“It’s morally wrong to patent food:” Inconsistent reasoning at its finest

 This is one of the most common arguments against GMOs that I encounter (as well as related attacks on Monsanto), and it is frequently accompanied by claims like, “I am not anti-GMO, but…” or “I accept that GMOs are safe, but…” In reality, however, this argument is usually nothing more than an excuse designed to protect people’s ideology, misplaced fears, and, yes, denial of science. This argument is so riddled with problems and so completely inconsistent with how people behave on any other topic that it is difficult to accept that it is truly the reason that people oppose GMOs, and in my experiences debating GMO opponents, it usually turns out that it is just a symptom of an underlying ideology (generally rooted in appeal to nature/emotion fallacies). As I will explain, if you are truly motivated out of ethics and a concern for feeding the hungry, then you should be embracing GMOs, not opposing them (or, at the very least, you should be very selective about which GMOs you oppose). So, if you are someone who frequently uses this argument, then, as always, all that I ask is that you hear me out and rationally consider whether or not you are being logically consistent.

Note: I have been somewhat reluctant to write a post on this because it is not actually an argument about the science. However, I am sick and tired of explaining it to people in comments, and it is such a prevalent argument that it seems worth taking the time to discuss.

Patents aren’t limited to GMOs

First, it is vitally important to realize that the ability to patent crops is not unique to GMOs, nor is it a result of them. In the US, the first piece of legislation that made it legal to patent crops was the Plant Patent Act that was passed in 1930, over half a century before the first GMO crop. Indeed, many of our common crops are patented (or at least where patented when they were first invented; remember patents only protect intellectual material for a certain period of time). For example, seedless grapes were patented in 1934, yet I don’t hear anyone complaining about them.

The organic industry (and yes, it is a multi-billion dollar industry) also patents plants. For example, Vermont Organics owns patents on five different plants. So, if you are outraged over Monsanto patenting plants, then you had better be equally outraged over Vermont Organics doing so. The point is that attacking GMOs because they are patented makes no sense, because most crops are patented, regardless of whether they are GMOs. So, this argument holds GMOs to a different standard than all of the rest of agriculture. Further, as mentioned earlier, patents expire. For example, Round-up read soybeans are no longer protected by patent laws because those patents expired in 2015. Does that mean that anti-GMO activists are going to stop protesting them? I somehow doubt it.

Finally, it is worth making it explicitly clear that GE companies, organic companies, etc. are not “patenting Mother Nature.” They are patenting unique crops that do not occur in nature and that they invested in developing (see below). As I have previously explained, virtually none of your food is natural, and essentially all of it has been genetically modified, even if it isn’t typically described as a GMO.

Patenting a GMO shouldn’t be different from patenting anything else

Additionally, it is worth talking about why crops can be patented in the first place. Producing a new crop is very expensive, especially for a GMO. It takes millions or even billions of dollars to research and develop a new product, and that is money that company has to invest up front with the expectation that they will be able to turn a profit later. Thus, patents are a way of allowing companies to get a return on their investment. This is true for all patents, and in most areas, people have no problems with that. No one says that Apple is evil because the patent the technology for each new iPhone rather than giving its technology away freely. Similarly, no one complains that Toyota tries to make a profit off its innovations, so why should GMOs be any different? Why should Monsanto and other GE companies be held to a different standard than any other company?

I’m a big believer in the Socratic method, so let me use a series of questions to try to get you to really think about this. If Canon, Nikon, Sony, or any other camera company invested millions of dollars in developing a new camera product, then patented the result and tried to make money from it, would you consider them to be evil for doing that? Would you say that they had done something morally wrong? I’m willing to be that the answer is “no.” Now, what if Monsanto invested millions of dollars in developing a new crop, then patented the result and tried to make money from it, would you consider them to be evil for doing that? A lot of people would answer “no’ to the first question, but “yes” to the second, but that makes no sense. Why should Monsanto be vilified for doing exactly the same thing that every other for profit company does?

Additionally, it is important to realize that a lack of patents would stifle innovation. There are non-profits and independent scientists involved in the development of GMOs (more on that in a minute) but a lot of the breakthroughs come from big companies, and there is a very good reason for that. Namely, research costs money, and big companies are the ones who have money to invest. However, companies are, admittedly, after profit. So they aren’t going to invest millions of dollars into something unless they think that they can turn a profit. To be clear, I am all for independent, non-profit research, and I am actually quite progressive politically and am all for various strategies of wealth redistribution, but having said that, it is undeniable that the free market fuels innovation, and if you want agricultural developments (as you should if your goal is really to feed the hungry), then you should allow companies to make a profit, because that is the only way that they are going to invest heavily in researching agricultural advances.

Not all GMOs are about money

Next it is important to realize that although large companies dominate the development of GMOs, not all GMOs are about money. Golden rice, for example, is being developed entirely for humanitarian purposes. You see, many countries suffer from extreme vitamin A deficiencies, and many of those countries grow primarily rice. Thus, scientists and humanitarians developed golden rice, which is simply rice that produces vitamin A. That way, these countries can grow the same crop that they always have (thus they don’t need to change their agricultural practices) but they will get the vitamin that they so desperately need.

Now, if you are truly concerned about feeding the hungry, and if humanitarian concerns are really the reason that you oppose GMOs, then you should be all for golden rice, GMO bananas, and the other non-profit GMOs, but that almost never seems to be the case. Anti-GMO groups constantly attack these crops (including destroying test fields) and they lump them in with all of the other GMOs. That is why in my opening paragraph I said that this argument strikes me as disingenuous. You can’t claim to oppose GMOs out of humanitarian concerns while simultaneously opposing GMOs that are literally life-saving.

GMOs benefit the poor and the hungry

This is related to the previous point, but it is worth making saying it explicitly: GMOs help to feed the poor. Studies have repeatedly shown that using GMOs increases crop yields and reduces the amount of resources need to grow crops. Consider, for example, this 2014 meta-analysis that found (my emphasis),

“On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.”

Again, this should be great news if your concern is really feeding the poor. These crops will let impoverished countries greatly increase the amount of food that they can grow, so they are a huge win for fighting world hunger. Really think about this, by opposing GMOs you are trying to force poor countries to grow fewer crops than they could with GMOs. You are literally trying to deny people food. How is that moral?

GMOs benefit farmers

It is also worth mentioning that GMOs are good for farmers (that is why they have adopted them). Anti-GMO activists often try to paint farmers as the victims of evil “Monsatan,” but the reality is that famers love GMOs, because GMOs allow them to increase their yield and/or decrease the amount of effort/resources that they have to invest. This should be obvious if you just think about it for a second. Why on earth would so many farmers switch to GMOs if they weren’t beneficial? No one is putting a gun to their heads and forcing them to use GMOs. Farmers choose their seeds from catalogues where numerous companies compete for their patronage, and Monsanto doesn’t have a monopoly on the food supply, despite what activists want you to believe. Further, farmers aren’t stupid. They wouldn’t use GMOs if better, cheaper methods were actually available. Farmers have widely adopted GMOs precisely because they are beneficial. So, stop pretending that farmers are the victims. They aren’t.

Bad counterargument 1: “But Monsanto sues farmers!”

In the remainder of this post, I want to deal with some truly awful counter arguments. The most common of which is that Monsanto sues farmers for accidentally using their seeds/cross-pollination. The rebuttal for this one is easy: no they don’t. Monsanto has never sued a farmer for accidentally using their product/cross-pollination (more here).

Having said that, there have been a few cases where Monsanto sued someone for deliberately violating the patent agreement (e.g. selling seeds). That is, however, an entirely different issue from suing a farmer over accidental contamination. A deliberate violation of the patent agreement is a theft of intellectual property, plain and simple. It is a crime. It is no different from selling bootlegged DVDs or CDs. No one complains when a company like Universal brings movie pirates to court, so why should you complain when Monsanto brings seed pirates to court? This goes back to some of my keep points early. Namely, arguments like this hold GE companies to a different standard than any other company. Monsanto invests millions of dollars in R&D, so why shouldn’t it be allowed to protect its intellectual property?

Bad counterargument 2: “But farmers can’t replant the seeds”

Do you know what group of people I almost never hear make this complaint? Farmers. The reality is that in the modern era, most farmers don’t save the seeds regardless of whether or not their crop is a GMO. One of the key reasons for this is simply that doing so results in a lower quality harvest than you would get from buying new seeds (more details here). So, as with so many anti-GMO arguments, this argument is based on a complete lack of understanding about modern agriculture.

Bad argument 3: “The real problem is food waste. If first world countries weren’t so wasteful, there would be plenty of food to feed the world.”
This is what is known as a “nirvana fallacy.” It proposes an extremely unrealistic ideal situation, then claims that any plans that fall short of that standard shouldn’t be used because they aren’t perfect or don’t address the “real” issue. To be clear, food waste is a problem, and I agree with you 100% that we should be limiting it, but limiting it to the point that we could feed the world is an incredibly difficult (probably impossible) thing that is not going to happen in the near future. Meanwhile, there are people suffering from vitamin A deficiencies who could easily be saved by implementing GMOs. People are literally dying while you sit there demanding that we wait for an unrealistic solution.

Further, even if first world countries suddenly majorly cut back their food waste, that solution has several other problems. Most importantly, we have to somehow get that food to the countries that need it (which adds massive transportation costs, increased greenhouse gas emissions, etc.), and it makes those countries entirely dependent on aid from other countries. GMOs solve both of those problems because they can be grown by local farmers in the country where they are needed, thus allowing the country to feed its own citizens without needing constant supplies of food from other countries.

 Bad counterargument 4: “But [insert conspiracy theory]”

There are a plethora of conspiracy theories out there about Monsanto depopulating the world, causing mass suicides, etc. and each one is crazier than the last, so please don’t waste my time or your intellectual integrity on them. Use impartial sources, make sure that you are basing your views on facts, not assumptions or speculation, and demand good evidence before accepting something.

Bad counterargument 5: “We’ll I just don’t think people should profit from food”

The final argument that I want to discuss is this general aversion to the notion of big, money-loving companies being involved in food production. This is important, because I think it is actually a key motivating factor driving everything that I have talked about. As I have shown, the opposition to patents and Monsanto more generally isn’t actually about facts or logic. In some cases it stems from science denial, but in many, I think it stems from this emotional connection to our food, but that is irrational for several reasons.

First, as I explained previously, GMOs benefit the poor, farmers, etc. so this argument is clearly wrong right from the start. Second, this is, once again, inconsistent with how we treat every other company (and even person) on the planet. If, for example, a family that owns a farm tries to make a profit off that farm, no one villainizes them. No one says that they are evil for profiting from the production of food. Indeed, we would applaud their industry and hard work. So if it is fine for them to make a profit off of food, when is it wrong for GMO companies to do that?

Now, you might object to that on the basis that Monsanto is a multi-billion dollar company, but that doesn’t help your inconsistencies one bit for two reasons. First, the initial argument was, “it is wrong to profit from food,” but now you are trying to implement some arbitrary threshold of profit at which it becomes immoral.  Second, organic farming is also a massive, multi-billion dollar industry. Indeed, Whole Foods (a large organic store chain) makes nearly as much money as Monsanto, and is profitable enough that Amazon just paid 13.7 billion dollars  for it. So, if making billions of dollars off food makes Monsanto evil, then it must also make Whole Foods evil, but no one thinks that Whole Foods is evil, and many GMO opponents shop there! Also, by extension, it must now make Amazon evil, but I’m betting you’re still going to spend your money there. Do you see how inconsistent that is? You can’t vilify Monsanto for profiting from food, then go shopping at a multi-billion dollar food store.

Finally, this argument is inconsistent not just with organic food chains, but also with how we view companies more generally. Let me break it down this way, at its core, this argument claims that Monsanto and GMOs are evil because they aren’t feeding the hungry, but we could make that same claim about essentially every massive, for profit company. Apple could spend its vast wealth feeding the hungry, yet no one says that they evil for hoarding their wealth. Why should Monsanto be any different? Why should the fact that they are actually involved in food production make their quest for profit any less ethical than any other company’s? Why should the fact that they care more about profit than feeding the hungry make them any more evil than any of the thousands of other companies that care more about profit then feeding the hungry? Again, to be clear, I’m not a huge fan of massive companies, and I do think that they should do more to help the poor, but that reasoning has to be applied consistently rather than singling Monsanto out.

Note: This post was set to automatically go live while I am away with only intermittent internet access. So, my responses to comments will probably take a while and be intermittent. Also, please stay on topic and don’t go off on other GMO topics (e.g., pesticides, safety, etc.). There are other posts for those topics (see Comment Rules for details).

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9 Responses to “It’s morally wrong to patent food:” Inconsistent reasoning at its finest

  1. Dr. Cleon W. Ross says:

    I have enjoyed and generally agreed with every post of yours that I have read. I am a retired plant physiologist and plant biochemist. Dr. Cleon Ross

    Like

  2. louis says:

    Thanks for this post. Took me out of my comfort zone, but I appreciate the time you take (as usual) to clearly outline your reasoning.

    Like

  3. Axehurdle says:

    Ok, you’ve convinced me. The link under bad counterargument #1 to geneticliteracyproject was especially enlightening.

    Like

  4. vastergotland1 says:

    A few comments. I generally agree with your points. I have previously read them in a thoughtful NYT article a couple of years ago as well: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/us/on-hawaii-a-lonely-quest-for-facts-about-gmos.html?ref=earth&_r=2&pagewanted=all

    However, you repeatedly try to make a point about GMO companies being singled out concerning the patents on plants. I think you have failed to consider the pharmaceutics industry here.

    It is also a better point of comparison than the electronics or automobile industry because the products are essentials in a much more basic level than cars or phones are. A malnourished person does not have the same option of shopping around for the best food deal as he may do regarding a need to update an aging car. Neither does the sick have equal possibility for finding the best cost-value choice of drugs as they do for a new phone.

    Like

    • Fallacy Man says:

      It is true that pharmaceutical companies also get targeted, but that doesn’t really change things because of all of the other non-GMO food companies that don’t get targeted.

      I should also point out that GMOs are actually regulated by the free market. Let’s say, for example, that Monsanto decided to majorly jack up the price on one of its crops. At that point, farmers would stop using those seeds and switch to a different seed company because using GMOs would not longer be beneficial for them. Thus, the free market regulates the industry. So although you are correct that malnourished people don’t have much choice in the food that they eat, it is actually the farmers who are the important decision makers, and they do have the option of using non-GMO seeds.

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  5. Kasia says:

    Thank you for you very insughtful article. I keep usung very similar arguments while defending the pharma industry. Let’s keep educating people how patents work and debunk the notion that a company is evil just because it makes a profit.

    Like

  6. simple says:

    Golden Rice is not a good example of successfull GMO. It does not address any causes but in a simple way tries to cover consequences.

    You can read this:
    http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/agriculture/problem/Greenpeace-and-Golden-Rice/

    “The solutions to fight VAD and other nutrient deficiencies are known, available and cost effective. What is lacking however is the political will and determination to put them in place.

    In the past decade, great progress has been made on VAD and other malnutrition problems. For example, VAD is currently being successfully overcome by a combination of vitamin supplementation and home gardening in Bangladesh, where VAD was considered one of the worst public health problems 20 years ago. In the longer term, we need sustainable solutions to the problems of nutrition. Ecologically farmed home and community gardens increase access to healthy and varied diets can eradicate VAD, while simultaneously tackling other nutrient deficiencies. Ecological farming can in fact better contribute to healthy and diverse diets by empowering people to access and produce their own healthy and varied food, which is the real long-lasting solution populations affected by VAD need.”

    Some of your arguments apply to industrial agruculture. In poor countries people does use their own seeds. The way of sovling their problems is not to make money on them, but to give them the way in which they can solve it on their own.

    I think your post oversimplifies the problems of GMO in poor countries. And if you say, that making money on food is always food OK, then I do not agree with you. And I can give plenty examples, where this approach leads to tragic consequences – see the palm oil production and tropical forest, see killing elephants for ivory. From the point of making money killing the elephant gives you the biggest money outcome, the biggest NPV/IRR.

    So your arguments are for me oversimplification, like saying that “climate always changed so AGW is not real”. I just showed you, that two of them completely missed the point.

    Like

    • Fallacy Man says:

      A). Greenpeace is an extremely unreliable source. They are motivated by ideology, not science.

      B). Vitamin supplements and home gardens are simply not an option in many situations. These people are already spending all of their time farming just to survive. Now, you are asking them to take time away from that to grow a different garden when they could just keep doing what they are doing, but use golden rice instead. Additionally, they need the space, resources, etc. for home gardens. Further, supplements make the countries reliable on constant aid from other countries, not to mention resources and greenhouse gasses to transport them, etc. (see main post).

      C). You said, “The way of sovling their problems is not to make money on them, but to give them the way in which they can solve it on their own.” I agree, and that is precisely what golden rice does. It is being produced as a humanitarian product (not a for profit product) that will allow countries to solve the vitamin A deficiency themselves by growing vitamin A rich food. Further, you are saying we should let them solve it own their own while simultaneously saying that we should make them dependent on vitamin A supplements from other countries. That is self-contradictory.

      D). Situations like palm oil are entirely different because that is environmental devastation. It is not an analogous situation.

      Please note that I am currently traveling and will not be able to respond for several days.

      Like

  7. simple says:

    A. Maybe. But in the link there are arguments not the ideology. And your argument is based on ideology.

    B. Those people spend their time for farming and golden rice does not solve their problem. It’s the solution only to one of many problems – the first thing is they do not have money, so they cannot buy golden rice. You said it’s patent free but it is not free.

    What you propose is modern agriculture model where they are absent. As you see it is much more complicated problem than golden rice. Yous would like to change all their country, move them to the cities, and so on. You wouldn’t do it with simple solution: golden rice.

    Ad C. The golden rice is not free, you have to buy seeds. You cannot grow them. The golden rice solves only the problem of VAD (partially). As you realise vitamine A is not the only thing they need.

    “while simultaneously saying that we should make them dependent on vitamin A supplements from other countries” – you said that. It’s Straw man fallacy.

    Ad D. It’s exaclty the same problem. Oil palm is fantastic source of oil and as a side effect devastates the environment. GMO with its agruculture model devastates the way of life (reigion, beliefs, and so on) in poor countries. You need the model in which those poor people can exploit on their own. GMO is not such solution, as oil palm is not solution for farming in poor countries.

    The problem is much more complicated and you oversimplified it
    1. cherry-picking (what about other deficiencies apart from VAD?)
    2. straw-man – I suggest you diddn’t do it
    3. oversimplification – you look only at one aspect of poor countires neglecting all other. Those people DO NOT have money and they will not have money. How do you imagine buing seeds without money?

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