Okay, let's try this: designer babies. Let's say a gene therapy is developed that will allow parents to alter an embryo's genetic code, making the child immune to malarial infection. This isn't a fix-it job, replacing problematic code with the normal genetic line-up you would find in nature in order to prevent something like Trisomy 21. We're talking an inserted, man-made code that could be patented.
Where would IP rights stand when this child has children, and they carry the anti-malarial GM code? Would any offspring carrying it have to be destroyed? Would new payments have to be made for future generations? Perhaps an on/off switch inserted in the genetic code that would have to be booted up at a price for future generations to enjoy the benefit of protection from disease? Or would the initial GM child simply have to be made sterile to prevent this problem ahead of time?
I doubt we would treat instances of GM human life like that. The benefit of increased public health and welfare would keep the profit calculus from extending so far down.
Heightening the stakes from the life of a plant to the life of a person perhaps highlights the question a little better, and puts us in a better position to step back again to GM crops... because despite a lack of depth in GM crops (compared to the dignity of human life), there is an awful lot of breadth present (billions of seeds produced, in legal limbo, or destroyed) that has real consequences for the livelihood of farmers and future food production.
And to head off concerns already expressed by Gary... yes, I realize that farmers already have agreements with Monsanto. I'm not trying to argue retroactively that a wrong has been committed. The question is whether the way we're handling things now is unfair, unproductive, or stupid... and whether it makes sense to change how things are done.
Comparative advantage: a partial truth
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