Monsanto, steaks, and chefs: Intellectual property and food

The biggest problem with Monsanto is its patents, which are representative of a trend in the food industry Photo: TheBusyBrain (Flickr)

MADISON, Wisc., April 7, 2013 ― With all the current controversy over agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto, many are missing the biggest problem: reliance on patents and monopoly protection.

Last week, President Obama signed into law the infamous “Monsanto Protection Act” as part of an Agricultural Appropriations Bill. The law, which essentially protects the agricultural giant against litigation, has caused opponents of Monsanto and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to erupt in a firestorm.

The opponents rally against Monsanto for numerous reasons.

GMOs are unsafe for human consumption; Monsanto should be required to extensively label all of its food products; the environment suffers from the widespread use of genetically modified crops; Monsanto is a big, scary, evil corporation bent on controlling and destroying the world. And so the list goes on.

These charges are largely hokum. There exists substantial scientific evidence debunking the claims of activists who suggest that GMOs are unsafe for humans or the environment. The call for mandated labeling is a call for increased government regulation, something at which everyone should shudder.

The big problem with Monsanto is its reliance on intellectual property. Rather than on innovation, the company’s entire business model is based primarily on patent protection and the monopoly power the patents have bestowed upon it.

SEE RELATED: Even libertarians wrong on Monsanto Protection Act

While all intellectual property protection is economically and ethically backward (see here, here, and here), a particularly malignant trend is its ever-increasing prevalence in agriculture and food. In 2011 alone, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved nearly 1,200 patents on or related to food.

Economists Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine expound on the history of IP in the agricultural industry:

“Innovative and dynamic industries … grow rapidly because competition and imitation allow and force their firms to innovate or perish. In fact, in the early stages, agricultural innovators often would provide their customers with incentives to copy and reproduce their seeds, as a tool for spreading its usage. However, as the industry grows more powerful and the opportunities for further innovation diminishes, the value of monopoly protection for the insiders increases, lobbying efforts multiply and most often succeed.”

Moreover, as a 2010 “Nature Biotechnology” article concludes, GMO crops produce higher yields at lower prices, something from which farmers, especially those in poorer nations, greatly benefit. But patents detract from that benefit.

SEE RELATED: Dislike: Facebook Sued for Patent Infringement

Boldrin and Levine explain:

“In poor and developing countries, the share of agriculture in national income is an order of magnitude greater than in the United States, and its strategic role for future development is absolutely crucial. It is for these countries that agricultural patents are a deadly blow, as they manage to do two harms at once…[M]aking new seeds and animal species prohibitively expensive, agricultural patents render farmers from poor countries unable to compete in the global agricultural market…Because they cannot finance initial purchases of efficient seeds, poor farmers use less efficient ones, which means that the break-even price at which they can sell their products is higher, thereby making them uncompetitive.”

Additionally, patents do not increase agricultural innovation. After the passage of the Plant Variety Protection Act in 1970, which extended patent protection to virtually all plants, the average growth rate in terms of Total Factor Productivity (an empirical measure of innovation) continued at the same rate as before, right up to the present. In the case of specific crops — corn, for example — the rate of innovation has actually decreased.

In October 2012, the ABA Journal (a publication of the American Bar Association) reported on the filing of a patent for a “Vegas Strip Steak.” This particular cut of beef (or more precisely, the method of extracting this particular cut of beef) was apparently unknown until it was discovered by an Oklahoma State University meat specialist.

While technically “unknown,” the case of the Vegas Strip is really a case of something being undervalued. Surely, experienced butchers, without any specialized knowledge contained in the patent, will know where to find this new cut of beef merely by hearing about it.

If the patent is granted, however, anyone who wishes to extract the Vegas Strip from a cow carcass will be legally required to obtain a license from the patent holder. In this way, the patent holder would obtain control of (and become an implicit owner of) every bovine on the planet.

OSU boasts that, “The tenderness of the Vegas Strip Steak is on par with the New York Strip Steak. It does not require aging or marinating to achieve tenderness.” Furthermore, the new cut “offers universally appealing, solid steak flavor that satisfies any beef craving.”

Great. Now go out and sell your new steak, OSU; you don’t need a patent to do that. Of course, doing so would require less effort if there were no competitors, but seeing how easy the cut would be to locate, competitors are sure to quickly arise.

Still, so what? The inventor or discover of something is not necessarily the most efficient producer of that thing. What benefits consumers most is not the monopolistic control of a product or idea, but the continuous improvement of it — both an increase in quality and a concurrent decrease in price — that comes about most quickly in the milieu of the free market.

Another disturbing trend surrounding IP and food is occurring in the culinary world. Many chefs are beginning to consider their dishes to be “intellectual property.”

The controversy stems from the increasing common practice of photographing food in restaurants.

For example, chef RJ Cooper said in an interview with Eater regarding photography in his restaurant, “You’re there for the dining experience with your companion, not to take photos of food. They publish food photos without your consent, which is taking intellectual property away from the restaurant. And also, generally, the photographs are terrible.”

Thankfully, other chefs disagree. Michael White of Marea said in the same interview that when it comes to diners taking photographs, he’s, “All for it. Why not? In this day and age, when I do a pasta at Marea or at one of the other restaurants, it’s on Twitter almost immediately. What could be better for me than having someone quickly raving about a new garganelli with ground sepia, shrimp, chickpea crema, and pecorino and then having other people coming to the restaurant soon after and asking for that exact dish because that’s how they heard about it?”

It is difficult to discern exactly how a photographer could “take intellectual property away from the restaurant.” Surely a crafty lawyer could drum up a good case, though.

Imagine for a moment if this were taken to its logical end. At some point, a person might have to travel to New York City just to enjoy a particular dish because the only restaurant that has the legal right to make it is located there. Or, more likely, the cost of said dish would raise significantly all across the country due to licensing costs. Due to financial constraints, many restaurants would be unable to offer the dish.

What if the restaurant in New York City had a particularly mediocre chef? Then again, even if it had a phenomenal chef, the chance that a chef in Chicago, for instance, could produce an equal or superior version of the IP-protected dish would be quite high.

Intellectual property has no place in agriculture or the culinary world, whether it be Monsanto, OSU and its “Vegas Strip,” or some chef in New York. IP does not advance the economic well-being of society, nor does it increase innovation or variety.

I want to have my steak and eat it, too, without worrying about whether or not it is properly licensed. I might even snap a photo of it, too.


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Joseph S. Diedrich

Joseph S. Diedrich has been a columnist at The Washington Times Communities since early 2013. He covers non-electoral politics from a libertarian perspective. His work has also been featured at the MacIver InstituteThe College Fix, and elsewhere.

Joseph is also a classically-trained composer and somewhat of a gastronomy enthusiast. Find him on Facebook, LinkedInGoogle+, and Twitter @JSDiedrich.


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