GM foods: it's all about the economics

The real concern about GM is that it extends intellectual property protection into our fields.

A field of transgenic soy. Photograph: Getty Images

Following the Government's stated intention to expand the growth of GM crops in Britain, debate about the safety of modified foods returned to the British press.

In keeping with the tradition of cack-handed Government science policy, they've been flubbing the response: David Cameron's spokesman refusing eight times to confirm whether or not he thinks GM food is safe, Owen Paterson mumbling about how healthy DNA is on the Today programme, and so on.

It's doubly depressing because, while there is an important debate to be had about GM foods, it's less about the science and more about the economics.

(Admittedly, that's what an economics reporter would say)

The most important thing about genetically modified species is that they are patentable, in a way that naturally bred plants just aren't. And patent protection is just about the strongest type of artificial monopoly there is: as a result, the seeds of genetically modified plants can't be harvested and resown without a license from the patent holder; can't be resold second hand; and can't be independently engineered by other companies.

So strong are the protections that the US Supreme Court recently ruled that an Iowan farmer who planted seeds bought from a grain vendor was infringing a patent for so-called "Round-up Ready" soybeans, which are modified to be resistant to weedkiller. Indianan farmer Vernon Bowman couldn't afford to carry on buying the GM seeds from Monsanto, and so instead bought generic soybeans from a grain elevator. The beans, which were intended for animal feed, contained some GM plants. Bowman planted them, and used weed killer, guessing that at least some of the beans would have resistance.

The Supreme Court ruled that he was infringing Monsanto's patent.

There is, in other words, a very real risk that relaxing the controls around GM crops in Britain would result in a trend towards centralisation and control of our food supply, in a way comparable to the effects that the patentability of software is having on the American tech market.

But there's a key difference between the scientific and economic objections to GM crops. The economic problems are man-made. Patent protections are not a natural thing, and so there is no necessary need for them to be extended to the physical crops. And given the very real question about whether or not patents in general actually promote or hinder innovation, there's even less reason to assume that the protection needs to be upheld.

That's not a change Britain can make on its own, because our intellectual property framework is intricately tied up in a raft of international treaties and EU directives. But it's the debate we should be having about GM crops which we currently aren't at all.