Across the planet food production has seen a dramatic increase in production from hybrid plant development and genetic research on to seeds with improved yield and pest traits. The results have gone well past the starvation minimums of times past with the continued growth in human population the sole pressure for more food. What science has made possible is food for over 6 billion souls and room for a great deal of energy capture for fuel production.

In truth, the fuel production from plants has only just begun, and how far science can go is, if using the past growth in food production as a guide, something between 4 to a yet to be even estimated multiple. The scientific methods are already highly developed, with lessons measured in generations for hybrid skills and we’re coming into second-generation genetics with third stage developments in research now.

But some people suggest that the science → farmer → consumer positions all have, ready for it – rights to the science. In the U.S. developers rely on the system of patents within the law to secure their rights to earn a return on their investment. That temporary monopoly gets a period to set a price that the market will bear instead of competitively determined price. The practice does yield great sums of money for the reward and sometimes gets income reinvested for more research. It can “backfire,” driving competition both in research for alternatives and pricing, but in the end as we’ve seen so far, the practice has built an impressive inventory of science that – feeds 6 billion people – which is no small feat.

In Europe the seed producer will rely on “plant breeders rights” a less restricted method of intellectual property rights. But the bulk of the know how winds up in the Institute National de Recherche Agronomique in France. Patents are sometimes granted with special rights, but never on gene sequences. Try and remember the last plant variety that came out of Europe and made a big difference.

The next variable is the buyer’s rights, first up the farmer. In the U.S. farmers buy science developed proprietary seed and use it once as the genetics or hybrid skills expressed in a seed are actually leased, not to be used for planting again. Farmers get the product of the seed if not the right to reseed with the product. Not so bad until you see what U.S. farmers pay for seed. On a seed weight to produced weight a multiple 4 is on the low side with some corn seed priced at 54 times the product weight. That’s a reality check for non-farmers. It also explains much of the economics in the capital intensive and high risks undertaken to produce foods and fuels. It also sheds light on the problems of getting top producing plant seeds to marginal farmers in less developed countries.

The next buyer is the consumer or the processor that makes products for consumers. Some believe with good cause that this part of the market has rights, too. Consumers do have solid rights, such as cleanliness and safety – but to assert that consumers have rights to get food is a problem that sails way outside of the industrial effort to produce it. Factors such as weather, government policies, vermin, plant disease, weed pressure and others compete with the intentions of food production and are in truth the main problems with feeding and fueling the people of the world.

The facts show that university and private industry research has handled much of the weather, plant disease, and weed problems. Vermin, primarily wildlife from large species down to mice and microbes pose problems that tend to be localized with answers, some good and others problematic to solve the competition to consume the food and fuel.

That leaves the government policies as the main issue. There are two forms of regulation that impact food and fuel production, the intellectual property rights and biosafety. Its been said that food production will need doubled again in say 40 years, if current trends stay in place.

With that in mind and the coming demand for land for more fuel production, feeding intellectual property for more innovation would seem an obvious move. But it doesn’t necessarily happen. Argentina is so lax about intellectual property that most companies simply don’t even offer products leaving great swaths of highly productive land at subsistence level productivity. Some research isn’t going forward because patents were allowed including language that blanks or impedes new ideas. Intellectual property can be great, but left to sharp lawyers and patent officers that miss long range problems, it can be as bad as it is good. In the U.S. public policy isn’t being set for the greatest good, its being manipulated by lobbyists to insulate advantages, extend monopoly terms, and create the furthest patent reach possible to deny competition or form a basis for “patent vulture” activity. It’s a field that desperately needs attended to, with little hope of improvement.

Biosafety is almost a non-issue. Hybrids and genetically modified crops have been around since Mendel’s time coming up on one hundred fifty years ago. No instance of harm to a person exists. Yet the potential does exist and merits monitoring. But some nations simply fall for hysteria and sow death instead of life with ‘no genetically modified organisms” policies. It’s a tragedy in progress with no end in sight. Government policy can kill by the millions while science could give a quality life to those same millions.

It looks like science whether priced smartly or not gives great benefits with the counter position being beyond weather and education, government policies. With some trepidation, I will point out that the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement – regulates a series of intellectual property rights for plant varieties, including plant breeders’ rights, patent protection and the poorly-defined sui generis (or in-kind) proposals for protection. That by itself helps researchers keep going if they’re not treading on an existing patent. But it does nothing to increase the number of the food producers using better plants.

Today the U.S. patent system is the key. It’s a system that has gotten the world this far. And with trepidation again I would suggest the patent law be revisited. Way too much is in there, such as “business models,” “software,” and other things for which a patent just doesn’t apply. Some sense of liability needs to be in place for patent language that exceeds the point of allowing a patent to be issued. A patent that over reaches deserves to be seriously bitten.

In the midst of a recession with all eyes on “stimulus,” bailouts and the like, getting to the basics would seem obvious. Getting patent law corrected would be the single most effective nutrient a government could offer in lieu of an any length of term stimulant.

That’s my point. We need nutrition for the economy and soon. So before you email me, one last thing – I suggest that patents be shortened up to 15 years from the first day of lawful sale, simply because longer is pointless as we want research to proceed at a rapid pace and because so many products will need regulatory approval. No need to start the clock running until a product can be sold, nor wait to sell in a self-imposed short patent window.

I know fixing patent law would help. Do you have any economic nutrition ideas we should look at?


Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind