Open Source GMOs as a Sustainable Solution

One of the arguments for the development and use of GMOs was to make food production more sustainable through higher yields, increased nutritional quality of food, and decreased dependency on pesticides.  Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California Davis, has argued that by increasing yield without increased need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the future of organic agriculture may actually benefit from the use of GMOs.  She makes the case that feeding the world in a sustainable manner may require what seems like an unlikely marriage between organic farming and beneficial engineered crops[i].

The majority of GMOs have not increased yield, have not decreased chemical use but actually increased it, nor have they solved the global hunger problem.  This is because they were not developed with these thing in mind.  Rather, the GMOs on the market today were developed to advantage the biotech corporations that created them through their use on large-scale, capital-intensive industrialized farms. These corporations have not been interested in meeting the needs of the poorest people of the world because they do not see significant income potential or return on research and development investment from doing this.  So where increases in yield, disease resistance, and increased nutrition are needed the most, little or no benefits from GMOs have been realized. Also, the current way that GMO crops are developed gives absolute control of the intellectual property of the food crops on which we depend to these corporations.  Innovation, modification, safety testing or research of any kind on these GMOs by outside scientists is prohibited.  Corporate control has also limited the application of GMOs in addressing global food and nutrition issues.

So how can we take advantage of the potential benefits of GMOs to increase food sustainability as Pam Arnold suggests?  One way is to bypass and perhaps undermine corporate control through the development of open source GMOs.  Like open-source software, such as Linux and Firefox, open source GMOs would be shared and made freely available for users to make improvements.  Many believe that open source genetics would advance GMO research by shifting it away from intellectually controlled and restrictive corporations to universities, government agencies, and non-profits.  This could allow for a realignment of the goals of GMO crop development to be more consistent with the goals of sustainability.

There are a number of examples of how open source GMOs and collaborative partnerships contribute to sustainability.  One is the nonprofit initiative Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture that brings together intellectual property from more than 40 universities, public agencies, and nonprofit institutes and makes these technologies available to developing countries around the world for humanitarian purposes.  This type of collaboration has essentially saved the papaya through genetic modification.  Papaya is a widespread, economically important crop in most parts of the world, including Brazil, Mexico, and India, where crops have been devastated by the ring spot virus.  A team of public researchers from the Hawaii University, the Cornell University, the USDA, independent of private multinational companies created genetically resistant varieties of Papaya using GM technologies.  It took more than 15 years to achieve this goal, but when finally approved in 1998 disease-resistant GM papaya seeds were distributed for free to the farmers who had suffered significant crop loss and economic hardship as a result of the virus and papaya production has rebounded.

Another example of how open source GMO technology through public-private partnerships could alleviate global food and nutrition problems was through the Golden Rice Initiative.  This initiative was aimed at developing a rice variety rich of beta-carotene to help make up for the Vitamin A deficiency in most developing countries.  This sort of micronutrient deficiency is referred to as “hidden hunger” because it can occur even when caloric intake is sufficient, but the diseases and physical disorders related to such deficiency represent a significant socioeconomic public health problem in developing countries.  Research on golden rice started in 1982 as an initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation, eventually becoming a collaborative effort with the private multinational company, Syngenta.  Golden rice will eventually be shared in the public domain, spreading to several developing countries.  Syngenta’s only commercial interest is potential revenues from developed countries.

Another fruitful innovation to increase innovation and access in the development of GMOs is the development of open source biotech methods.  These processes are not patent restricted, so any company or researcher can use them to develop more sustainably meaningful GMOs.  An example of this is a novel method for making transgenic plants called Transbacter created by the Australian biotech company, Cambia Technologies.  The company offers a licensing agreement for this technology that can be used to make any number of modifications with great potential for innovation.

Ironically, one of the major obstacles to this approach of aligning GMOs with the goals of sustainability has been the through the efforts of well-intentioned, but unscientific, anti-GMO activists.  Another is the long and expensive regulatory process that makes the approval of GMOs in the US open only to the largest corporations, which in turn have gotten rid of any liability for their products. Open source, private-public partnerships, enforced corporate responsibility, and increased ability to conduct research on the safety of GMO foods may better permit us to meet the nutritional needs of current and future generations.

[i]Ronald, P. C. & R. W. Adamchak. 2008. Tomorrow’s table: organic farming, genetics, and the future of food, Oxford University Press.