Resolving the GM debate with Open Access Knowledge

Might the polarised debate over GM crops be partially resolved by freeing up the commercial restrictions on GM patents? These can make GM highly profitable but also tie in farmers and other end-users (See also How to Resolve the GM Debate).

A problem many Egalitarians have with GM crops is that they seem  to representa shifting of power from farmers towards biotech companies. And the trend seems to be towards a strengthening of these binds.

An article in the Economist referred to the issue of biotech ‘piracy’. This is supposedly compounded by weak IP protection:

‘just as with software, GMOs suffer from piracy. In Argentina and China, the hostile stance toward intellectual-property rights has been blessed by the government itself.’

Meanwhile a report into the financial implications of adopting GM in Australia noted that one of the challenges facing GM adoption in emerging economies was:

‘Strengthening intellectual property rights to enable a greater level of foreign investment in research and development.

However, this is only one possible (Individualist) approach to the issue. An alternative would be not the strengthening of IP rights, nor (as in Argentina and China), their weakening, but rather the diversification of IP models to include and expand open-source knowledge and technology. This would enable knowledge to be shared and advanced, while avoiding much of the commercial lock-in that key biotech corporations aggressively seek. For instance, the main concern of Canadian farmers using Monsanto-derived GM canola was that they had become tied into commercial exploitation in ways they previously had not been. Terry Boehm, Vice President of the Canadian Farmers Union, said:

“Farmers now are forced to largely to sign technology use agreement to pay expensive fees in order to access seeds for their canola production. There is no possibility essentially to grow canola that is non-GE, there is simply are very few known varieties of non-GE canola available and farmers are actually under the threat of legal action frequently if they’re utilising seeds, as farmers always have, saving and reusing seeds. This is forbidden with GE canola.”

The key argument against open  GM technology is that research and development costs money and no-one will pay unless they believe they will receive a return on their r&d investment.

‘commercialisation requires secrecy in the interests of appropriating the benefits of knowledge’ (OECD, 2008: 161-162).

Some arguments in favour of open access are as follows:

  • It’s happening anyway, in sub-optimal fashion, where jurisdictions have weak IP regulation. This is termed ‘piracy’. In music, software, etc it is increasingly clear that the momentum is unstoppable and that the best strategy is: if you can’t beat them, join them. In other words, the vanishing economic value of information is not destroying commercial opportunities but creating new ones, supported by new business models.
  • Monopolistic hoarding of IP leads to a stagnation of innovation. The classic example is that of the Cornish Engine. Booulton & Watt held the patents for steam engines to pump water out of Cornish tin mines. Their machines were inefficient, but for thirty years there was no stimulus to improve them, since mine owners were tied in to paying licence fees for the existing technology. Tiring of the status quo a group of innovators, gathered around Richard Trevithick, modified and improved the steam engine design, carefully avoiding breach of patent. The result was greater efficiency and lower cost. The products were not patented but were used freely by Cornish mines. The Cornish engine was the outcome of this patent-free shared innovation. Note that Trevithick was not in principle opposed to patents and indeed patented several of his inventions.
  • GM commercialisation is a good example of what Michael Heller calls ‘the tragedy of the anti-commons’ resulting in ‘the gridlock economy’.

See also:

Fourcultures on How to Resolve the GM Debate

John Wilbanks on The Future of Knowledge

Science Commons Video

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Devlopment, OECD (2008). Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society: OEWCD Thematic Review of Tertiary Education. Paris: OECD

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