Friday, December 06, 2013

Appropriating the food chain with patents

Artificial foods are apparently the Next Big Thing.

As a story, “artificial meat” or “artificial egg” has just about everything a writer could want. It's got big-name investors excited (Bill Gates is on the bandwagon). It's got science (more on this in a minute). The word “sustainability” gets tossed around with careless abandon (as if adding electricity to chemicals is greener than a farm). And it plays into modern guilt about eating meat.

It doesn't get much better than that, does it?

I have to confess that the science angle confuses me – not because I'm confused by science, but because any group of “food hackers” (as the cool writers call them) could be transplanted into the labs of any food multinational without having trouble with the transition. The journalist, however, would suddenly find their science intimidating and evil instead of exciting and “food hacker” cool.

But what really troubles me is that a statement like this, from a piece in Mother Jones, passes without serious examination:

“The goal, Tetrick explains, is to replace all factory-farmed eggs in the US market—more than 80 billion eggs, valued at $213.7 billion.”

If you look for the money, you find this patent application: “Plant-based egg substitute and method of manufacture”.

As you would find if you follow the money on any of the new “food hacker” heroes. I won't bore you with a list.

But it's odd, in my mind, that the same Mother Jones that can easily see through Monsanto's patent-driven bid for world domination – “Monsanto: all your seeds are belong to us”, for example – can't look behind the “food hacker” curtain to where the patents are.

The question enthusiastic journalists fail to ask is really quite simple: do you want a world in which an entire foodstuff's supply chain is owned by one rich entrepreneur – sorry, “social entrepreneur” as Josh Tetrick's Wikipedia PR says?

Do you want to eat by sufferance of one patent-owner? I don't.

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