Seeds and Patents on Life

The way seeds – the very basis of our food system – are treated globally is a strong reflection of the privatisation of agricultural knowledge. Describing the development of the past hundred years, the IAASTD voices deep concerns regarding the future of our plant genetic resources, their diversity and universal accessibility.
For millennia, farmers have maintained seeds as a common heritage, exchanged them and improved them. At the beginning of the 20th century, seeds were still a public good that scientists improved according to the latest discoveries in genetics, especially Mendel’s laws of inheritance that saw a ‘rediscovery’ at that time. Public institutions systematically categorised seeds and made them available to farmers.

Large international companies dominate the seed market

Based on modern knowledge, the first large public seed collections were established, among others by Nikolai Vavilov in Leningrad. For the first time in the 1930s and 40s, private plant breeders claimed intellectual property rights to newly developed varieties. However, the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), which was agreed in 1961, still ensured that the genetic material remained freely available to everyone for the purpose of breeding other varieties (breeder’s exemption) and that farmers were permitted to re-use the seeds they obtained from their own harvest on their holdings (farmers’ privilege). With the introduction of hybrid seeds in the 1920s through the company Pioneer Hi-Bred the foundation was laid for plant breeding to become a profitable business for private companies. As these high-yielding hybrid varieties do not produce seeds of uniform quality in the next generation, they have the effect of a “biological” plant variety protection.

Since the 1940s, international agricultural research centres have specifically developed new high-breeding varieties, with funding from groups such as the Rockefeller Foundation or the Ford Foundation. These varieties were mainly developed in public non-commercial programmes and made an important contribution to increasing cereal yields and fighting hunger in the 1960s and 70s. However, these high-yielding varieties were accompanied by a rapid global increase in the commercial use of pesticides and fertilisers. In the 1980s, some companies began to systematically invest in genetic engineering. For the first time, exclusive patents on genetic modifications and isolated genetic information made it possible to stop others using certain genetic traits in plant breeding. Since the turn of the millennium, companies have been increasingly successful in even obtaining patents on the results of conventional plant breeding, for example the content of certain substances or in the case of Monsanto’s “severed broccoli” patent, the element of having a long stalk. In addition, plant variety protection was tightened. The UPOV version from 1991 prohibits farmers from exchanging or selling patented seeds and restricts their reuse. >>more

Facts & Figures

In 2011, the global commercial seed market was 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%.

The European Patent Office is granting an increasing number of patents on plants and seeds derived from conventional breeding. Since the 1980s, around 2400 patents on plants and 1400 patents on animals have been granted in Europe. The EPO has granted more than 120 patents on conventional breeding and about 1000 such patent applications are pending. The scope of many of these patents often covers the whole food chain from production to consumption.

In June 2013, Seminis, a company owned by Monsanto, was granted patent EP 1597965 on broccoli. The patent claims plants derived from conventional breeding grown in such a way as to make mechanical harvesting easier. The patent covers the plants, the seeds and the “severed broccoli head”. It additionally covers a “plurality of broccoli plants ... grown in a field of broccoli.” The method used to produce these plants was purely crossing and selection.

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 neighbouring fields. As of November 28, 2012, Monsanto had filed 142 lawsuits against farmers for alleged violations of its Technology Agreement or its patents on GM seeds. Monsanto won 72 lawsuits and was awarded a total sum of $23.7 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.

Globally, there are approximately 382,000 species of vascular plants, out of which a little over 6,000 have been cultivated for food. Of these, fewer than 200 species have significant production levels globally, with only nine (sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet and cassava) accounting for over 66% of all crop production by weight.


Civil Society

  • Save Our Seeds European initiative in favour of the purity of seeds, against genetically modified organisms
  • No Patents on Seeds the organisations behind this coalition are concerned about increasing numbers of patents on plants, seeds and farm animals
  • Navdanya network of seed keepers and organic producers in 17 states across India
  • African Centre for Biosafety campaigns against the genetic engineering, privatisation, industrialisation and corporate control of Africa's food system
  • Soil Association's Save our Seeds campaign fights new EU legislation and major corporations in order to protect agricultural biodiversity
  • ETC Group NGO working on patents & biopiracy, seeds & genetic diversity
  • Center for Food Safety - Save our Seeds US-based NGO that challenges harmful food production systems & promotes sustainable alternatives
  • Organic Seed Alliance advances the development of the genetic resources of agricultural seed
  • La Via Campesina news on biodiversity and genetic resources


Videos: Seeds and Patents on Life

Click on the image to watch the video playlist

Trailer of Seed: The Untold Story

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

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


  • UNEP World's top seed companiesUNEP World's top seed companies

Seed companies in Africa

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Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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