P2B Sample Inquiry Essay C


The patenting of genetically modified agricultural food products and their seeds, has recently become a large topic of debate.  Now, instead of solely patenting inanimate objects, recipes or formulas, we have begun to patent life, therefore commercializing it.  This has brought about many questions of morality and concerns about the effects of this new patent system. Genetic engineering, “the transformation of nature” using what is called recombinant DNA technology, began in the early 1970s (McNally 166).  Using the genes of different species, scientists had discovered a way to combine these genes in ways that would allow certain traits to be present once the plant or animal materialized, such as a resistance to certain pesticides (Epstein 49).  While previously farmers had to wait for natural evolution to take place before they could reap the benefits of nature’s selection, now biotechnology corporations are speeding up the process for them, designing seed with certain genes that can withstand certain environmental hazards (Garcia).  While some scientists heralded this innovation as essential to the world’s future and the elimination of hunger through increased production, others were more skeptical and seriously considered the risks involved.

Considered by those in the biotechnology industry and by many government regulatory agencies such as the United States Patent and Trademark Office and the Supreme Court of the United States and Canada, as a necessary imposition, the patenting of genetically modified seeds and the plants that grow from them has become common practice.  According to the Canadian Supreme Court, these patents, which are normally applicable for around twenty years, are put into place in order to provide a monopoly for the company who is patenting a certain product, so that they alone may claim any benefits to anyone using their product for that time period (Monsanto).  This has been extremely controversial in the last couple of years, especially regarding the patenting of agricultural biotechnology, which unlike the patenting of other inventions of the past, is actually the patenting of a living thing which may reproduce and multiply.

When I first began looking into this issue, I knew very little about it.  I understood that it was controversial, but did not understand how important this issue really was or to what extent it really mattered on a global scale.  My opinion was that biotechnology might have beneficial effects on the world and I had not even considered its misuse by corporations employing this technology.  Then, I watched the documentary film, entitled “The Future of Food” by Deborah Koons Garcia, which explains this issue in full from the perspective of farmers, scientists and representatives from other countries.  I was completely blown away by what I discovered about some of the negative effects of the policies of certain agricultural biotechnology corporations.  From then on, I wanted to know more about this very recent and controversial issue.  While researching this topic, many questions came up which caused me to focus more specifically on the patenting of seeds and plants, such as: is it morally right to patent life, is it reasonable and ethical to expect farmers to regulate the natural and unavoidable flow of pollen from genetically modified crops, is the patenting of genetically modified foods really beneficial to farmers, and what are the real reasons behind the biotechnology industry’s “need” for patents on their products? 

One of the first articles that I found to be fairly convincing in opposition to the patenting of genetically modified seeds and plant varieties is entitled “Monsanto versus Farmers” by Sam Burcher, a writer for the Institute of Science in Society.  He writes that because biotechnology companies can now take out a patent on any genetically altered member of an entire species of plant and the genes related to it, they essentially maintain a monopoly on that species.  They create the terms of its use and are allowed to bring lawsuits against anyone in breech of these terms or anyone who happens to be in possession of a certain plant that has the company’s patented genes without proof that they had purchased the seeds that created the plants (Burcher).  Using the agricultural biotechnology industrial giant, Monsanto, as an example, Burcher states to what degree the patenting of these living species negatively effects farmers and farming as we have known it for centuries.

To prove this point, Burcher presents the policy of these genetically modified seed companies, such as Monsanto, that farmers are not allowed to replant or share seeds that are products of plants that had originally come from genetically modified seeds produced by Monsanto.  Because of the present patenting system, if plants containing the modified gene are found on a farmer’s property, the seed companies who altered the gene originally are in a position to bring a lawsuit against the farmer.  According to The Washington Post, in 1999 there were 525 US and Canadian farmers under investigation by Monsanto for the “illegal” use of the company’s seeds (Burcher).  According to Burcher, the major problem comes when seeds from nearby genetically modified farms blow into non-GM fields by wind or in some other unintentional way.  In fact, University of Manitoba researchers in Canada, found that out of 33 samples of certified canola seed stock, “32 were contaminated with GM” (Burcher).  Burcher uses this data to show how impossible it is for these farmers to escape contamination on their farms and therefore prove how unfair it is for biotechnology companies to expect them to prevent it from happening. Additionally, Burcher argues that farmers may have no idea that this new seed is in their field, since the GM plants look identical to their own.  However, by law, the seed companies may demand that farmers pay royalties to the company for the unintentional use of the seeds and that the farmers may no longer save the seed or replant it.  This means that the farmer may no longer save his own seed as well, a long-traditionally accepted ethical practice, because his own seed has been contaminated by the GM seed (Burcher).  Additionally, Burcher shows that it is getting harder and harder to find traditional non-GM seeds in the market and cited reports from corn and cotton farmers saying that “there are not too many seeds available that are not genetically altered in some way” (Burcher).

Based on the information above, Burcher argues that patenting gives control of the entire farming industry to the hands of these large biotechnology corporations, rather than into those of the farmers.  He states that in order to comply with companies like Monsanto, farmers now make contractual agreements that “effectively relinquish to Monsanto their right to plant, harvest and sell the GM seed” (Burcher).  He compares this domination by these biotechnology companies to the “feudal system” of the Middle Ages, where farmers were bound to the owners of the land.  Using their strict control of what the farmer’s may buy and what price they may buy it for, biotechnology corporations cause the “odds [to be] stacked against farmers” economically (Burcher).  In fact, according to Burcher, over the last twenty years, Monsanto has acquired “647 plant biotech patents and a 29% share of all biotech research and development.”

After reading this article, I felt much more convinced of some of the concerns made by those opposed to biotechnology patenting in agriculture. I fully agreed with Burcher that this type of patenting was unfair to farmers, since there was no way for many of them to keep genetically modified seeds from entering into their fields.  Also, since these companies are perfectly aware of this fact, I found it extremely disturbing that they would still prosecute small farmers, simply for having these plants in their fields, often without their knowledge.  One comment cited in Burcher’s paper, which was made by a representative from Monsanto Corporation and which really brought home to me the ludicrousness of patenting seeds and plants, was that “the growers of the non-GM crops must assume responsibility and receive the benefit for ensuring that their crops meet specifications for purity” (Burcher).  This statement does not make any sense to me at all.  I would have thought that it would be much more logical for Monsanto Corporation to take responsibility for ensuring that its patented products do not naturally spread to other farms in the first place; not the other way around.

My research into the mindset of supporters of the patenting of plant varieties and seeds by biotechnology companies led me to examine the ruling in the United States Supreme Court case of, J.E.M. AG Supply, Inc and DBA Farm Advantage v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, which upheld the rights of a biotechnology company over the rights of farmers.  One of the court’s major arguments was that the patenting of seeds and plants is exactly the same as the patenting of any inanimate object. Therefore, like product development in any other industry, since “’[t]he development of new plant varieties is arduous, time-consuming, and costly’” (J.E.M. 14), these companies should have a right to full control over their own product and the right to collect any proceeds arising from its use in any manner whatsoever.  Additionally, according to this court ruling, since, throughout their research, these biotechnology companies have been under the assumption that the patent would be available once their product was finished, the law must uphold this provision in their benefit (J.E.M. 19).  Another argument made by the Supreme Court justice was that, again, similar to the underlying theme of all patent protection, patents promote effort by companies and individuals “to advance public welfare” through increased research in a certain field.  The ruling then goes on to state several innovations in plant biotechnology in which it believes to have benefited farmers and consumers in general, such as plants “genetically engineered to resist pests” which reduce the dependence of farmers on pesticides and chemicals that are hard on the environment (J.E.M. 28).  Finally, the Supreme Court argued that without these patents, many of these biotechnology companies would resort to keeping their methods secretive, so that no one could copy their invention.  With the patents, companies must disclose information about how to make the invention after the patent has expired, which the court believed to be essential to economic development and progress in the United States (J.E.M. 24). 

While some of the arguments in this Supreme Court ruling made sense to me at first in a very basic way, as I reevaluate them, I began to see certain flaws that made me question their logic.  First of all, I do not believe that it is right to equate the patenting of living organisms with inanimate objects.  I feel that there are fundamental differences, which should ethically and morally prevent the equal treatment of the two in any sense.  Secondly, I feel that companies should only be able to extract payment from those who willingly and intentionally decide to use their product, not those who are forced to use their product, as in the case of farmers with contaminated fields through no fault of their own.  The philosophy that the Court uses, that these companies invest time, money and effort into these products and therefore should receive payment, is applicable only if their product is wanted by the farmers in the first place.  Just because a company has spent a lot of money in order to create a certain product, does not mean that everyone is now entitled to buy that product.  Additionally, in response to the argument made by the court that the patenting of agricultural biotechnology will necessarily benefit humanity and farmers is flawed, because it is taking an extremely simplistic outlook on the subject.  In my research, I have found that since agricultural biotechnology is such a relatively new topic on the world scene, that there has been little research as to its economic effects and it long-term environmental effects.  I feel that this is biased of the courts to promote these companies without full evidence at hand.  Finally, I would not be disappointed that companies would keep this technologies secretive, at least in the field of agriculture, because it has yet to be demonstrated to me that biotechnology has had any great beneficial effects in the world and has done anything more than put more control and money into the hands of these companies.  Also, that way, biotechnology companies would not be able to hurt farmers through lawsuits and complete control of their farms through their contractual agreements.

On the contrary, one article that takes a more descriptive role in the issue, and provides much insight in the process, is “Bio-patenting and Innovation” by Ruth McNally and Peter Wheale.  This essay brings out some very different ideas from that of the first two arguments, providing a new perspective on the issue.   One point that is essential to understanding this issue is that “genetic engineers do not create new life, they re-engineer existing life-forms” (McNally 171).  Because of this, genetic researchers must acquire genes from living organisms, often from ones living in different countries, which poses many new questions concerning the patenting issue, since countries differ in their use of patenting rights.  One major issue cited in this paper stems from the fact that “ninety per cent of the earth’s biodiversity is located in the less developed countries of the South – in Africa, Asia and South America”, whereas the companies that would like to extract the genes and acquire patenting rights on them are located in more developed countries (McNally 172).  This creates a trade back and forth between less developed countries with more biodiversity and developed countries with gene technology, which could stimulate the economies of both parties.  Unfortunately however, the authors point out that while the countries with gene technology are able to use patents in order to keep extracting rewards for their innovations, the less developed countries are naturally not protected under patents for their biodiversity.  In the authors’ opinion, this is not a fair trade, because the creators of the gene technology being used in developing countries will continue to get royalties, whereas the sellers of the genes being used in the first place do not continue to get compensation after they are sold (McNally 173).  Additionally, McNally and Wheale point out that the distinction of genetically engineered life being patentable while non-genetically engineered life is not, “creates a hierarchy of life-forms with a premium on genetically engineered life-forms over others” and also a “hierarchy among social actors” with those companies or countries providing gene technology being more influential and in control than those providing the genes (McNally 174).

This article was very interesting to me because it brought out a lot of new points and also remained relatively objective, as opposed to the first article that I have summarized.  It is amazing to me to learn how much biotechnology is really reshaping our world as we know it and creating new social and economic structures.  I am afraid, however, of the implications that this last article has made, that if the “hierarchy” described above continues, then “the world’s stock of biodiversity could become the property of the handful of companies rich enough to purchase exclusive rights to it from less developed countries.”  In my opinion, this would be one of the largest world disasters of all time, because this implies that these companies would have extreme power over all of the countries in the world, especially regarding their agricultural sectors.  They would be able to control what the farmers plant and when and therefore what everyone on the planet will eat from day to day.

My research of the patenting of biotechnology has led me to several conclusions in opposition to it.  First of all, biotechnology-based seed companies are obtaining patents on entire species of a plant, so that they can entirely control its use and the cost of the whole market for that plant.  Secondly, they have full knowledge that these genetically modified plants will germinate and will spread their seeds to surrounding plants, essentially forcing themselves on United States’ farmers.  Thirdly, despite this, they are suing United States’ farmers for using the seeds, even though many farmers have no control over the contamination of their seeds by other farms.  Fourthly, they create the rule that farmers may not replant contaminated seeds in their fields without paying a royalty to the company, meaning that farmers now are forced to purchase their seeds.  Lastly, because the GM seed companies now have an extremely large control on the entire market for that certain plant, non-GM seeds are very difficult to obtain for farmers and so many of them must buy GM seeds.

After reading these three articles, the documentary film “The Future of Food” and other material on the subject, I have become very convinced that through their use of patents, these agricultural biotechnology companies are trying to control each and every step of the process in agriculture, from seed production to the consumer market.  I have come to the conclusion that these corporations are essentially forcing their business on farmers and through them, on consumers. Because these corporations are buying out such large percentages of seed companies in many different plant varieties and allowing these seeds to contaminate huge percentages of farmer’s seeds and requiring them to pay royalties on them, they are essentially giving farmers no choice but to purchase their seeds from them, or go out of business.  I feel that this is extremely wrong and that something should be done about it.  I believe that somehow controls must be placed on the patenting of seeds and plants, in order to make up for the essentially different nature of a living thing from that of an inanimate object, so that farmers are not taken advantage of.  I am excited to investigate more about this subject in the future.