Who Owns the Soybeans in Your Pantry?

by Andrew Zale

When you consume food, you expect it to be thoroughly regulated and tested to ensure that it is safe. Truth be told, much of the food you consume is heavily unregulated, bringing politics directly to your dinner table.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are entities whose genes have been altered through processes such as selective breeding to produce enhanced characteristics including greater yields and insect resistance. However, research on GMOs remains restricted to the private sector, raising concerns regarding disinformation.

On September 21, Northern Ireland became the second nation in the European Union to ban the farming of GMOs due to a fear of possible detrimental health effects. As criticism for GMOs continues to grow, it is time for the United States to evaluate its own policies regarding this questionable topic.GMOs, a form of biotechnology, date back to the Roaring Twenties, when the Hi-Bred Corn Company sold its first hybrid corn seed. By 1943, 90 percent of the corn planted in the United States’ Corn Belt and essentially all the corn grown in Iowa was a GMO entity. Today, the biotech food industry is valued at $15.7 billion, despite of the widespread purported presence of genetic modification.

As the GMO industry became more lucrative for businesses, it moved to patent its seeds in order to protect its research. Once the companies received their patents, they successfully pursued legislation to block the USDA and FDA from investigating their seeds. As an organization, the USDA has been no ally to the American consumer, being heavily critiqued for its lackadaisical nature regarding GMOs. In Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, the Supreme Court ruled that the USDA had not even completed an assessment of GMO alfalfa before restricting its own ability to regulate it.

However, there is evidence that the USDA originally fought for more oversight of the industry. Dr. John E. Haapala, a trial and appellate attorney who has specialized in patent lawsuits, says: “The USDA opposed granting utility patents to sexually reproducing plants…the USDA feared that seed patenting would severely limit free data exchange, restrict open research discussion, and diminish the exchange of experimental plants.”

This dichotomy in the USDA’s attitude towards the industry is due to its failed attempt to filibuster the patenting of GMOs. “The USDA argued that extending utility patents to sexually reproducing plants was scientifically and legally unsound in that such plants could not be reproduced true to type or be reasonably capable of identification,” said Haapala. When GMOs were patented, the USDA’s attitude changed to its contemporary indifference.

The FDA faces similar roadblocks when attempting to regulate the GMO industry. It is prohibited from conducting pre-market testing, mandating FDA approval or requiring special labeling on the packages of GMO products.

In the status quo, there are two great hypocrisies in the management of GMOs. The first is that GMOs are considered close enough to food that they do not need to be heavily regulated nor specially labeled, but are different enough from regular food to allow them to be patented. Secondly, it is argued that the GMO patent protects the seeds from being researched by the government, but cars, airplanes, telecommunications, and nearly every other patented technology has government oversight.

“Why is it that one can purchase a car with patented components, take it apart, repair it, and sell it, but a farmer cannot do the same with his or her seeds?” added Dr. Elizabeth Rowe, professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

One of the largest providers of GMO seeds is Monsanto. It is not stringently regulated by the government, but controls its farmers through legally-binding contracts. Monsanto’s agreement includes “To not supply any of this seed to any other person or entity for planting, and... to not use [the] seed or provide it to anyone for crop breeding, research, generation of herbicide registration data or seed production.”

Haapala states: “The rise of [IP] rights afforded to plant varieties and breeders has come at the expense of the farmers' rights to save, use, exchange, and sell seed. These traditional farmers' rights have given way to breeders' rights by the grant of utility patent protection.” As much as you would expect the profits of these companies to trickle down to the farmers, they are actually charged an outrageous $150 per bag of seeds. These profit-protecting laws have not even helped the industry’s employees.

The effects of incomplete research are widespread for everyone who consumes GMO products. Without proper scientific investigation, consumers are unable to make knowledge-based choices about what is the best product for them and legislators are unable to properly regulate the products. Unlike the possibility of pursuing a trial against the heavily regulated pharmaceutical industry, the lack of research and regulation makes a possible lawsuit against companies such as Monsanto near impossible.

Until the patent laws governing GMOs changes, it might be prudent for us to think twice about what products we buy. Who knows, the bag of groceries you just bought from the local market may be a hot topic of controversy that affects the very state of safe consumption?