Large agriculture companies like Monsanto and Syngenta have been courting controversy for years. While widely criticized for their production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their encouragement of pesticide use, these corporations are also responsible for a more insidious, less widely recognized agricultural threat: the seed patent.
In order to protect their business interests, most major seed companies have taken to patenting as many types of plants as they possibly can. Filing a patent on a particular variety of plant means that the seeds of that plant—also known as germplasm—become private intellectual property, and no one else can breed or sell those seeds.
Traditional plant breeding (i.e. not genetic engineering) is a low-tech affair. Farmers or agricultural scientists mate two of a given crop—tomatoes or corn, for instance—pick out the offspring with the most desirable characteristics—such as extreme sweetness or unique coloring—and repeat the process until they have a line of plants that consistently have those desired qualities. This process is most effective when breeders can work with a diverse gene pool; the more variety in your parent plants, the greater the opportunity to create brand new germplasm. As such, plant breeding has traditionally been a collaborative process, with breeders readily sharing their seeds with each other in order to maximize this genetic diversity.
Unfortunately, seed companies have no interest in the collaborative spirit of agriculture. What they do have is an insatiable need to maximize profits, which can be accomplished by patenting—and thus monopolizing—as many types of germplasm as possible. This is great for Big Agriculture but problematic for anyone seeking to breed new plants. Patented seeds are prohibited from being replanted by the farmers who purchase them, which means they cannot be crossbred to create new varieties. Even worse, some patents are filed based solely on a single characteristic, such as color or leaf shape. This means that if a breeder independently develops germplasm with that same characteristic, they are technically guilty of patent infringement. As a result, the free exchange of germplasm, which is crucial to the development of new types of plants, is becoming more and more restricted.
This may seem like a niche issue, whose consequences only affect a select few farmers and scientists. The truth, however, is that the future of plant breeding is relevant to anyone who eats food. Diversity and resilience of crops—both of which are threatened by decreased collaborative plant breeding—are increasingly crucial in light of our changing climate and growing population. With these two factors, it is becoming steadily more difficult to grow adequate amounts of food. Additionally, the rise of seed patents gives a few major corporations a disproportionate level of influence over the entire field of agriculture. As seed companies continue to file patents at an alarming rate, they gain more control over the seed market and more control over what types of crops will be developed next. Considering that these companies have proven time and time again that they value their own financial gain over sustainability and the health of consumers, this is cause for concern.
Though the future of plant breeding looks grim, there are plenty of individuals and organizations fighting back. One such organization is the Open Source Seed Initiative, or OSSI, which was created in 2012 by a group of plant breeders and sustainability advocates to help preserve the collaborative nature of plant breeding. Inspired by open source software, which makes its source code freely available for anyone to use and adapt, OSSI sells seeds that can be used freely by breeders. All OSSI seeds come with a pledge.
“You have the freedom to use these OSSI-Pledged seeds in any way you choose,” the pledge reads. “In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this Pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.”
These seeds cannot be patented, and new varieties of germplasm that come from the crossbreeding of OSSI seeds cannot be patented either.
The Open Source Seed Initiative is far from a complete solution. While most farmers, breeders, and scientists that purchase OSSI seeds support the organization’s mission, their pledge is not actually binding, and they would have few legal options were someone to violate it. Furthermore, OSSI seeds are only a small fraction of a market that remains overwhelmingly dominated by larger corporations. Yet, considering all the factors working against them, OSSI has achieved something remarkable. The organization started with 36 types of seeds, and if you visit their website today, you’ll find nearly 400. These seeds are sold and planted all over the world, and sometimes even in space. OSSI might not be the future of plant breeding just yet, but it is a start to correcting the corrupted agricultural industry.
Tara Joy is a member of the class of 2020. Tara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.