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Patented seeds are not exclusively GMO — They are in the fields of organic farmers, too

It’s not supposed to be like this. Activists who support organic food and deride anything genetically modified point to patenting as one reason why GMOs are “bad.” Patents, they say, are a symptom of “Big Ag” taking over our food supply, preventing farmers from planting the seeds they want. They fly in the face of biodiversity that, according to them, only organic agriculture can provide.

Global Research, an anti-GMO website, makes the familiar case:

Why have we bought into the biotech industry’s program, which pushes a few monoculture commodity crops, when history and science have proven that seed biodiversity is essential for growing crops capable of surviving severe climate conditions, such as drought and floods? As physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva explains, we have turned seed, which is the heart of a traditional diversity-rich farming system across the world, into a powerful commodity, used to monopolize the food system.

Are there organic seeds?

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that Global Research’s central source, Vandana Shiva is not a physicist, although she claims to be; she has a Ph.D. in philosophy and has no practicing or research background in hard science, let alone genetics or agronomy. Let’s examine her claim that patented seeds allow large corporations to impose genetically modified crops on the world and control the global food system.

Under programs like the USDA’s National Organic Program, the regulatory focus is on how organics are grown, and not how they are bred. Seeds may be patented but the process of how they are grown is not. So, the same seed, patented or not, can yield either organic or conventional food depending upon the growing system. Many organic growers use patented seeds. Organic farmers typically start with the same conventionally bred seeds that every other farmer uses, and raise plants from them using organic methods.

As Jim Myers, professor of vegetable breeding and genetics of Oregon State University wrote, “In all but a few cases, all contemporary varieties developed by private breeders are protected, and most public varieties are protected as well.”

But several groups are now advocating a concept known as “organic breeding.” Some growers have applied for and received patents for organic plants, if not seeds. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records every patent ever applied for, granted, and expired. But a search for organic seeds comes up dry. However, companies and some individuals have patented other organic items:

  • Vermont Organics has patented five chrysanthemum plants, as well as an “apparatus and method for manure reclamation.” While only the last application specifically refers to organic methods, the patents contradict the idea promoted by activists that patenting and organics just can’t—and shouldn’t — mix.
  • Kalidas Shetty and Iceland Bioenhancers have applied for a patent for organic fertilizer, based on seaweed extract and fish hydrolysate.
  • Several Chinese companies have applied for patents, for organic fertilizer.
  • Rogelio Smith was listed as the inventor of an organic vegan  protein shake, “formulated from 100 percent organic and natural plant-based ingredients with the highest grade of protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.”
Related article:  India should give its farmers access to more GMO crops, scientist argues

The entire point of patenting is somewhat in contradiction to the ideals espoused by anti-GMO activists. In all of these cases, anyone wanting to use these fertilizers, fungicides, and other products would need specific permission from the patent holder (and this permission would almost certainly involve a fee).

Special organic seed

If patenting isn’t quite catching on with organic inventors, activists and farmers, other ways or creating a unique “organic” seed are. Seeds of Change, a California organic seed and plant grower, specifies that it grows its seeds organically (as opposed to having patented organic seeds), does not use genetic engineering, and uses heirloom and traditional varieties of seeds and plants “because of their time-tested value to generations of gardeners and farmers.”

organicAnd in Mother Earth News, writer Margaret Roach extolled the value of “high-quality” seeds, which she equated with “organic, regionally adapted varieties.”

While some open pollinated, or heirloom varieties, can be quite successful, other heirlooms can be a disaster. Old varieties can also preserve inbreeding with the phenotypic feebleness that often accompanies it. It’s just as hard, also, to determine what an heirloom actually is, just as it’s difficult to determine the exact nature of an organic seed.

“The term is one of art than of law, and it is certainly not a term that has any agreed meaning or relevance in patent law,” said Val Giddings, senior fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. He also recalled descriptions of heirlooms applied to a tomato variety that was only 20-30 years old.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

For more background on the Genetic Literacy Project, read GLP on Wikipedia

26 thoughts on “Patented seeds are not exclusively GMO — They are in the fields of organic farmers, too”

  1. They should write an article about the numerous patented plant varieties (and eventually NON-plant varieties like bacteria, fungi, eukaryotic cell lines) that are NOT genetically engineered. And list such varieties that are frequently used in organic farms (not gardens). I’d like to learn more about the seeds used in organic agriculture.

  2. Patents have been an excellent fuel to encourage innovation in all types of businesses.
    Companies would not be willing to invest millions of dollars in research and development if they could not protect their inventions with a patent.

    • Not a farmer? Then get out and talk to one. Trust me it will give you lots of interesting information to mull over.

      /not saying that to be snarky btw … I have several farmer friends and have learned a great deal from them about modern agriculture and farming.

  3. This article raises some interesting issues but it has some problems as well. For instance, it spends a good deal of its time elaborately creating a strawman–the question of whether there exists such a thing as an “organic seed”. Who cares? Nobody who is against GM crops talks about “organic seeds” that I’ve ever seen; the article is just making up a nonsensical distinction. The question is whether it’s been genetically modified or not. Organic farming is nowadays generally agreed to have as one condition the plants not being GM, but it’s not the most important point–when the organic farming movement began there were no GM crops to exclude! Rather, the original basis of organic farming was resistance to the use of pesticides, herbicides, and to some extent chemical fertilizers. These are considered by many to be bad for health, the environment and the soil–and indeed I’d say the evidence for all these problems is pretty strong.

    Again, the general ethos surrounding both the anti-GM-crop movement in general and the organic farming movement in specific is fairly anti-patent, but the whole thing isn’t run by a central committee. One would expect, then, a relative scarcity but not a complete absence of organic-farming-related operations doing patents, especially now that Very Big Businesses Indeed are getting involved in the organic produce business. I would say that although the article tries to give the opposite impression with its little list, actually the article pretty much confirms that–the list has no seeds on it, is pretty dashed wimpy considering how much organic farming is going on, and the article even concedes that in the next section, with its little throwaway, “If patenting isn’t quite catching on with organic inventors, activists and farmers”.

    But again, it’s a pointless line of argument in the first place. If successful, it would establish that many organic businesses are hypocritical, claiming to be against GM crops because of seed patents but then grasping for advantage by patenting seeds (and equivalent) themselves. But surely establishing that businesses are hypocritical wouldn’t establish anything about the social desirability of patented plants.

    It is certainly an oversimplification to claim that non-GMO plants cannot be and have not been patented. The extent of plant patenting in the US was actually news to me. But I notice that earlier US laws specifically about patenting plants included certain key exemptions; it was possible to retain seeds of a patented variety for replanting or even for sales between farmers, and it was also possible to research variants on a patented variety–so if one came up with a new variety based on a patented variety, it did not fall under the old patent but could be patented by the researcher. Those older plant patents, in short, specifically accommodated the issues people like Vandana Shiva complain about. But I don’t believe those exceptions are generally current any more. Certainly one major complaint about GM plants has been that their license agreements prohibit or seriously limit research done on them, and specifically publication of findings that the patentholders don’t like. And if you’re patenting a genetic sequence rather than a variety, breeding the variety to make something different still leaves the genetic sequence in it, so you’re hooped.

    Rather than say that GMO crops cause problems because they have been patented, the anti-GMO movement would be more accurate to say that it seems there has been a co-evolution of intellectual property laws and moves to genetically modify plants, so that GM crops have been able to take advantage of broader laws with more draconian provisions, and have generally been able to use the main patent laws rather than specific laws covering plant varieties, thus avoiding certain limits and taking advantage of all the usual patent tricks for extension and broadening that have been causing problems in the domains of, for instance, software and pharmaceuticals. So no single, simple to describe clean break between no patents/all patents, no. But certainly a series of qualitiative changes pointing in similar directions, in the legal regime as much as the crops themselves, have created a big shift in how farmers, particularly internationally, deal with crops and seeds, and in how much power lies with big multinational corporations as opposed to small producers. It is not surprising that a more simplified story is often told by anti-GMO people–after all, pro-GMO forces often seem to tell pretty simplified stories.

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