(Roughly) Daily

“And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed”*…

The first patent on an animal was granted in the U.S. in 1988. But the first agricultural patents date back to 1930 and the Plant Patent Act (PPA). Since then, patent protection on seeds has been both broadened and lengthened; in the 1980’s, protection was extended beyond “utility” (a plant that uniquely did one thing or another) to the living thing itself. And the seed industry has consolidated…

For years Haribhai Devjibhai Patel has been growing cotton, peanuts and potatoes in the western Indian state of Gujarat. For years he and his family have used seedlings from one harvest to plant the next year’s crops on his four acre field.

Last year he planted a new potato variety known as FC5. It was a decision that ultimately landed him in court, because the US company PepsiCo had already claimed the rights to that very same potato variety. Patel claims he wasn’t aware of the potato’s name, much less PepsiCo’s claim…

According to the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Anand Yadnik, the lawsuit alleges that the FC5 potato is especially bred for PepsiCo’s subsidiary company Lays and their internationally distributed product: potato chips. PepsiCo was seeking 10 million Rupies or $140.000 (€ 126.000).

“I was completely devastated. I was afraid. Not in my lifetime would I ever have been able to pay the kind of damages that were being claimed by PepsiCo,” Patel said. The 46-year-old farmer has two children and earns around $3,500 per year.

The lawsuit was based on findings that PepsiCo gathered from Patel’s field. According to his lawyer, the company hired a private detective agency to provide the data. “They took secret video footage and collected samples from farmers fields’ sans disclosing their real intent”…

The case is another example of  an ongoing global trend of companies claiming property rights for plants or genetic material of plants  across the globe. 

“Resources that used to be available to mankind as a community have now been confined to privatization,” Judith Düesberg from NGO Gene Ethical Network… The number of patents on plants worldwide has increased a hundredfold from just under 120 in 1990 to 12,000 today – 3500 of them are registered in Europe,according to the European initiative No-Patents-On-Seeds

Critics argue that patents block access to genetic material for farmers and minimize biodiversity, the diversity of species and increase farmers’ dependency on seed producers.

But Bayer, Monsanto’s parent company, told DW in a written statement: “Farmers have the choice of whether and which products they buy from which supplier. [… ] Each farmer decides freely. […] Farmers will only use our products if they gain a clear advantage.”

In Europe, a case involving Monsanto and a particular breed of melon drew media attention several years ago. Monsanto had discovered that an Indian melon variety was naturally resistant to a specific virus. At the European Patent Office it then successfully applied for a patent on that trait after breeding into other melons. 

From this moment on, not only did this trait belong to Monsanto, but so did every melon variety containing it, including the Indian melon from which it originated. Patent opponents call this practice  biopiracy

According to the Indian-based market research agency Mordor Intelligence, revenue in the seed sector will reach $90 billion by 2024 compared to about $60 billion in 2018. And over 50% of the worldwide market share is in the hands of Bayer-Monsanto, Du Pont and Syngenta…

The UN report “The right to food” has raised concerns about food security caused by “the oligopolistic structure of the input providers” warning that it could also cause food prices to increase and deprive the poorest of food.

A further concern is who owns the seeds and who produces the food. According to the NGO Germanwatch, most of the seed producing industry comes from the Global North, but 90% of biological resources (agricultural products, natural materials come) from the Global South. 

While patenting laws remain more restrictive in the Global South, an Oxfam Study shows that big global players appear to be finding loopholes

A few companies are angling to sew up the world’s seed supply: “Patents on plants: Is the sellout of genes a threat to farmers and global food security?

* Genesis, 1:29 (KJV)

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As we reap what we sow, we might send well-organized birthday greetings to Antoine Laurent de Jussieu; he was born on this date in 1748.  A botanist, he is best remembered as the first to publish a natural classification of flowering plants; much of his system– which was, in part, based on unpublished work by his uncle, Bernard de Jussieu— remains in use today.

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