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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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