Seeds and Patents on Life

In the 1990s, the seed market became increasingly dominated by a small number of multinational chemical companies, a concentration process that is still ongoing. At the same time, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, BASF and Bayer control the global pesticide market. In 2008, the IAASTD warned that the top 10 agribusiness companies dominated 50% of the global trade of protected varieties. A few years later, only three companies control 53% of commercial seed sales. These companies focus on just a few profitable plant species, which are cultivated by solvent farmers on a large scale, as well as on regions that offer the necessary infrastructure and legal protection.
The IAASTD questions the benefit of patents and intellectual property rights for innovation, research and the dissemination of knowledge in the seed sector. Over the past years, hopes were smashed that access to patented seeds could be maintained if public universities and research institutes jointly affronted the private sector. Hopes were also dashed that the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) would uphold the fair exchange of genetic resources between private and public plant breeders which is oriented towards the common good.

Patents against diversity and development?

Multinational companies stockpile patents on plants, animals, genetic information and processes, thus making research, development and especially marketing more complicated for their competitors and in publicly funded research. "In developing countries especially, instruments such as patents may drive up costs, restrict experimentation by the individual farmer or public researcher while also potentially undermining local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability. In this regard, there is particular concern about present IPR instruments eventually inhibiting seed-saving, exchange, sale and access to propri­etary materials necessary for the independent research community to conduct analyses and long term experimentation on impacts." (Synthesis, p. 8).Their exploitation strategy for the new “raw material of knowledge”, including the increasing amounts of accumulated genomic data, mainly consists in barring others from using and further developing this knowledge. The looming threat alone of a long legal dispute of uncertain outcome is often sufficient to hamper further development."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)

Since the publication of the IAASTD, the global concentration of the seed markets has further advanced."In the context of newly emerging Intellectual Property Rights regimes and the development of biotechnology (...), a major theme of consoldiation in the agricultural plant biotechnology and seed industries has emerged. This consolidation significantly altered the course of germplasm management and marked a major shift in the relationship between the public and private sector.“ (Global, p. 94)In Africa, many attempts have been made to drastically tighten plant variety protection at regional and national level. Together with the seed industry and private donors, industrialised countries are exerting pressure on African governments to harmonise their seed laws through free trade agreements and development projects. Establishing an economically profitable seed market is one of the central strategies of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which was initiated by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. In Latin America, one of the fastest growing seed markets, the privatisation process is further increasing, especially in the case of the major cash crops soybeans and maize. In Asia, by contrast, especially in India and China, farmers still have relatively strong rights. In the European Union, as everywhere else in the world, patents on seeds are a bone of contention, reflected in the resistance movements against large seed companies.


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

Share |


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