What? My Homegrown Cabbages are Patented?!
This probably sounds like a completely ridiculous question, but I’m afraid this is not as far-fetched as it first appears. Whether you grow your own veggies or not, our whole food system is becoming monopolised and it could well be that those crunchy green cabbages you have grown are patented! If you eat fruit and vegetables, homegrown or not, read on!
In times gone by, food was grown on farms and gardens with locally produced seed. The crops grew and were harvested. Simple. Rather than harvesting the entire crop, a row or two was left to mature and flower. The flowers developed seeds, and the seeds were threshed, winnowed, dried and stored ready to sow another year. People shared or swapped seeds with each other and this worked perfectly for thousands of years. Food was fresh, local, seasonal and organic.
Patents on Seeds
Today, a handful of huge companies produce more than half the commercial seeds available, and increasingly these seeds are becoming patented and licensed. Patents cover different types of seeds from standard and organic to F1 Hybrids and virtually all GM seeds. Sowing patented seed is, in effect, renting the seed so that farmers cannot save, replant, share or sell their licensed seeds and can only use the seed for a single cropping season. This means that the farmers have to buy new seed each year from an outside supplier. In the USA, almost all soybean, sugar beet, cotton and corn is patented.
Another problem with patented seed is that plant breeders, including small seed companies and universities, are prohibited from creating new varieties to improve crops. At the moment, the majority of seeds sold to home gardeners are not patented … yet.
Official Seed Registers
Unfortunately, patenting is not all that’s happening to seeds, as even the sales and marketing of seeds is strictly controlled too. In the EU, all seeds including cereals, crops for producing oils or fibres, beets, fodder crops, fruits and vegetables must be listed in the EU’s Common Catalogue. If the seeds aren’t listed they can’t be sold, even to the public. The Seed Marketing Regulations 2011 regulates all marketing of seeds for agricultural and amateur use in England.
The Common Catalogue in the EU and similar seed registers around the world cover thousands of different types of seeds but there are hundreds of thousands of heirloom and heritage seeds not covered by the legislation. The EU states that “Only distinct, stable and sufficiently uniform varieties are accepted” in the Common Catalogue. All these restrictions benefit a handful of huge companies but what will happen to the old varieties?
Many of the seeds listed in the Common Catalogue are suited to large-scale commercial farming where artificial fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides are applied to crops and the majority of seeds registered are not particularly suited to the home gardener, and especially to those who want to raise their crops organically. Commercial growers have to grow crops according to the rules, regulations and prices set out by their customers which, these days, are supermarkets and huge processing plants. Fruit and vegetables sold in supermarkets need to have a good shelf life, and unfortunately, the public want fruit and veg to be uniform in shape and size, although thankfully, this trend is changing, albeit slowly. It seems that ripeness and flavour doesn’t come into it any more.
Control over seeds is controlling our food system and we must not let that happen!
Now for Some Good News!
Luckily, there are a number of coalitions and organisations who have been opposing these crazy tactics for a number of years. Resistance to both seed patenting and controlling the sales and marketing of seeds has been huge as the public become more concerned about a handful of mega companies owning our food supply. We need food independence and sovereignty!
No Patents on Seeds was set up by farmers and non-governmental organizations across the world due to the increasing monopolisation of seed, and are “especially concerned about increasing number of patents on plants, seeds and farm animals and their impact on farmers, breeders, innovation and biodiversity. These patents create new dependencies for farmers, breeders, food producers and consumers. These patents have to be regarded as misappropriation of basic resources in farm and food production and as general abuse of patent law. We call for an urgent re-think of European patent law in biotechnology and plant breeding and to support clear regulations that exclude from patentability processes for breeding, genetic material, plants and animals and food derived thereof.”
Their initiative “is supported globally by over 300 NGOs and farmers’ organisations, and has collected about 100.000 signatures against patents on plants and animals. The coalition now urges the institutions of the EU to go for clear legal regulations to exclude from patentability plants and animals, genetic material and processes for breeding of plants and animals and food derived thereof.”
No Patents on Seeds set up The Global Appeal which has been signed by numerous farmers’ organisations around the world. They also provide valuable up-to-date news and information (including a lobbying guide) on plant, seed and animal patents. If you are interested in receiving their newsletter, please click here.
The Open Source Seed Initiative was created by a group of plant breeders, farmers and seed companies “Inspired by the free and open source software movement that has provided alternatives to proprietary software. OSSI was created to free the seed to make sure that the genes in at least some seed can never be locked away from use by intellectual property rights.”
OSSI’s mission is “dedicated to maintaining fair and open access to plant genetic resources worldwide in order to ensure the availability of germplasm to farmers, gardeners, breeders, and communities of this and future generations.”
Plant breeders who commit to OSSI make one or more of their seed varieties exclusively available under the OSSI Pledge, which ensures that the seed will be free from patents and licenses.
The OSSI Pledge ensures the Four Open Source Seed Freedoms as follows:-
- The freedom to save or grow seed for replanting or for any other purpose.
- The freedom to share, trade, or sell the seed to others.
- The freedom to trial and study seed and to share or publish information about it.
- The freedom to select or adapt the seed, make crosses with it, or use it to breed new lines and varieties.
The pledged seeds can be used by anyone including scientists, farmers and gardeners, providing they accept and agree to the OSSI Pledge. This is an ingenious way to prevent seed becoming patented and licensed, i.e. the seeds are “freed”. Freeing the seed will help to keep our food supply secure and “It assures that diverse genetics, developed often over thousands of years, do not become lost as restricted seed comes to predominate.”
The OSSI board of directors are:-
Jack Kloppenburg, Professor Emeritus University of Wisconsin-Madison
Claire Luby, Executive Director, PHD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Irwin Goldman, Chair of the Board of Directors, Professor and Vegetable Breeder, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Alejandro Argumedo, Program Director of Asociacion ANDES
Jahi Chappell, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, UK
Carol Deppe, PHD in Biology from Harvard University
CR Lawn, founder of Fedco Seeds and served on the Board of The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Tom Michaels, Professor, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities
Jonathan Spero, plant breeder who started Lupine Knoll Farm with Jessie Spero in 2001
At the moment, OSSI has 373 “freed” seed varieties, 36 Plant Breeders and 42 Seed Company Partners around the world. One of the seed company partners based in Pembrokeshire, UK is called The Real Seed Catalogue and I can highly recommend them! They positively encourage saving their seeds for future years and provide a wealth of information on their website which can be downloaded free.
The Open Source Seed Initiative is interested in developing non-profit partnerships with businesses and organisations who sell or process crops grown with the OSSI Pledge, and is already pioneering an “OSSI Food Partner” with Good Earth Natural Foods in California. They would like to develop similar relationships with other Food Partners including the possibility of teaming up with CSA farms – please read my article on Community Supported Agriculture
“OSSI envisions building a community of plant breeders, farmers, gardeners, food retailers, food processors, eaters, educators, and food activists who understand the importance of control over seeds and their pivotal role in the struggle for a sustainable and just food system.”
I think that supporting organisations such as these is crucial for the future of our whole food system, whether that support comes from becoming an OSSI Breeder, Seed Partner, Food Partner, buying OSSI Pledged seeds or donating to their cause. We are all in this together.
Let’s make these ideas blossom and grow and help “Free the Seed!” for us and future generations!