A lot of times, I find that the debate over GMO food is presented as one with high-minded companies using technology to increase food output and quality for the betterment of humanity on one side and the luddite hippies on the other. As always, it’s never so simple. I am generally agnostic in the debate – I think, as with anything, that the science behind GMO food provides a remarkable opportunity to help mankind, and that any potential for safety problems will be worked out in time.

There are still things to worry about, however, and one of them involves the development of something called GURTs (Genetic Use Restriction Technologies) – also less affectionately deemed “Terminator” and “Traitor” technologies. These are technologies, such as the one developed jointly by the USDA and Delta and Pine Land Company, that are designed to restrict the use of seeds produced. This restriction takes place in one of two ways:

  • V-GURTs: restriction technologies at the variety level where seed produced from the crop is sterile
  • T-GURTs: restriction technologies at the trait level where seed produced from the crop is fertile and only expression of a high added-value trait requires a special treatment.

That is to say, GURTs is effectively genetically-coded intellectual property rights protection. Think of it as the genetic food equivalent of DRM. If a farmer buys seeds protected with GURT, the seeds produced by the crop are sterile and cannot be used to re-plant – he has to head back to the source to buy every year.

Because of this, GURTs thus far have been deemed unethical and have not yet been used in commercialized products. I assume that this is due to the heavily-subsidized nature of GMO research – subsidization predicated, in large part, on the flowery rhetoric of revolutionizing third-world food shortages by eliminating agricultural difficulties.

Though, GURTs do pose some practical advantages beyond petty intellectual property rights protection for investment-recouping. For example, GURTs could prevent the possibility of cross-contamination of GMO traits via pollen into other non-GMO crops. It also eliminates the problem of volunteer plants in crop-rotation.

The danger I foresee is the employment of GURTs to restrict the potentially phenomenal benefits of GMO food and chain them to unjustified and exploitive profits at the expense of the population they are supposed to serve. Intellectual property rights are supposed to provide investment recoupment and incentive for future innovation, but I am not convinced that the extent to which we allow these rights to exist is justified. I think the line between “recouping investment” and “making a ton of money” is too often crossed. We’ve seen it in the pharmaceutical industry, and I’d hate to see it here, too.

For further reading, the International Seed Foundation (yes, there’s an international seed foundation) has a good rundown of the technology’s advantages and disadvantages. The UN’s FAO has a complementary assessment of biotech and GMO in general, which includes a rundown of the practical and ethical implications of GURTs. And lastly, here is an article that discusses the controversy.