GM foods: it's all about the economics

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

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.

A field of transgenic soy. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.