Thursday, June 24, 2004
  Bio-engineered crops: a complex topic?

There's an interesting blog post on genetic engineering and intellectual property at a blog called Download Aborted. (What a great name!)
I posted the following lengthy comment there:

1. Using Percy Schmeiser as an example is a Really Bad Idea, because anyone who is ever worked with a canola crop knows he lied in court. Canola seeds are little black balls; they are not very aerodynamic. Over 90% of his crop was Roundup-Ready(RM). A wind strong enough to blow that much seed from a neighboring farm would also have removed the topsoil!

2. People who produce new varieties of plants using conventional breeding techniques can "patent" those varieties. There's a form of intellectual property called Plant Variety Rights, which is modeled on the patent system. It dates back to 1970. Some people believe the PVR system has significant flaws.

(Incidentally, canola was produced from a plant called rapeseed by conventional plant breeding methods.)

3. Here in Australia, not many farmers are using bio-engineered seeds for an interesting technical reason. Good farmers usually get their seed from plant breeders, who are continually improving their product using conventional breeding techniques. Bio-engineering and breeding both produce only a handful of seeds; you have to grow a crop with those seeds, grow another crop with the resulting seeds, and so on, until you have enough seeds to sell. This generally takes at least two years. Since the bio-engineers start with publically-available seed, the seed they produces will be two (or more) years worth of breeding behind the conventional seed — and those years of conventional breeding generally produce more advantages for farmers than the bio-engineering!

4. But third-world farmers do get much better yields from bio-engineered crops. Because few third-world farmers can afford pesticides, bio-engineering pest resistance into crops can greatly increase production. In fact, stopping third-world farmers from using GM seeds is causing millions of unnecessary deaths from starvation.

Intellectual property is a difficult issue. (It's made a lot worse by the way that big spenders can influence the U.S. Congress.)

The Patent, Copyrights and PVR systems all have flaws. And the Australia-USA Free Trade Agreement slightly increases the deleterious effects of those flaws on Australians: instead of being indirectly affected because of the economic power of the US, the FTA would, if passed, require our legal system to conform to US practices.

If you came here expecting any answers to these problems, I'm sorry: I haven't got any. (You may notice that I haven't even tried to analyse them, let alone propose solutions!). But I can point out one simple truth: keeping third-world farmers from using GM crops is causing much unnecessary death and suffering. Maybe we should do something about that? 
  I'm back ...
Why no blogging for so long? (1) Illnesses. (2) Looking after my brother's farm while he recovered from a Golden Staph infection. (3) Moving 400km from Melbourne back to the family farm. (4) Unplanned changeovers to a new computer. 
Miscellaneous musing from Chris Chittleborough, Australian farmer's son, computer programmer and chronic information junkie

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Recommended Reading
Tim Blair
Bob Bunnet
Christopher Hitchens
Andrew Sullivan
Michael J. Totten

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The Hacker's Dictionary

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