Who Owns the Seed? Who Controls Food?

By Randel Agrella

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Seeds have been saved and traded for thousands of years. For virtually the entire time, all innovation crop improvement was de facto within the public domain, the property of the commons--everybody. The seeds themselves belonged to whoever had them, but the genes they contained belonged to everyone--no one could "own" them.  It could not be otherwise--seeds by their nature reproduce themselves.  Once a new variety was released, anyone could work with it, increase it, share it, sell it--or improve upon it.

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When seed companies developed, they asserted an interest in maintaining control over the products of their efforts.  They were in business to make a profit, after all, and wanted to protect their investment in developing new varieties.  They began advocating for legal changes that would secure their profits.  Breeding superior crop plants became competitive rather than cooperative.

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A case in point is the ASTA, the American Seed Trade Association, founded in 1883 to further the interests of the recently-emerged seed industry.  (Today, with current membership of over 700 companies, ASTA is passionately committed to the paradigm of seed as intellectual property, and is firmly wedded to promoting biotechnology.)

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From the beginning, industry leaders advocated "patent-like" protection for plants, but they encountered societal resistance to patenting a product of nature.  This view was taken by the U.S. Patent Office itself in 1889, in its denial of an application to patent fiber found in pine needles. If that were allowed, the commissioner argues, "patents might be obtained upon the trees of the forest and the plants of the earth., whihc of course would be unreasonable and impossible." And he was absolutely right.

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The development of hybrids early in the last century changed the game.  The parentage of a hybrid line could be kept secret, and saving hybrid seed does not yield offspring like the parent.  If you wanted to grow a particular hybrid, you had to go back, year after year, to the company that created it.

Then, over decades, various legislation by degrees created a new paradigm:  that of traits carried within seeds as intellectual property, subject to patent protections.  And among the consequences, is the fact that breeders are NOT free to work with patented lines (except by permission from the patent-holder). 

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Improving upon a previous improvement has always been the resource that led to innovation of new plant varieties.  But patenting discourages that. Instead, only the owner of a patent, or its licensees, is allowed to do further breeding work with a patented variety. This leads to a reduction in innovation.  Yet the public's interest, and the reason for patent laws in the first place, is to further innovation.  That includes farmers as a whole, whose traditions of seed saving and improving varieties actually developed our food crops in the first place!

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Consolidation within the seed industry only adds to the problem.  Today, just five seed companies control some 62 percent of the global seed market.  They set the prices farmers will have to pay for the seed that is grown to feed us, they decide which lines to develop, and they decide which varieties to offer and under what terms, for their own reasons.  If a firm chooses to sell a particular variety that happens not to work out well, people may suffer, but so long as a profit was made, the variety may be considered a succcess--by the company.  It's the bottom line that matters.  The market is expected to weed out the poor performers (whether we're talking seed lines or seed companies), but will it, under the monopoly that is steadily emerging?

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But our seeds are far more than the genes they express-- they represent our heritage of culture and tradition--an investment of time and effort within the commons, beginning with whatever nature provided as a starting point. And they represent food.

It really is about control, pure and simple. Whoever controls the seed controls the food supply.  So the question is, does that control rightfully belong within the commons, or in the hands of a few mega corporations?

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The antidote is decentralization of seed production and the food supply itself. That's another way of saying that folks should eat locally-produced food, and that more people should save seed.  While lawyers, legislators and advocacy groups duke it out on the national and global level, we can take action at the local and individual level.

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That's what we are doing within the pure food movement--fighting for local, rather than global control over our food, our traditions, our lives.

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