In a backstage interview at Real Time with Bill Maher, science educator and entertainer Bill Nye expressed a change of mind on genetically engineered food. Formerly concerned about the environmental impacts of transgenic species Nye now says: “I went to Monsanto and I spent a lot of time with the scientists there, and I have revised my outlook. And I’m very excited about telling the world. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” While Nye’s enthusiasm for this promising technology is admirable, his lack of concern about the patent monopolies and liability protections the state grants biotech companies like Monsanto is disturbing.
Monsanto uses patents to monopolize food production, contaminating the crops of others with impunity. The company has filed suits against 140 farmers and reached settlement with an additional 700 involving patented seed. They use the notorious Pinkerton detective agency to harass farmers and collect specimens without regard for others’ property. The US Supreme Court has upheld Monsanto’s claims against farmers whose crops contain varieties the company holds patents for. Monsanto has since promised not use this power against farmers whose crops contain 1% or less of “their” seed. Strange world we live in, that it is seen as an act of good will for a company to not sue farmers whose crops they contaminated. If anything, the farmers should sue Monsanto for the contamination. Enforcement of state-granted monopolies, like patents, leads to surreal results in the real world.
Patents could not exist in a free and competitive economy. Rather, those who contaminate the crops of others would owe damages. It is the state that allows big firms to use patents to kill competition, SLAPP lawsuits to stifle criticism, and grants liability limits to biotech firms.
And then there’s the issue of funding for genetic research by the state. The US government spent around $430 million on synthetic biology in the late 2000s and continues funding these lines of research. Government R&D has a history of favoring established firms with large budgets over smaller competitors. Individuals in a free society should be able to experiment with new varieties, without subsidizes or favors from the state. Genetically modified foods should be able to fairly compete with varieties created through traditional breeding without government favoritism. This would ensure a combination of approaches that maximizes consumer utility while minimizing harm. Sadly, the state and its cronies opt for the opposite approach.
If new genetic splicing techniques really will make the best products, let them compete freely, without government protection, funding or monopolies. We should reject government and business collusion that interferes with consumer choice. While genetic engineering has potential to improve lives and solve many problems, there is no need for the state to force it on unwilling consumers and farmers. This is just another example of the state using force to undermine voluntary interaction. We need to fight state interventions in all aspects of life. Opposing government favors for the biotech industry is just one important battle.
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