Last month, the Public Patent Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of 60 family farmers, seed businesses, and organic agriculture organizations against Monsanto. The case, Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, challenges some of the company’s patents on genetically engineered seed.
OSA is not a plaintiff in this case, but we do advocate for changes to the current intellectual property regime. For example, utility patents on plant genetics facilitate concentration in the seed industry and remove the free exchange of genetic resources. These trends hinder innovation and bolster market power for the handful of chemical and biotechnology firms in control, including Monsanto.
The implications of patents and the concentration of market power they foster include:
Diminished control over purchased seed Farmers who grow Monsanto’s patented seed are bound by arguably the most egregious contract in agriculture. This includes the removal of their right to save seed.
Increased liability risks Farmers who unknowingly acquire patented plant genetics in their fields could be (and have been) targeted with wrongful patent infringement allegations.
Less access to breeding material Breeders are restricted or prohibited from using patented varieties, traits, or tools unless onerous licensing agreements are signed and expensive royalties paid. This has reduced choice in the marketplace, including the organic seed sector.
As for organic farmers, it’s clear they rely on a private seed industry highly concentrated by firms with non-organic interests. And the public sector, historically the most important source for regionally adapted seed, lacks the ability to provide for the organic market in the face of dwindling funds for traditional plant breeding and the concomitant increase in private dollars funding industry research.
Organic farmers already find it difficult to access certified organic seed for numerous varieties. And they have found that varieties they once relied on have been abandoned as the industry consolidates. For those varieties available, many farmers are challenged by a lack of sufficient quantity and lack of desirable genetic traits.
Others steps that should be taken to confront the problem of patents include:
• The Departments of Justice and Agriculture should continue their examination of competition problems in the seed industry, including anticompetitive conduct and the consequences of concentration. Their investigation must include the impacts of concentrated market power on the organic industry.
• Congress should establish the Plant Variety Protection Act as the sole protection for developers of sexually reproducing plants. By clarifying intellectual property rights governing plants, farmers could regain the right to save seed and the right to choice, as breeders would have better access to plant genetics that are currently off limits to innovation due to patents.
• The Bayh-Dole Act (Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act) as applied to agricultural innovations should be re-evaluated and reformed to prohibit seed patenting and exclusive licenses relating to technologies and other products developed through publicly funded research.
• USDA should commit to rebuilding public plant breeding and public cultivar development programs to ensure that the needs of farmers and the general public are met and that research is conducted in an open and honest way. The public sector has increasing interest in breeding for organics, but without investments outside the few federal and state funds, it will continue to not be a major player in organic cultivar development.