This is the title of a report that was just launched by the Center for Food Safety, a U.S. NGO that, in their own words, “challenges the use of harmful food production technologies and promotes organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture”. The report gives a great overview of the current state of property rights on seeds, the threats and challenges of U.S. farmers that often face legal battles over which seeds they are allowed to use, and the consequences of the privatization of the seed market. These are some notable stats (while the NGO does clearly have a particular stance on the issue, their end notes seem pretty solid):
- Whereas in the entire 19th and majority of the 20th century, seed developments were mainly limited to farmer-breeders and the public sector, only in 1985 did a landmark legal judgment allow the patenting of sexually reproducible plants (those that reproduce through seeds, aka most major food crops) and help make the seed market profitable for private companies. In the wake of that development, dozens of mergers between agri-chemical firms and smaller seed developers took place – between 1996 and 2009, over 200 independent seed companies were bought out in the U.S.
- Three agri-chemical firms (Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont) now control 53% of the global commercial seed market, and the 10 largest seed firms control 73%. Monsanto alone accounts for 27% of global commercial seed sales.
- Since the introduction of GE seed and the rise of concentrated market power, average cost of soybean seed to plant one acre has risen by 325 percent, cotton seeds spiked 516 percent from 1995-2011 and corn seed costs rose 259 percent over the same period.
- By the end of 2012, Monsanto had filed 142 alleged seed patent infringement lawsuits involving 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in 27 states, and received $23.5 million from such lawsuits. Additionally, many farmers that cannot afford the continued legal expenses reach confidential out-of-court settlements.
- In 2008, actually 26% more pesticides per acre were used on GE crops than on non-GE crops. Also, pesticide-resistant weeds are more common now, with the result that more aggressive pesticides are currently being developed and pushed onto the market.
In addition, the report outlines different settled and ongoing lawsuits that might set legal precedents in the matter, and gives policy recommendations (that basically amount to, restore the public rights to a public good that is vital for survival). I would recommend to read at least the executive summary, as it gives a clear snapshot of where we came from and where we are now in terms of the legality of intellectual property on seeds.
In my opinion, such research is important to highlight the multi-faceted influences that the privatization and commercialization of (GE) seeds has had on agriculture – not only environmental, not only economic, but also social in changing farmers’ ways of life and livelihood, and academic in that much research on new seed varieties is now restricted.
On the other hand, it might be simplistic to paint these multinationals as devils that are out there to destroy small farmers out of pure spite (as capitalist companies, profit-maximization should be their goal, after all), and it is true that their technology has contributed to impressive yield increases – instead, maybe we should ask ourselves whether that trade-off is worthwhile to us, or whether we would prefer a world where crop research and development is publicly financed and publicly distributed instead of being a means of corporate profit-making.
Top image by Foto_Michel, via Flickr CC.