The patenting of food?
Businesses often protect their new ideas from competition through the use of patents, and GM crops are no exception. Many genes, GM crop varieties and techniques of genetic engineering have been patented.
But anti-GM campaigners fear that since many GM crops are foods, putting patents on basic items required for life is a step too far.
What is a patent?
Patents are intended to encourage inventors, to give them a temporary head start in business so that they have a better chance of getting back the money they invested in creating the idea/invention.
- A patent is a temporary licence given by a government, granting the holder the right to stop others from making, using or otherwise making money from the invention/idea without permission. Patents last for 20 years in the UK.
- In return, the patent holder must publish full details of their invention, so that others can learn from it.
- When a patent is granted, only the use of the invention becomes the controlled by the patent holder. They do not own the idea, only the rights to exploit it for a few years.
Why are patents considered so important in GM technology?
- Patents are intended to both protect the inventor and ensure the spread of knowledge. If anyone tries to make commercial use of a patented idea without permission, the patent holder can step in to stop them, or require them to pay a licence fee.
- Thus if you can patent some basic GM process or gene sequence that others will have to use to create some other new genetic organism, there is a huge potential for profit through licence fees.
- If you own the patent to a crop that becomes popular AND the patent for the herbicide or pesticide spray that goes with it, there is also great potential for profit.
- GM opponents fear that if GM food crops become widespread in poor countries, the private companies that own the patents on these crops may have too much influence over the basic food supply of another country. This would be too much power in the hands of unelected groups.
- Some worry what would happen if poor farmers go over to GM crops and in time forget their traditional methods of farming. They would then be dependent upon technology from rich countries, which could be withdrawn later.
If an invention becomes so widespread that it becomes a normal part of life, is it right that it should be "owned" by anyone?
What if that invention changes how we come by the basic things required for life, such as food? Should anyone be allowed to "own" the processes by which another comes by their food?
"Surely this is nothing to worry about? After all patents run out in 20 years!"
In theory patents expire. However, skilled lawyers employed by patent holders are able to register slight variations of the idea as a new patent, thus allowing the original owner to keep control for much longer periods of time.