Pesticide and Environmental Update
and Seed Giants Want to Ban Farm-Saved Seed
A new report from GRAIN reveals the new lobbying offensive from the
global seed industry to make it a crime for farmers to save seeds for the
next year's planting. This briefing traces the recent discussions within
the seed industry and explores what will happen if a plant variety right
becomes virtually indistinguishable from a patent.
Seed companies already have strong legal support from governments. In
many countries, seed laws require farmers to use only certified seed of
government-approved varieties. That seed is often available only from
commercial seed companies.
A rapidly increasing number of governments also grant legal monopoly
rights for commercial seed, by means of industrial patents and so-called
plant variety protection (PVP). Until recently, both seed patents and PVP
existed only in developed countries. But since the World Trade
Organisation (WTO) was created in 1994, all member governments must
provide some form of monopoly rights on seeds. There is now enormous
pressure on developing countries to adopt the developed country models.
Many have been persuaded to join the international PVP system, managed by
UPOV (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants).
In the past ten years, UPOV has more than doubled its membership. Most new
members are developing countries.
The UPOV system was originally set up in 1961, in response to many
years of lobbying by the seed industry. What the companies really wanted
was to have industrial patents on seeds. Patents give absolute rights to
control all uses of the seed, both for planting and for further breeding.
But at the time many governments felt that patents would give industry too
much power over farmers. The UPOV PVP was created as a compromise. From
the beginning, it gave seed companies a monopoly on only the commercial
multiplication and the marketing of seeds. Farmers remained free to save
seed from their own harvest to plant in the following year, and other
breeders could freely use any variety, protected or not, to develop a new
During the 1980s, the development of genetic engineering attracted
large transnational companies from the pharmaceuticals and chemical
sectors into plant breeding. With their much greater lobbying power, they
began a new offensive to strengthen monopoly rights on plant breeding in
developed countries. First, they got industrial patents on plants bred
with genetic engineering (GE) and related techniques. This meant, in
practice, that they got the absolute monopoly that conventional breeders
had been refused two decades earlier.
Second, the UPOV PVP rights were radically expanded for all plant
varieties, GE or conventional. Since 1991, the PVP monopoly has applied
not only to seed multiplication but also to the harvest and sometimes the
final product as well. The previously unlimited right for farmers to save
seed for the following year's planting has been changed into an optional
exception. Only if the national government allows it can farm-saved seed
still be used, and a royalty has to be paid to the seed company even for
seeds grown on-farm.
Third, these much stronger monopoly rights are required for membership
in the WTO, as already described. This is the starting point for the new
lobby offensive now being prepared by the global seed industry. The goal
this time is to remove the few remaining differences between the PVP
system and patents, so that companies will have an absolute monopoly over
seeds all over the world, regardless of which legal system is used, for
all crops and all countries.
THE REAL TARGET - FARM-SAVED SEED
Farm-saved seed will be a primary target of this offensive. At least
two-thirds of the global crop area is currently planted with farm-saved
seed every year. In many developing countries, it represents 80--90 per
cent of all seed used, but even in developed countries it commonly
accounts for a large share (30--60 per cent). If farmers were legally
forced to plant all of this area with commercial seed, it could easily
mean a doubling of seed industry turnover, that is, an extra US$20 billion
annually -- all taken out of farmers' pockets and delivered to
transnational giants such as DuPont, Bayer, Syngenta, and Monsanto.
Another key industry demand will be to restrict or eliminate the
freedom to use PVP-protected varieties for breeding -- the other major
difference between the UPOV system and patents. The purpose is simply to
block competition. If nobody else is allowed to improve on a variety until
after the term of protection -- 20 years or so -- a seed company will be
able to sell the unimproved variety for a much longer period, and postpone
the cost of new research. The net effect: increased profits for the PVP
owner, higher seed prices and fewer new varieties for farmers.
The seed industry has every reason to fear competition from farm-saved
seed and more innovative independent breeders. Even individual farmers can
often match or beat the performance of commercial varieties by simple
on-farm selection. With constantly stronger monopoly rights and increasing
consolidation into a few giant conglomerates, seed companies have produced
fewer and fewer products of value to farmers. The big strides in yield and
resistance improvement were made early in the 20th century, before any
monopoly rights were available on seeds. And those improvements came
mainly from selecting and crossing the very best of the thousands of
farmer varieties which had been developed over centuries, not from any
The failure of commercial plant breeding has left global agriculture
badly prepared for the challenges of the near future, such as climate
change and the need to wean ourselves off dependence on fossil fuels. It
is now time to start rolling back the monopoly privileges of the seed
industry, not to strengthen them further.