Could open-source GMOs bring down Monsanto at last?

Frederick Kaufman has penned a provocative article for Slate's Future Tense column in which he makes the case for open-source genetically modified foods. "It will help fight climate change," he says, "and stick one in Monsanto's eye." What's more, it's an approach that still favors scientific advancement.

Kaufman says that GMOs have increased agriculture's dependance on expensive “inputs” — the proprietary seeds and herbicides that have made multinationals like Monsanto and Dow so profitable. At the same time, transgenic crops are increasingly being perceived as a source of genetic pollution.

Could open-source GMOs bring down Monsanto at last?

"The GMO story has become mired in the eco-wrecking narrative of industrial agriculture," he writes, "and that is too bad for those who understand the real risks of climate change and discern our desperate need for innovation."

The answer, says Kaufman, is to go open-source. He writes:

GMO agriculture relies on the relatively new science of bioinformatics (a mixture of bio- and information science), which means that DNA sequences look a lot more like software code than a vegetable garden. And if Monsanto is the Microsoft of food supply—raking in the rent on bites instead of bytes—perhaps the time has come for the agricultural equivalent of Linux, the open-source operating system that made computer programming a communal effort.

Kaufman says that food justice activists have been trying to undermine Monsanto's market share through consumer advocacy and political reform. But it's also possible, he says, to be against big-agriculture and for scientific advancement:

Open-source is the quickest way to undermine proprietary rights to food molecules, those rights that guarantee profit streams for transnationals while condemning the earth to a monocultural future of agriculture with no regard for agroecology. For the surest way to sabotage Monsanto is not to label but to sap its income. Already, a number of biotech pioneers have followed the open-source examples of Apache and Wikipedia. The database of the human genome mapping project has been free since it was published in 2003. The genetic map of rice has been made available at no charge to researchers worldwide. And the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has made its “Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture” a transnational paradigm of free-flowing information. Agricultural researchers in developing countries need not pay a penny to review all the latest life science research published in more than 3,000 academic journals.

Like open-source software, open-source food genetics would advance biological research in this country, and our universities would soon become hothouses of innovation. Intellectual production without intellectual property would thrive, as scientists gained access to DNA code in all its infinite variety, along with the freedom to create derivative work and redistribute findings. No great leap of faith would be required, as open-source is one of food’s oldest dynamics. There’s no patent on a roast chicken, and the derivative work of Momofuku founder David Chang does not owe a fee to Marcella Hazan, Julia Child, or Colonel Sanders. Chefs and their recipes have long constituted a creative commons.

There's lots more to Kaufman's article, so be sure to read it all at Slate.

Image credit: Ira Bostic / Shutterstock.com. Inset image: Nigel Treblin/AFP/Getty Images.