic became so controversial, was due to a lack of public awareness, long-term scientific data, and standardized regulation of the plants as they rapidly became the standard in our food supply.
As of 2020, we have greatly improved the regulation requirements for the safety of GMO products. The three top regulation agencies (FDA, EAP, and USDA) work in tandem to ensure quality standards. Over the last 15 years the FDA has continued to provide improved guidance to promote public awareness and education, as well as help overcome the negative stigma that perpetuated as a result of the need for said guidance.
“Starting in January 2022, certain types of GMOs will require a disclosure that lets you know if the food you are eating (or ingredients in the food you are eating) is a bioengineered food. Bioengineered food is the term that Congress used to describe certain types of GMOs when they passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.”
Ethics in Etymology – Plant vs Human Organisms
The Future of Food impressed upon the viewer the gravity of the control that holding a patent translates, to control of the industry as a whole. The ability of large corporations to put smaller farms out of business, and to avoid proper regulation of the food on our table, already strikes an ethically shaky chord. The reach of this acceptance of the very concept of owning a living organism to begin with is a slippery slope.
Luckily, patenting human genes has been outlawed. But, not plants. Where is the line truly drawn between the two and how do we regulate that? How to we maintain that distinction as we continue to patent portions of DNA, that have an eventual potential to enhance human beings? How does this apply to genetically modified animals or their genes? If a patented genome is used to advance a human embryo, is the patent-holder entitled to a percentage of that human’s proprietary value? Would we have to consider licensing fees for the “intellectual property” making up our own DNA? It sounds like something out of a dystopian science fiction future, but these are the considerations that we must consider to avoid such a prediction. That the organization tasked with protecting intellectual property in these circumstances most certainly need to consider.
“The decision [to outlaw the patent of human genes] is likely to reduce the cost of genetic testing for some health risks, and it may discourage investment in some forms of genetic research.”
This harkens back to the “morality versus industry” question about the dichotomy between the progress of our species as a whole, or the perpetuation of the economy which stabilizes our society, albeit currently weighted in favor of the few. Simply because to the buying interest. there is a smaller, or longer-term profit to be made when there is no claim to propriety, there will be less interest in the financial investment in research to progress our species, seems clearly in favor of the latter.
CRISPR and our Genetic Future
“CRISPR” stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It is a specialized region of DNA with two distinct characteristics: the presence of nucleotide repeats and spacers. Repeated sequences of nucleotides — the building blocks of DNA — are distributed throughout a CRISPR region. Spacers are bits of DNA that are interspersed among these repeated sequences.”
Another technical jumble meant to say these CRISPR clusters enable the ability to selectively choose genetic preferences from various species, and incorporate them into a new, genetically enhanced organism. It again sounds like science fiction, but it has a certain potential to be one of the most groundbreaking advancements of our species. Of course, this progress too is still prey to the ebb and tide of primitive human morals, and the aforementioned trial between the ecological or economic advancement of the human race.
This is not so dissimilar from the plant patenting process that its potential can be ignored. The slimming margin between possible and advisable is ever teetering on a moral standing. A very human, ever shifting parameter. It behooves us as a species to dedicate the best minds to ensuring that intellectual property rights evolve on pace with the technology. And we still have quite a bit of catching up to do.
Food in Space: 2020 and Beyond
Speaking of science fiction, one of my favorite bits is the past’s perception of the future. Take bio-tech, for example, we don’t see humans altered Inspector Gadget-style, but we do see pacemakers, artificial limbs, Elon Musk’s investment in the development of the Neuralink, potentially making an implant that can cure blindness and paralysis a reality in the near future.
As we venture closer to becoming a multi-planetary species, we will need the best, most scientifically advanced renewable food sources the species can provide. Off-world agriculture, is vital to our survival as a species.
“Someday, hydroponic growth labs could allow astronauts to grow vegetables, soybeans and rice.”
Today’s astronauts already need the resources to survive for months in space. Space food, while it might elicit an appealing visual memory of freeze-dried ice cream, the reality is much more interesting.
“Salt and pepper come in liquid form. Coffee and juices come as powder. And according to NASA, flour tortillas are the new bread. Tortillas provide an easy and acceptable solution to the breadcrumb and microgravity-handling problem,”
The potential of what we can create as a species, is perpetually expanding its reach. Though the risks are real, the necessity is greater.
Fantasy Begets Reality
From Daniel Suarez’s 2010 novel Freedom
Biotech “companies spread patented genetic sequences via the natural ecosystem—much like a computer virus. Then they use the legal system to claim ownership of any organism their patented genetic sequences invade. They are raiding communal seed banks, obtaining patents for naturally occurring apples, sugar beets, corn, and a host of other plants and animals. They have immorally seized control of the food system and stand poised to claim ownership of life itself unless we take action.”
While an entertaining work of science fiction, his novel speaks to the realities of the spread of false information and mistrust, at the advent of unprecedented technological advancements. The Future of Food for Thought, if you will.
Regardless of political, religious, or philosophical position, there are organizations in existence that thrive off of our perceptions of necessity and value, and we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves and those we care about. No one should not hold the rights to genes, the blueprint, of any other life form. Personal “ownership” in itself is a small-minded, archaic concept. Yet we still have a responsibility to charge forward as a species, even if the financial gains are long term.
Each of us can make the world a better place today, by assuming the personal responsibility to be intelligently informed. To question everything, and verify facts before disseminating or endorsing them. As well as refraining from demonstrating facts, or generalized principles, based on personal opinions. If we want the world to improve, let’s start at home.
In the Long Run
I believe that genetic advancement of “bioengineered” products, is not only extremely beneficial for the human race, but also vital to our survival as a species. As with every advancement, there is a level of the unknown. The long-term effects (positive or negative) that the acceleration and manipulation of the evolutionary process will have on the organisms themselves, or what consumes them, still remains unclear.
It makes it imperative to embrace it, and regulate it, and take it as far as we intelligently and responsibly can. There is no moral implication to saving and bettering lives. There is however, one when choosing monetary gain over the propagation of our species.
It does appear, that since my original post, the documentaries issues seem to have been either mitigated or undermined. In 2016, an organic farmer tried to preemptively sue Monsanto to protect them from cross-contamination and was unable to come up with such a precedent. Maybe they never saw this documentary. Either way, clearly proving something wrong before it happens can be tricky, but it seems that we may all at least be on a more honest, open ground.
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