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Whose seed is it anyway?

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

Widespread marketing over the past decade of genetically modified and indigenous seeds have spawned the debate over seed ownership.

One such debate ended in the Supreme Court, which ruled that patents on seeds are legal.

In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed the Plant Variety Protection Act, which granted rights to the developers of new seed varieties. However, this umbrella act allowed farmers to save seed for their own use. It also allowed seeds to be used in research for the creation of new varieties.

In the 1980s, companies, such as Pioneer Seed, began to patent seeds. This is when the controversy started.

At first blush, it seems reasonable that those who invest to develop new seeds should have the right to profit from the sale of the new technology through ownership of a patent. But the debate is not that simple.

Several farmers are currently facing litigation for saving seeds from the offspring of Round Up Ready soybeans they purchased from Monsanto and planted on their own property. The seed is expensive, and the farmers say they have the right to do as they wish once the original seed is purchased.

Another group of northeastern Colorado producers is being sued because they planted yellow beans imported from Mexico. American Larry Proctor of Delta, Colo, patented the yellow beans several years ago. He contends that either the U.S. producers who planted the beans or the Mexican exporter of the beans owes him a royalty. The Mexican exporters are highly offended with Proctor’s claims, saying they are the originators of the yellow bean and that many generations of Mexicans have cultivated and developed the yellow bean variety.

Dave Dechant, an alfalfa, wheat, corn and barley producer from Ft. Lupton, Colo., believes farmers should have the right to plant and save the seed from any stock they purchase. He would like to see congressional action that would amend patent law in order to restore this right originally granted by the Plant Variety Protection Act.

“U.S. farmers are at a financial disadvantage not being able to save seed,” Dechant said. “When big seed companies sell to producers in foreign countries, the countries’ own laws may disallow the prohibition against seed saving. Even if it is allowed, it’s not likely the seed companies will take legal action on producers from other countries as aggressively as they would against U.S. producers.”

Dechant, who joined Rocky Mountain Farmers Union just two years ago, did so because of its strong support of farmers’ rights in regard to seed saving. He was offended to learn that Farm Bureau supports seed patents. He is even more offended that Farm Bureau accepts contributions from seed companies that prosecute seed saving farmers.

“The authors of Farmers Union policy had tremendous insight, as they had addressed not only the farmer’s right to save seeds, but his or her right to own patented animal genetics,” Dechant said.

Another aspect of the seed issue is the objection by many to the use of public monies for development of new seed varieties, which, ultimately, could end up as patents of private companies. Purdue University’s recent development of nematode resistant soybeans incorporated public funding and producer checkoff dollars. Private company Access Plant Technology, Inc., now has an exclusive license to the soybean seed patent.

“It’s possible farmers will be prohibited from saving seed for which they and the public helped pay,” Dechant said. “Purdue sees granting the exclusive license as ‘technology transfer,’ but is not technology transfer the job of the land grant university’s extension service?”

“The rights granted by patents are broad and give patent owners market rights, which mean future seed contracts could obligate the grower to market his product through specific channels,” Dechant said. “Such agreements would have serious, long-term negative consequences for America’s independent family farmers and ranchers. We need to aggressively address these issues in our policy.”

Most all of the new seeds being developed, whether genetically modified or convention, are being patented. If producers do not address this problem, the time is drawing near when the only seeds available will be patented seeds. If left unchecked, the trend also will likely move into the livestock sector.