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May 24, 2013

Lessons from Patented Seeds

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The Wall Street Journal points out that pesticides are making a comeback. 

As most U.S. farmers shifted, over the last decade, to Monsanto’s genetically modified corn seed that had its own pest-fighting toxins that would take on the rootworm, they abandoned the use of most soil insecticides.  However, over the years the rootworm has become increasingly immune to the seed-based pesticide and the insects are making a comeback, killing lots of corn in the process.

There are least a couple of public policy lessons to be learned.

First, innovator pharmaceutical companies are frequently criticized for trying to “evergreen” their patented products by making small changes in the formula and seeking a new patent—as well as a higher price.  But parasites in the soil and our bodies often become immune to the current product, necessitating a different formulation.  Minor improvements in a drug, or a genetically modified seed, can be the result of new research, efforts to improve the product, or attempts to stay a step ahead of the parasites.  Minor improvements should be appreciated, just as major improvements are.

Second, one of the reasons that the rootworm developed immunity is that so much corn in planted in the U.S.  Monsanto encourages farmers to rotate their crops, but the economic incentives created by high corn prices may undermine the recommendation to rotate more often.  And there is a big reason why the economic incentives to plant corn are so big: The federal government’s requirement that gasoline include ethanol, the majority of which is made from corn.

That arbitrarily imposed federal requirement drives up the price of corn, which drives up farmers’ desire to plant it.  It also makes this important food staple more expensive for millions of poor people for whom corn is a staple.  And the transportation and processing costs are so high that there is no reason to think ethanol actually helps the environment. 

And now that insecticide use is up because pests are getting immune to the current GMO seeds, we have another reason to be concerned.

If Congress would back off of its ethanol mandate, corn production might decline a little, but what was grown would be better for humans and the environment.

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