Seed Patents: Controlling the World’s Food Supply

A handful of seeds

The debates over industrial agriculture and genetically modified food often focus on the impact of GM foods on human and environmental health, the welfare of animals in concentrated animal feeding operations, and the environmental consequences of large-scale agriculture and meat production. However, what is perhaps the most important development in modern agriculture is often overlooked.

Whereas farmers once developed seeds through local seed-sharing systems, re-used seed from the previous year’s crop, and owned only the seeds that they possessed at a given time, seed development is now controlled predominantly by biotechnology companies like Monsanto that claim exclusive ownership over many seed varieties and ban the sharing and re-using of those seeds.

What caused this fundamental change? By far the most significant causal factor is the application of intellectual property (IP) rights to seeds.

Add to this the extensive corporate concentration in the seed industry over the last 40 years (see PDF here), and what we have is a seed market where just 3 firms account for 47% of all sales and 5 firms own 54% of all patented seeds.

Background

The legal basis for applying IP laws to seeds is found in two significant rulings from the 1980s. The first was the 1980 Diamond v. Chakrabarty United States Supreme Court ruling that genetically engineered micro-organisms can be patented as the intellectual property of their creator. The second is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s 1985 decision that sexually reproducing plants (plants reproducing and cross-breeding through traditional means) can be patented under the Patent Act.

The result of these two cases was that companies could now file patents for plants they “created” through either genetic modification (the inserting of a genetically engineered micro-organism into a plant’s DNA) or cross-breeding. This meant that seeds that had been in constant development for thousands of years could now be patented by anyone who made any changes to the seed.

In order to qualify for a patent, a product is supposed to meet certain requirements. In the United States, a product must be “new, useful and non-obvious” whereas in Europe it must be novel, have an industrial application, and involve an inventive step. However, many critics of seed patenting claim that these standards have been eroded and patents are given for the slightest alteration in a seed’s DNA, even if those changes do not meaningfully change the seed; the modifications made to the seed by the company filing the patent often represent less than 1% of that seed’s DNA.

Effect on Seed Development

Patenting seeds allows biotech corporations to do 2 very important things, both of which are completely at odds with the history of farming and seed development. First, it allows these companies to prohibit farmers who purchase patented seed from saving and re-using it from year to year. Second, it bans anyone from using the seeds in their own research, including cross-breeding the seed with other plants to develop new varieties.

While biotechnology companies claim that they need such restrictive measures to protect their investment in research and development, the fact of the matter is that every seed used in farming has been developed by successive generations of multiple families over hundreds or thousands of years. Why should a company that makes minor alterations to a seed’s DNA be given a patent, but the people responsible for the vast majority of that seed’s development are not?

Farmers have always saved, traded, and cross-bred seeds from their best crops to continually improve their stock. This process was crucial to the development of seeds with higher yields, better resistance to environmental hazards, and that were acclimated to local growing conditions. Another benefit of this type of development was that it created many varieties of seed for a given crop.

In contrast, seed companies develop 1 type of seed for a given crop and sell only that type to maximize their return on investment for that particular seed.

Furthermore, granting a patent to a biotech firm forces farmers to pay for the privilege of using the seeds every year, adding a new cost to farming.

Because most farmers now purchase seed from one of the large biotech companies and no longer develop their own, much of our seed diversity has been lost and the world’s most important staple crops are now grown predominantly from one seed variety, such as Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready corn.

Seeds are living organisms that have been sustained by being in continual use. With most farmers now growing only a few varieties of only the most popular crops, many seed varieties have simply gone extinct. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has estimated that as much as 75% of our plant genetic diversity has been lost since 1900. Furthermore, over 70% of U.S. acreage dedicated to growing corn – one of the world’s most important staple crops – grows just 6 varieties of corn, compared to over 300 in the early 1900s.

The consequences of this for global food security are alarming; if a pest or environmental hazard that threatened the growth of these seeds was to develop, we could face widespread crop failure and a global food shortage. Whereas seed diversity once protected against such catastrophes, as different seed strains have different vulnerabilities, the homogeneity that has resulted from the patenting of seeds has left the world vulnerable.

Undermining Farmers’ Ability to Choose

In addition to threatening global food security, the erosion of seed-sharing systems also hinders farmers from switching crops if they decide that one crop is not growing well or not profitable enough. Because of the proliferation of the dominant seed varieties, it is hard for farmers to find alternative seeds.

In India, where Monsanto’s Bt Cotton is a major cash crop, farmers wishing to switch back to food crops or to other cash crops often cannot find the seeds needed to do so. Because these seeds were sustained by farmers saving, trading, and developing them over thousands of years, being out of production for consecutive growing seasons caused the seeds to dry up and die.

Increased Cost

Another consequence of the consolidation of control over the global seed market is the increased cost of seeds. Due to both the higher production and retail cost of GM seeds and the inevitable increase in prices that accompanies corporate concentration, seed prices rose 146% on average from 1999-2010.

Additionally, although proponents of GM seeds argue that they reduce pesticide use and overall cost of production, those claims simply aren’t true. Any reduction in pesticide and herbicide use is temporary, with significant increases over the long term. Furthermore, although GM crops can have slightly higher yields, they are far less efficient in terms of input:output when compared to non-GM crops due to the cost of GM seed and greater use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.

Lastly, the claim that GM crops are necessary to feed a growing world is not only based on an incorrect assumption – that global hunger is the result of a lack of food – but also patently false.

Hunger is the result of a lack of access to food, not the availability of food; we already produce enough food to feed every person in the world, the problem is that not everyone can afford to buy it. Because GM technology promotes market concentration and GM crops are less efficient in terms of input:output and consequently cost more to produce, GM crops are actually more likely to exacerbate global hunger than to reduce it, as they increase the cost of food and therefore further restrict access.

Conclusion

The control wielded by seed patent holders has undermined farmers’ autonomy to decide what crops to grow, reduced seed diversity and consequently left the world vulnerable to widespread crop failure, and increased the cost of food for everyone. Furthermore, they have allowed private companies to gain excessive control over the global food supply, as a handful of biotech companies own and control more and more of the world’s staple crops’ seeds.