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

How to resolve the GM debate

2556525_0e203397ae1There are many contemporary issues where the four cultures can be seen hard at work, jostling with one another to claim the high ground, to dominate the debate, to shape our understanding of reality. One such arena is the polarised issue of genetically modified crops.

A report has been issued by the UK think tank Chatham House warning that the nation needs to pay more attention to food production if it is to address potential future food supply constraints.

As part of this discussion it is argued that the public should now drop its unsubstantiated opposition to GM crops to enable more people to be fed. Any other course of action is regarded as no more than elitist privilege.

The analysis suggested by grid-group cultural theory is that when facing the facts as a matter of urgency is advocated, what people are really trying to do is to shape the world to be more in keeping with one of four basic worldviews, or cultural biases.
Continue reading “How to resolve the GM debate”

Economics of the Singularity

Crooked Timber has been running a ‘book event‘ on the economic ideas of science fiction writer Charlie Stross.

In case you haven’t come across him, Stross is a prolific (300,000 words a year) writer of extravagant ideas who lives in Scotland. His approach to  pulp sci-fi is reminiscent of  Philip K Dick’s.  Sure it’s commercial, but with Stross as with Dick, it’s also art.

Perhaps the thought of economics puts you off an otherwise good read. Or perhaps the thought of science fiction puts you off some otherwise good economics. But for anyone still left in the room, the discussion, including posts by economists Paul Krugman and John Quiggin, as well as by writer Ken MacLeod, is well worth reading.

Warning: cheap joke ahead.

Of course, some might say all economics is fiction…

What to do when your Blog is bigger than Ben Hur

What should you do when your blog is too big to know your name?

In BusinessWeek, Sarah Lacy reports on how blogging multi-millionaire Jason Calacanis is ‘retiring’:
“Blogging is simply too big, too impersonal, and lacks the intimacy that drew me to it” he says.

It seems he’s turned to the timeless, homespun, traditional craft of hand-made…

‘There is something about the acoustic, intimate nature of email that is impacting how I write,’ he says on his blog – even though he’s ‘retired’, ‘I’m writing every sentence as if I’m looking someone in the eye and speaking directly to them.’

Fortunately, this site will never be big or impersonal, and will always be packed full of intimacy. Unless someone wants to offer, say $25million. Jason will understand.

What about you? Do you prefer the small and the intimate, or the big and the brash? What do you come to a tiny site like this for anyway? As you post a comment, just remember I’m looking you in the eye and speaking directly to you right this moment.

Ironies of the Netbook

The book is a relative newcomer in western society. It began its career in the mid-15th century and its future is no longer certain, threatened as it is by new inventions based on different principles.’

These words come from Lucien Fevre’s preface to The Coming of the Book, published in French in 1958.  I’m reading them sixty years later, sitting on a train using a portable computer, with the aid of a repository of electronically scanned volumes, which makes instantly available an unreadable number of published works, not to mention millions of pages of ‘unpublished’ electronic texts.

The irony of this situation is remarkable.

The book endures

The laptop is approx A4 size, the netbook is the size of a paperback.

The first irony is that the computer I am using is called a notebook. That is, conceptually the new invention is not ‘based on different principles’ but explicitly pays homage to the old, even as it radically undermines it. Now that the netbook craze is upon us, we are doing the same thing. The striking thing about the new cut-down mini-notebooks such as the Asus eee PC and now the Dell Inspiron 910 is that they are trying very hard indeed to be the same size and weight as a paperback book (remember that the paperback was the new reading technology of the 1930s). And we seem to be desperate to keep calling them books. As with the last major shift – from scroll to codex – it seems that while the technology may change, the name remains the same. If we call it a book, even though a netbook, does it remain one?

The scribes endure too

The scribal tradition has been reinvented with reCaptcha

The second irony is that mindful of legal considerations the electronic repository in question – Google Books – has artificially hobbled a piece of already existing technology that would effortlessly allow copying of the text. The result is that when I want to reproduce a quotation, as above, I need to copy it out by retyping it manually, letter for letter, word for word, in a manner strongly reminiscent of the working practices of the monastic scribes who dominated the book industry before the coming of the printing press, let alone the coming of the computer. Now, through the use of the reCAPTCHA security process, this activity of scribal rewriting has been massively distributed, so that every time someone spends ten seconds verifying they are human, they contribute to digitally transcribing the equivalent of one hundred and fifty printed books per day. (according to Luis Von Ahn of Carnegie-Mellon University).

Appearing to arrive

Third, it’s easy to overlook the ambiguity of the original French title. Translated as the ‘coming’ of the book, the original French word is ‘l’apparition’, which can equally be translated ‘appearance’ and which has a double meaning in both languages. Does the e-book you hold on your lap actually amount to a real book which has almost magically ‘arrived’ inside your computer, or does it only have the ‘appearance’ of a book?

So who’s imagining whom?

Is the netbook a book just because we say it’s a book? Perhaps, conversely, there is something so compelling about the concept of a book in our culture that it simply refuses to lie down and die, transmuting instead into something very different, but eerily the same. As James Wood says,

‘a good proportion of reality consists of what we freely imagine; and then, less happily perhaps, we discover that that reality has imagined us—that we are the vassals of our imaginings, not their emperors or archdukes.’


Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: 1450-1800. Trans. David Gerard. London: Verso, 1984)

James Wood, ‘The Unforgotten. Aleksandar Hemon’s fictional lives’. The New Yorker 28 July 2008 Accessed at