Seeds are magical things.
Each seed contains all the information it needs to grow into an entire plant, providing food and shelter and even producing “offspring” in the form of next season’s seeds.
Over the years, seeds adapt to their environment, the changing weather cycles and soil types, becoming better candidates for success in their little corner of the world.
The crops we grow today are the product of countless years of natural selection and human stewardship across the world.
We recently highlighted the incredible story of Amaranth, the seed that has survived the likes of conquests and the powers of Monsanto over generations.
However, during the last century, private interests, corporate consolidation and some very questionable court rulings have changed how seeds are grown, saved, shared and sold.
In the early 20th century, plants and seeds were considered natural creations. As products of nature, not of man, they could not be patented. Since that time, a lot has changed.
Today, restrictive seed patenting is the norm, and 60% of the world’s seed supply is owned by just four chemical companies.
How did we get from there to here?
WHO OWNS PLANTS?
“It would be ‘unreasonable and impossible’ to allow patents upon the trees of the forest and the plants of the earth.” — U.S. Commissioner of Patents, 1889
It seems that in 1889, lawmakers had some common sense. Ownership of living organisms like plants was viewed differently at the beginning of the last century.
Living organisms were considered products of nature and not eligible for patents.
But much of that has changed over a century later.
Patents are a kind of intellectual property right meant to promote and protect innovation. They provide legal ownership to the inventors of new and useful discoveries for a limited period of time.
Different classes of patents apply to different types of inventions.
The largest category is “utility patents“, which can apply to “…any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof”.
Many of the appliances and gadgets that we use in modern life would have been covered by utility patents when they were invented.
However, the work of plant breeders and seed producers is unique, as it is a combination of the products and processes of nature and human intervention. And this is where things got tricky.
Over time, provisions were made to offer protection to plant breeders.
Plant patents were first introduced in 1930.
However, seed varieties — which reproduce sexually and include many of our common food crops — were not eligible for plant patents just yet.
It wasn’t until the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 (PVPA) that seed breeders also gained some protection for the varieties they produced, but this type of regulation came with a fine line attached.
While it offered protection to seed breeders, the Act acknowledged that continued innovation depends on the plants and seeds being shared. Seed varieties thus, to survive, can’t have complete exclusive rights.
To keep the practice of plant breeding ‘moving forward’, neither plant patents — nor plant variety protections — were able to provide the kind of exclusive power that utility patents do.
For instance, other researchers can build on the earlier work, and farmers could save seeds for planting the next year: a practice that bolsters their autonomy and builds a supply of regionally-adapted seeds.
This seems like a logical step to prevent a monopoly over the trade, but without the same kind of utility patent power behind them, it was only a matter of time before seeds would indeed become monopolised.
Specifically, by genetically modified organisms and the techniques used to create them.
For you see, GMOs are eligible for the much more restrictive utility patents.
And, as such, this classification prohibits farmers from saving or breeding the seed and keeps the genetic material private for the duration of the patent.
As GMOs have taken over by design in the last few decades, and our food supply chains have became monopolised; in turn, so have the very seeds that were initially supposed to be protected.
So, to answer the question: Nobody ‘owns’ seeds entirely, and it’s because of this, that Frankenstein GMO seeds were able to come in and completely form a monopoly over the top.
A telling lesson that must be remembered for future generations.
But, how were GMO seeds able to gain this type of exclusivity in the first place? Well, the legal basis for this decision is all thanks to General Electric, an oil spill and a genetically engineered bacteria.
GMOS CHANGED EVERYTHING
In the 1970s, microbiologist and General Electric employee Dr. Ananda Chakrabarty created a genetically engineered bacteria capable of breaking down crude oil.
Chakrabarty saw a potential use for this bacteria in cleaning up oil spills. His quest to patent his invention set the stage for the privatisation of the seed supply.
The GMO bacteria was initially denied a patent because bacteria is a living organism. Living organisms were considered a “product of nature” by the U.S. Patent Office.
The only patent class that permitted living organisms was plant patents, and the GMO bacteria didn’t fit in there. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided the GMO bacteria qualified as a “new composition of matter” — one of the clauses describing a utility patent — because of the genetic modification.
In other words, the genetically engineered bacteria was a living organism, but because of the modification to its DNA, it was no longer in a ‘state of nature’.
This decision established human-made organisms as patentable, and just as importantly, patentable under the restrictive utility class.
The world has never been the same, and today, GMOs dominate most industrialised nations.
In Australia, we have witnessed the trickle-down effect from these decisions today, with the GM lobby becoming so powerful that they have managed to obtain de-regulation status/are allowed to be planted.
The restrictions of utility patents are why the genetic material is held privately — unavailable for public research — for the duration of the patent, and why farmers cannot save GMO seed.
Protecting GMOs with utility patents also reveals a kind of duplicity in the rhetoric of the chemical companies that create them:
To investors and patent offices, companies emphasise the novelty and innovation of GMOs to secure funding and utility patents.
While, to regulatory boards and the general public, they argue the opposite, marketing GMOs as an extension of traditional breeding techniques.
To one audience, they cry, “It’s totally new!”
To another, “It’s totally natural!”
It’s no wonder chemical companies face a sceptical public.
PRIVATISATION AND MONOPOLY
“The courts and the PTO [Patent and Trademark Office] have given a few large businesses the power to close down most independent research on basic food crops.” — Malla Pollack.
For all the resources deployed to develop GMO crops and the fortunes made from marketing them, there are at this time a limited number of commercially available varieties owned by a handful of corporations.
This small group casts a vast shadow across the agricultural land of North America — 90% of U.S. cropland is dedicated to just 3 commodity GMO crops (corn, cotton and soy).
From there, GMO crops are processed and find their way into an estimated 80% of the conventional processed foods. This produces a very unbalanced kind of control of food and resources:
This monopolisation means that our food systems are based on a limited number of crops. The more reliant we are on that limited number of crops, the more our fates are tied to theirs.
As the effectiveness of herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant crops fail, it’s well past time to diversify our food system portfolio. Monopolies do not foster innovation.
But, some chemical corporations show no signs of loosening their grip.
Some of the most powerful corporations in the world routinely harass farmers, seed savers and breeders around the globe as they try to operate outside the monopolized and privatized seed supply.
Harassment can come in the form of legal action, as has been extensively reported by the Center for Food Safety. There are also cases of casual intimidation, such as when a major corporation mailed baseless patent infringement notices to small seed companies across the U.S.
Or, in another instance, when good faith efforts by small farmers to resolve GMO contamination risks were rebuffed by corporate lawyers.
How could we ever forget the story of Steve Marsh, an organic farmer from Western Australia, who faced the Supreme Court in an attempt to stop Monsanto’s GM crops from taking over his crop.
In the end, Marsh lost his case, setting a landmark precedent for all farmers across Australia.
As a result, we have seen most farmers adopt new corporate techniques, both for cost-saving to even out bad deals they receive, but also due to the lack of protections when running an organic operation.
Today, new-generation gene-editing techniques have allowed for GMOs to be taken to a truly synthetic level, in preparation for the fake food ‘sustainable revolution’ that is in its infancy.
But all hope is not lost just yet.
As individuals, we still do have the power to choose nature over the synthetic, and it is up to each and every one of us to reclaim our sovereignty over these monopolised corporate chains.
WHAT WE CAN DO
Promoting seed sovereignty and biodiversity are essential to creating a truly resilient and healthy food system that works for everybody.
There are many organisations — including the Non-GMO Project — working to restore farmers’ rights.
An obvious first step is to avoid GMOs by looking for organic labels and researching products — after all, we can choose how our food is made, and who we support with our money.
Here are some additional resources:
The best way to fall in love with seeds is to watch them do their thing, and soon again will be the perfect time of year for planting. In 2023, no matter how small it is, everyone should have a veggie garden.
Without the seed, there is no humanity.
And those in control of our food chains are bent on ensuring they maintain complete monopolisation, while also ensuring even less competition can emerge with new synthetic methods.
The most important thing we can do as a species is reclaiming the seed for the people.
To pass down for future generations to come.
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