Skip to Content

The Plant That Sparked a War

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are not the enemy. The research and development of this technology has the potential to revolutionize the future of food and medicine. However, there are several issues involved in the use of GMOs that have not yet been addressed in a satisfactory manner. The primary concern, that of GMO ownership across boarders, make the use of this technology a national security concern. 


A genetically modified organism is one in which “plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content” (Whitman). One of the most exciting developments in this technology is to take non-plant based genes and insert them into plants. The best example of this use is with the B.t. genes or Bacillus thurigiensis which is a bacterium that is lethal to insect larvae. By inserting this bacterium into corn, the corn plant is able to produce its own pesticides against insects and decrease the need for farmers to spray expensive and potentially harmful pesticides on their fields.  

It was revealed this week that an Indian State developed version of B.t. cotton contained a stretch of DNA sequence known as MON 531 which is owned by the company Monsanto. It is not known whether it was a case of scientific fraud or accidental contamination but the cotton strain is now the focus of an investigation by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). (Jayaraman)

One of the largest unanswered questions in reference to the Indian B.t. cotton case is patent laws and ownership of genetically modified organisms. Patent laws only extend only to national boarders. Numerous United States patent laws, most notably The Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 (PVPA) that gave breeds that produced a “new, distinct, uniform, and stable” crop the right “to exclude others from selling the variety, or offering it for sale, or reproducing it, or importing it, or exporting it, or using it in producing (as distinguished from developing) a hybrid or different variety therefrom.”(Miller) However, this right (which is not actually a patent) was not designed with GMOs in mind and leaves many unanswered questions including the ability to patent a living organism like a multicellular organism. 

Even if the U.S. can create a cohesive, comprehensive and fair law regarding the ownership of genetically modified crops, these laws would only pertain to the U.S. There is no comprehensive “international patent” that protects property across the globe. The very nature of a seed is that it travels and cross-pollinates. A GMO with clearly defined laws regarding ownership that was planted in the U.S. could end up in Mexico or Canada depending on winds and animal migration. Therefor without a universally accepted decorum on GMO ownership throughout the globe, the use of GMOs will lead to messy and potentially very dangerous confrontations between countries. How far would contries be willing to go to enforce their ownership claims on this billion dollar industry? 


Photo Credit: Public Domain