Monday, June 27, 2011

Another analogy...

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.


  1. Full disclosure: I am in general all for designer babies.

    Well, for one thing, a human being isn't a plant. So human beings (in the liberal tradition at least) are given a special status both under the law and in our general moral outlook. One would assume that the payment made for the service would take into account the future benefits your discussing - indeed, that would also be part of the calculus of the customer as well. As the technology becomes more prevalent the cheaper it would also get. We have lots of examples of this sort of thing right now - where the future generational benefit is priced into purchase price.

    "...that has real consequences for the livelihood of farmers and future food production."

    No one doubts that; but so do the new lines of tractors and the invention of food printers. I just don't think of GMOs as being radical departures from what we've been doing with technology for a long time.

    "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."

    Well, right now we have more food than we know what to do with; indeed, it is claimed that we have an "obesity epidemic" (though it is a health problem that no one clearly has any sort of real solution to - thus all the fad diets, etc. - personally I think it is more of a form of discrimination against hefty folks than anything - a kind of scapegoating for moral condemnation that every society seems to have to engage in - happily I'm a skinny mountain climbing, distance running freak). To me the pressing issue is the level of food scarcity for the world's poor; until that issue is dealt with I'm not going to trouble myself with what I consider largely trumped up fears regarding GMOs.

  2. BTW, Evan, did you kidnap Daniel and put him the trunk of a car? ;)

    Also, I wish this book were available for the Kindle - I highly recommend it:

  3. I just don't think of GMOs as being radical departures from what we've been doing with technology for a long time.

    I haven't been arguing that, either. I don't know why you keep bring this up.

    To me the pressing issue is the level of food scarcity for the world's poor; until that issue is dealt with I'm not going to trouble myself with what I consider largely trumped up fears regarding GMOs.

    This is another reason why you might be interested in taking the time to watch Food Inc.. I'm going off of the documentary and am certainly no expert, but producing "more food than we know what to do with" in the US has implications elsewhere. When food from here is cheap and plentiful thanks to folks like Monsanto, farmers in other countries go out of business. Another portion of Food Inc. covered undocumented workers... farmers from Mexico who lost their livelihood because of cheap US food, had to cross the border into the US to work for little money on the big farms, and were then rounded up and arrested once US sentiment turned anti-immigrant. Indian farmers have also faced trouble from Monsanto for different reasons.

    I'm not trying to blame world food shortages all on Monsanto, and I appreciate the point about nitrogen levels mentioned in another article you posted (again, I don't know anything about it myself so I'm going off the article). What I'm trying to say is that there are problems with this system worth pointing out. The fact that I'm pointing some out doesn't mean that I'm arguing we should sow like Johnny Appleseed or something. I reject the idea you keep bringing up that raising problems about certain forms and effects of technologies amounts to some quixotic attempt to reject all technologies.

  4. I'm assuming Daniel is still at the beach. I kind of feel like a guest host or something, but we didn't plan it like this... for me to post a few times while he's out, that is.

  5. (1) U.S. (and European and Japanese) trade policy hurts developing world farmers (and poor people in the U.S.). We've known this forever and OxFam (hardly a right-wing outfit), etc. have been making this argument for a long, long time. The Doha round was supposed to alleviate some of that; the current Republican house has made some noise about reforming farm subsidies, etc.; Obama made a bunch of noise about doing so himself (by pushing the Congress in that direction), but he's gone nowhere (in large part because Iowa bodes so large when it comes to the primaries, and also because Congress critters from the states which benefit from these subsidies don't want to give up the benefits to such that are accrued by the voting blocs in those states).

    (2) If U.S. farmers can in a free market make food cheaper than their foreign counterparts there is nothing wrong with that; that's basic comparative advantage. The problem lies with the distortions associated with trade policy, some of our environmental laws (which are clearly designed to screw over foreign farmers), etc.

    (3) Did Food, Inc. discuss any of that? Because if it didn't then it isn't really worth watching.

    (4) The only solution to developing world hunger is (a) technological innovation and (b) market expansion. That's not an original argument of mine; I learned it from Julian Simon.

  6. Well, I do wish Daniel would discuss issues like this more, rather than it being mostly about what somebody said about Keynes today and that sort of thing. So I guess that is a compliment.

    I've got to get back to what I am doing here (looking for a job - my Pacific Crest Trail project went bust due to injury).

  7. Evan, try reading more about the subject rather than relying on a hit piece documentary. I will suggest _Just Food_ byt James E. McWilliams (but only because I had some hand in it ;) ). He's turned vegetarian after what he learned, and was anti-GMO when he started his research. What he found and writes about may be a little surprising.

    I also see your argument is getting very close to the red herring of seed purchase again. Would you write the same thing about Pioneer hybrids? Why or why not? If you would, why now and not 60 years ago?

  8. Didn't we address this in the last thread?

  9. On an unrelated topic...

    On the thread "Two thoughtful posts on ABCT" your spambot has spammed two comment by me and one by mattheus. Could you resurrect them? Thanks.

  10. If you would, why now and not 60 years ago?

    Mostly because my father wasn't a twinkle in my grandfather's eye 60 years ago.

    You seem to exhibit the same tendency as Gary in saying that if something's been done or thought already, heaven forbid we reassess along the same lines later, or have the same thought a second time, or try it out again in a new situation.

  11. Thanks for letting us know, Current... I'll check it out.

  12. Full disclosure: I am a designer baby.


    Evan, I'm a big fan of analogies myself (as is probably only to clear from my general comments)... But here I think you are guilty of something that frustrates me about (certain) libertarian-style arguments. That is, directly comparing things that are completely different in terms of moral seriousness. (David Sobel had a good post on this issue not too long ago.)

    Okay, perhaps that isn't fair. I know you are trying to cut to the nub of how we address these "self-replicating" IP problems. However, I guess my point is that we have no real basis to believe that the restrictions on designer babies (and their descendants) would be similar to cases that concern plants.

    I don't believe that it is morally conscionable to exclude a person's descendants from some genetic enhancement -- provided that it was overcoming a handicap or clear vulnerability. (I'm less unequivocal about enhancement that bequeaths "unnatural" advantages.) At the same time, I see no reason to use that as a basis for deciding the IP rights on plant technology. Indeed, I'm happy to allow food co.'s this right, as long as it doesn't make farmers worse off in the long-run or lead to jeopardised food supply generally... and I currently have insufficient cause to think that it will.

  13. Evan,

    I'm of the radical Whig tradition - I have a good idea what doesn't work toward liberty - public debt, standing armies, mercantilism, etc. You only reassess stuff based on the goal you are interested in; I am interested in the goal that Jefferson was interested in - a nation with a very small national government that has little purchase on the lives of the citizenry.


    "(I'm less unequivocal about enhancement that bequeaths "unnatural" advantages.)"

    That is going to come whether someone likes it or not. Athletes dope and will continue to do so, and if genetic engineering can help them compete better they'll engage in that too. It is a matter of incentives. And of course it is a way to boost what we know is the "ultimate resource" (to use Simon's term) - people.

  14. Gary,

    Oh ya, I think you are almost certainly correct... Although, I can't fully shake some lingering concerns, which I have about that kind of thing.

    On that note, I was watching an interview with Ray Kurzweil last week. His predictions about the coming augmentations to human biology (genetic and technological) leave me feeling strangely depressed and excited at the same time. There's a lot of room to criticise (parts of) his predictions, but I can't really fault his sentiment that human biology is mostly comprised of "outdated software".

  15. Evan,

    You mean Daniel didn't tell us he was going on a longish vacation? Jerk. ;)

  16. Apropos our conversation here:

  17. Another link (interview with the creator of the documentary "Farmageddon"):


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