Seeds and Patents on Life

In recent years, there has been a growing privatisation of agricultural sciences, which has also taken hold of public research. As a result, knowledge has increasingly become considered as private property rather than a common good. The IAASTD criticises the excessive patenting of knowledge, which is connected to this development, condemning the patenting of seeds and genetic information in particular.
The IAASTD questions the benefit of patents, both for research and the dissemination of knowledge,There are already commercial seed companies that spend far more on legal services than on research. This preponderance of legal over research expense in fighting through the patent thicket may be a "warning" to public research institutions that emulating commercial plant breeding practices to produce public goods may be a less an optimal production pathway (Global, p. 478)and highlights the fact that patents increase the dominance of a small number of multinational companies. These companies stockpile patents on seeds, plants, animals and genetic information, and thus control international trade of intellectual property rights (IPRs) and natural resources through complex licensing systems. Their exploitation strategy for the new ‘raw material of knowledge’ mainly consists in barring others from using and further developing this knowledge. >>more

Large International Companies Dominate Seed Market

International trade of intellectual property goes against farmers’ and indigenous peoples’ traditional principles of passing on and maintaining control over their knowledge. In the areas of plant breeding, animal breeding, molecular biology and agro-chemistry, trade with intellectual property is controlled by a small group of international companies, within a network of private and public universities and institutions.
The increasing importance of ‘intellectual property’ does not only change the atmosphere within the scientific community, but also the scientific interest of researchers. The patentable novelty of a procedure or product often becomes more important than its general benefit. Solutions to a problem only appear to be interesting if they can be marketed as a product. Efficient and cost-saving methods or solution strategies which do not meet these criteria are neglected or even discredited if they seem to present competition.

Facts & Figures

The global commercial seed market in 2011 is estimated at $34.5 billion. The top 10 companies account for 75% of the global market (up from 67% in 2007). Just three companies - Monsanto, DuPont (Pioneer) and Syngenta - control 53% of the global commercial market for seeds. The world’s largest seed company, Monsanto, now controls 26% of the seed market.

The EU seed markets for economically important crops have undergone an enormous concentration. In the case of maize, just 5 seed companies control 75% of the EU market share. For sugar beet, just 4 companies own 86% of the market. In the vegetable sector, 95% of market share is controlled by the top 5 companies; with agro-chemical company Monsanto already controlling around 24%.

In 2010, some 250 patent applications were made at the European Patent Office (EPO) for GM plants and a further 100 patent applications covering plants bred without using genetic engineering methods. The proportion of patents on conventional breeding has increased markedly: Companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont already file 20% to 30% of their applications in plant breeding for conventional methods. In 2010, the EPO granted around 200 patents on both plant breeding with and without genetic engineering.

Two important decisions about the patentability of the conventional breeding of plants and animals were made at the EPO in 2010: EPO’s Board of Appeal decided, based on a precedent set by the broccoli and tomato cases, that methods for conventionally breeding plants are not patentable (G2/07&G1/08), but it also decided in May 2010 that conventionally-bred plants, their seed and products of harvests, may themselves be patented even if the process for breeding them cannot.

Monsanto has a history of suing farmers and investigating those who are not contractual partners, but whose fields are contaminated by GM pollen, or the seeds from neighboring fields. As of January 2010, Monsanto had filed 136 lawsuits against farmers for alleged violations of its Technology Agreement or its patents on GM seeds. Monsanto won 70 lawsuits and was awarded a total sum of $23.3 million.

Intellectual property rights will lead to transfers of resources from technology users to technology producers. The oligopolistic structure of the input providers’ market may result in poor farmers being deprived of access to seeds’ productive resources essential for their livelihoods, potentially raising the price of food, making food less affordable for the poorest.


Civil Society


Videos: Seeds and Patents on Life

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Watch the film Seeds of Freedom (30 minutes, English)

Film on seed saving: The Farmer, the Architect and the Scientist


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Seed companies in Africa

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