Are GM crops aimed at helping farmers, or corporate shareholders? Generalizing in that regard is probably a mistake.
See, for instance, this story from The Sydney Morning Herald, Group produces GM rice
A team of Australian scientists has genetically modified rice to improve its tolerance to salt, offering hope of increased global production.
And work is already underway to transfer the technology to wheat and barley, other staple foods for billions of people around the world….
One interesting aspect of this project is the issue of intellectual property protection — in particular, because there is none. Notice that the story cited above doesn’t mention the word “patent,” which I thought a bit odd. Patents — an important form of intellectual property protection — are often thought essential to the research-and-development process. So, I contacted the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and got clarification. According to the ACPFG, there is no legal protection for this technology: it’s being developed as a public good.
This is important, for a couple of reasons. The first is practical. The lack of a patent means that the technology will in principle be available to anyone who wants to use it. If seeds end up being produced (and if the crop passes the relevant regulatory hurdles), they can be planted (and harvested and replanted) by anyone. The lack of patent also means that other scientists can more easily study, replicate, and build on this development.
The second reason the lack of patent protection is important is rhetorical: critics of the genetic modification often claim that GM is only going to help big corporations like Monsanto, whose gene patents are zealously guarded by their well-paid lawyers. And that certainly has been the experience that has dominated the landscape (no pun intended) thus far. But it doesn’t have to be the case. Plenty of research on genetic modification is done by publicly-minded researchers at public institutions. And (especially as the cost of genetic research drops) there’s no reason the result has to be a commercialization deal with a major company.
I wish I could be more optimistic about there being more biotech in the public interest but the deregulation process seems purposefully designed* to favor large companies over small companies, NGOs, or individual researchers. Kevin Folta talks about this in his post Barriers to GE Hort Crop Commercialization.
*I don’t mean that in a conspiracy theory way.
That’s a shame.
But one reason for a bit of optimism lies in one of the many things I learned from Gary Pisano’s book, Science Business, which is that (according to Pisano) there is evidence that small companies have an advantage in being able to convince universities to license key technologies. In other words, the pattern seems to be that small companies are better at convincing universities to license to them.