Patents are a common way of protecting a specific seed of a variety, hybrid, improved trait, or a particular gene associated with a cultivar. The four big corporations currently owning the rights to more than two-thirds of the world’s seed and pesticide sales are:
- and Corteva Agriscience.
Plants and seeds can be patented if they are defined by a single DNA sequence that has been created. The patent itself protects inventors. No one else can manufacture or sell the patented seed so long as the creator owns the patent to it. Most farmers refer to seed patents as “farmer’s rights.” But, if there is a patent on the seed, especially if the seed is genetically modified, the farmer may be prevented from saving the seed to plant the following year.
Plant varieties produced sexually (i.e., by seed) cannot be protected under patent law but can be protected under a federal law enacted in 1970 known as the Plant Variety Protection Act.
These regulations are enforced through seed dealers. Seed dealers are required to obtain a license in most states.
Plant Variety Protection Act.
The U.S. Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) was enacted by Congress in 1970 to encourage the development of new varieties of crops and to make them available to the public. The protection enables the collection of royalties that provide funding for the development of new varieties. PVPA provides legal intellectual property rights protection to breeders of new varieties of plants that are sexually reproduced.1 But the PVPA law does not contain a no-seed-saved exemption to prevent a farmer from saving a portion of the harvested crop for replanting.
Seed and Plant Patents
Some organic seed varieties are patented. The organic companies are operating at a scale where they are competing with the largest seed companies in the world.
Plant patents expire 20 years from the filing date. When the plant patent expires, the subject matter of the patent is in the public domain.
The expansion of patented seeds negatively impacts farmers’ rights and the right to food, since small farms produce the bulk of food for domestic consumption. There is an emerging new legal common sense concerning the patentability of plant-related inventions, as well as a balance among intellectual property, farmers’ rights, and the public interest.3
Seed saving creates an abundance of crop diversity and supports healthy food regeneration. Modern laws now make it illegal to save and share seeds from patented seeds and plants.2 Saving patented seeds or seeds containing patented genes or technologies is a violation of the patents and is illegal. Piracy hinders the development of future technologies and their benefits to the seed industry.
Unlike the PVPA, federal patent law contains a no-seed-saved exemption preventing a farmer’s saving a portion of the harvested crop for replanting. Because of this exemption, many seed companies have used federal patent law to protect new varieties.
But, one of the reasons that farmers choose not to save seeds is because they need special equipment to clean the seeds to get them ready to plant, and extra storage space to store the seeds between harvest and replant. Seeds don’t expire but lose viability if stored improperly. Most seed companies recommend replacing seeds every 2-3 years. The seeds, however, will keep for decades and will germinate when planted if kept in a cool, dark, and dry place.
The Objections to Seed Patents
Seeds should not be patented because:
- Patenting seeds prevents farmers from saving or even exchanging seeds.
- Patenting seeds creates monopolies, which prohibits the farmers’ free choice of how to grow and plant.
- Patenting will push farmers out of the market, leaving large agribusinesses free to determine the price of seeds
The owners of the patents, and those small farmers who cannot afford the cost of saving seeds, generally say “yes”; large agriculture companies should be allowed to patent crop seeds. Those farmers that are negatively impacted by the patents say “No.”
- Butler, J. L. and Marrion, B. W., The Impacts of Patent Protection and Public Plant Breeding, (Adam C. Broadwolf, Davis CA., 2001), pp. 5-6.
- https://rockymountainseeds.org/no-patents-on-seeds/, (Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, Mancos, CO, 2020), pg. 1 (Home page).
- Peschard, Karine, E. Seed Activism, (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2022), pp. 9-10.