By the time genetically engineered seeds came along, the practice of buying new seeds every year had been common place for more than half a century. There were and are a few reasons for this:
Firstly, by the 1930s, commercial hybrid crop varieties began to proliferate. When one replants second generation seeds from hybrids, one gets a mixture of inferior varieties, so it was in farmers’ best interest to buy new seeds each year. This was especially true for corn farmers, who had by and large been relying almost exclusively on hybrids for roughly a half a century before GE technology came along.
Secondly, buying seeds each year grants farmers certain quality assurances which would let them be confident that either their seeds would be of high quality, or that they’d at least have some recourse of action in the event that the seeds didn’t perform as advertised.
Thirdly, the plant patent act of 1930 meant that plant breeders could procure intellectual property rights on certain varieties of seeds. If everyone just bought the seed once and then made as many copies as they ever wanted, the patents would become meaningless, and there’d be less incentive for innovation in plant breeding. In principle, this is not all that different from software licensing agreements and other forms of intellectual and/or artistic copyrights in which unchallenged piracy would ostensibly permit unlimited copies to be made for free, in which case the concept of intellectual property rights would be rendered meaningless.
Yet, there is one myth that often gets used as a criticism against genetic engineered crops. This myth usually takes the form of “I’m not anti-GMO, but farmers always used to save seeds, and the GMO companies have made it so that nobody can do that, and thus everyone is forced to buy new seeds every season.”
By framing this as though it were an indictment of GM seeds, this myth implies a false premise; namely, it presupposes that buying seeds every year was something that wasn’t already normal prior to GMOs, and that it’s something unique to GMOs.
Moreover, farmers who don’t like signing contracts or who dislike a particular seed company’s contracts have other options. The reason why GE seeds are popular is because, once all the cost benefit analysis is done (taking seed prices into account of course), many farmers deem the advantages of the GE seeds to vastly outweigh whatever minimal benefit they might gain by avoiding annual seed contracts.
I’ve sometimes even heard people claim that the patents somehow allow Monsanto to “force people to use their seeds.” I’m singling out Monsanto here simply because they are invariably the one company accused of this when I hear people make this claim. However, this is of course complete nonsense. That has never happened. A seed company can’t force anyone to use anything. Farmers choose to use thee seeds they do on the basis of a variety criteria, not least of which is the question of whether they permit them higher outputs for fewer inputs. Moreover, contrary to what such myths imply, most farmer’s don’t find these stewardship agreements particularly onerous:
The popularity of these myths is yet another example of why it’s important to maintain some healthy skepticism with respect to popular public discourse on controversial subject matters. These myths spread because too many people are accepting claims from laypeople (and/or from people with an ax to grind) at face value instead of fact-checking and asking professional farmers questions about it.
Here are some you might consider asking if you’re unsure of the veracity of a particular popular notion about farming.
If you want to bounce some ideas off people in a great discussion group, try Food and Farm Discussion Lab.
I am pretty sure I’ve forgotten some people, but I will amend this later as they come to me. Remember to check out my facebook page too. – Credible Hulk
Jenna E Gallegos · July 9, 2015 at 3:10 pm
Great post! Check out this explanation of why farmers don’t often save seeds by scientists at UCDavis: https://youtu.be/zI_lwy8KfHI
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Observer · June 22, 2016 at 3:12 am
The patents are sure troubling to neighboring farmers when pollen wafts over their fields, and the seed company gets to sue them for “stealing” their IP (because their plants fertilized in the generous breeze) was wafted to the other plants. Some shady thinking is going on there.
Credible Hulk · July 30, 2016 at 9:32 am
Well it’s a good thing that doesn’t actually happen. Although it’s a persistent myth that biotech companies such as Monsanto sue farmers for accidental cross-contamination, it has never happened, and probably never will.They do occasionally sue people for deliberate copyright infringement, in which case they then donate the money to youth leadership initiatives and scholarship programs. They have to defend their patents or else they become meaningless and they lose them.
In 2012, a coalition of organic farmers known as the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), with the help of the Public Patent Foundation (PPF) attempted to sue Monsanto over the issue of cross pollination. They were asked to provide evidence that anyone had ever been sued by Monsanto for accidental trace cross-contamination, and lo and behold, they lost the case because they couldn’t produce a single case of it ever happening. SCOTUS declined to hear the case because OSGATA had no evidence that it ever had or ever would happen. You can peruse the court documents here.
“Indeed, plaintiffs’ letter to defendants seems to have been nothing more than an attempt to create a controversy where none exists. This effort to convert a statement that defendants have no intention of bringing suit into grounds for maintaining a case, if accepted, would disincentivize patentees from ever attempting to provide comfort to those whom they do not intend to sue, behavior which should be countenanced and encouraged. In contrast, plaintiffs’ argument is baseless and their tactics not to be tolerated. “
The PPF and OSGATA case was particularly ridiculous in my opinion because it was a preemptive lawsuit for something that Monsanto has never done, and claims they never will do. Yet, the plaintiff wanted to push them into a stronger relinquishment of their rights to protect their patents, such that pretty much anyone could get away with stealing their products.
They were ostensibly trying to preemptively sue Monsanto for something they had never done on the grounds that they “might” do so in the future (even though Monsanto has explicitly declared that it will never do that). OSGATA intentionally tried to make up a controversy, but the courts weren’t buying it.
“The Public Patent Foundation had written a letter to Monsanto basically asking for a blanket immunity for all the plaintiffs against ever being sued for patent infringement, even if they did intentionally engage in infringing activity. Monsanto responded with a statement of its policy, which it had previously published in other venues:
‘It has never been, nor will it be[,] Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seeds or traits are present in [a] farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.’
Amazingly, the Public Patent Foundation characterized Monsanto’s statement as an implicit threat, and as such the basis for declaratory judgment action.
The court totally rejected this flawed logic, declaring it “objectively unreasonable for plaintiffs to read [the language of Monsanto statement] as a threat.”
Nicola Cataldo · September 18, 2016 at 5:08 pm
Good explanation, thank you! Although as a retired horticulturist, I’m stunned that this basic genetics isn’t obvious to everyone.
The idea that a farmer would stake his entire year’s crop on open-pollinated seeds makes as much sense as a professional dog-breeder allowing his bitch to mate with any random mutt that comes down the street.
The first seed company to patent and receive royalties was founded in 1784. They sold a genetically engineered (hand-pollinated) zinnia in 1798, a genetically modified potato in 1811 and a man-made tomato hybrid (again, GMO) in 1820.
By 1930 all the seed companies were able to and did patent their GM seeds.
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