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.”
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.”
And 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