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.
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