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It may now seem daring to say, but in a decade's time GM foods are likely to be as widely accepted in kitchens as margarine and microwave ovens are today. When that happens, we may look back and view <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />December 22, 2003 as a landmark date in the rehabilitation of biotechnology's currently soiled public image. On that day, one of the anti-GM movement's most compelling criticisms will begin to crumble irreparably as the first European patent on a GM crop is set to expire.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
The debate over GMOs usually focuses on their safety. But, as study after scientific study continues to find that no unique or inherent risks arise from biotechnology, people will slowly but increasingly come to accept GM foods. Earlier this month, for example, the European Food Safety Authority announced that a particular variety of GM maize was perfectly safe for human consumption. Many other similar announcements are expected to follow.
Still, GM opponents have tried to slow the growing public confidence in biotechnology—for example, charging that it would lead to global corporate control of the food supply or that resource-poor farmers in less developed countries would be bankrupted by patent-wielding multinationals. Even many biotechnology supporters worry that intellectual property rights mean that GM crops might forever remain the plaything of large agribusinesses and wealthy farmers in industrialized countries. Many of us seem to have forgotten that only diamonds are forever; patents are temporary.
The first GM plants were developed in 1982 and 1983 by four research teams working independently—one at the State University in Ghent, Belgium, the others in the U.S. After nearly two decades of dispute, the European patent was recently granted to the Belgian team, but it expires today. Two more European patents, held by Monsanto, will expire in January. Over the next few years, many other important patents will also expire.
Of course, even technologies still under patent have been put to productive use in poorer countries. Today, over five million farmers in South Africa, China, India, the Philippines, and elsewhere already happily grow patented GM varieties because they have higher yields, require fewer inputs, and raise income.
Public research labs are creating other products for developing-world farmers. These include potatoes, rice, maize, and oilseeds with added or enhanced nutrients, crops engineered to grow better in the acidic soils of the tropics, and varieties improved to grow better in extremes of heat and drought. The researchers involved almost invariably have access to patented technologies under liberal exemptions. But these truths have never stopped anti-biotechnology activists.
When Switzerland's Ingo Potrykus and Germany's Peter Beyer invented a rice variety with beta-carotene, they needed permission from several different holders of more than 70 patents before they could begin testing their Golden Rice. Critics use this fact in their campaigns against GM. What they repeatedly neglect to tell their audiences, however, is that those patent holders did indeed grant Mr. Potrykus and Beyer exemptions for Golden Rice.
Mr. Potrykus says that, while obtaining those exemptions was time-consuming, the primary reason Golden Rice and other bio-fortified crops have not yet begun to help resource-poor farmers is not patents but "regulatory obstacles based on undue paranoia." He has argued that "those who oppose GM technologies for political advantage or self-interest [should be] held responsible for the unnecessary suffering of millions of people with vitamin A deficiency," which Golden Rice could help address.
The purpose of intellectual property is not, as is often believed, to provide financial protection to those investing in product development or to encourage research into new technologies. This is a valuable outcome of patents, but it is not the primary goal. Rather, the chief purpose of patent laws has always been to encourage the dissemination of information so that new technological knowledge could be introduced into the public domain more quickly.
Innovators have long tried to keep the benefits of new processes, using various contractual methods and "trade secrets." The contribution of patent law to society was to offer innovators a financial inducement—in the form of a limited period of exclusivity—in exchange for them making their inventions public.
To qualify, inventors must provide a written description of the invention and the process used to make it so that anyone skilled in the field can reproduce the technology once the patent expires. This requirement is the root of all patent systems and, combined with the financial rewards of protection, has tended to accelerate the movement of new technologies into the public domain.
Biotechnology's critics and advocates alike should remember that, while the wealthy are often first to adopt new products, in time we have all come to rely on once-patented technologies as varied as automobiles and antibiotics. Perhaps this year's best holiday gift will be the knowledge that, if we permit it, the whole world will also benefit from GM foods.