Eat or be eaten. Lapsing GMO patents usher in age of open-source biotechnology


March 1, 2015 is a big day.

Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant soybean seeds will go off patent, meaning that anybody can plant them.
Wasting no time, the University of Arkansas has rolled out UA5414RR, a soybean variety with Monsanto’s legendary Roundup Ready technology built into, on offer without the technology fee attached to the first big commercial GMO, or genetically-modified organism.

Is an age of open-source biotechnology about to begin?

March 1, 2015 is a big day.

Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant soybean seeds will go off patent, meaning that anybody can plant them.
Wasting no time, the University of Arkansas has rolled out UA5414RR, a soybean variety with Monsanto’s legendary Roundup Ready technology built into, on offer without the technology fee attached to the first big commercial GMO, or genetically-modified organism.

Is an age of open-source biotechnology about to begin?

 

 Photo REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

More GMO patents will lapse, and more products will come to the public market. The process may be as revolutionary as when a Venetian Protestant told Galileo about a new Dutch invention known as the telescope.

For one thing, it puts paid to those who worry that Monsanto is out to “monopolize the food system,” as claimed by anti-GMO crusader Vandana Shiva. Indeed, questions about patents on seeds – which go back to the 1930s – may turn away from multinationals and focus on Bolivia, which may be granting Mother Earth constitutional rights but has no plans to share its quinoa genomes with researchers seeking to boost food security elsewhere.

A spate of rhetorical pivots suggest regime change is on the way. Frederick Kaufman, author of the fabulously-titled “Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food” has already suggested that “the time has come to separate the dancer from the dance” and urging foodies and organic activists to back science now that it’s no longer owned exclusively by huge companies.

Biotechnology isn’t done cheap – developing a plant trait typically costs $136 million and requires 13 years before commercialization – but typically new industries push down the price of innovation,, and the cost of gene sequencing has dropped dramatically over the last 20 years, far faster in fact than the cost of computer ever dropped.

So we’ll probably see a lot more and varied GM foods on the shelves. That doesn’t mean we’ll be force-fed fishy tomatoes; that experiment didn’t get out of the laboratory. More likely there’ll be products like the FlavR Savr tomato, which stays firmer for longer, and the brand new Arctic apple, which stripped away a gene in order to prevent browning.

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