« Who's next? | Main | What "pro-business" means »

Plant patents: what am I missing?

It's not surprising that the American provisional authority in Iraq under Paul Bremer would rewrite Iraq's patent laws to allow for patents on plants. (See this and this.) But it raises the issue once more about whether plant patents are a good thing or not.

I understand why patents are useful. In cases where innovation costs a lot of money and/or where it's easy for an inventor to exploit his invention while keeping it secret, patents help inventors to recoup their development costs while ensuring that the public gains access to new information.

But I never understood why patents should be issued for plants, especially crop varieties like wheat and corn. Patents for plants seem less like a means of spurring innovation and more like a tool for redistributing political and economic power from one group of people to another, specifically, from farmers to corporate plant breeders. I don't see how doing this makes anyone other than the corporations better off.

First of all, I don't understand why developing innovative new seeds should cost a lot of money. When it comes to plants, nature takes care of innovation largely by itself. Farmers simply pay close attention to what kinds of plants grow best on their farms, and they save the seeds from those plants to cultivate again later. That kind of innovation is cheap.

Genetic engineering of crops, on the other hand, is expensive. But it's not obvious that this kind of innovation produces superior products. Genetic engineering produces many "new" kinds of tomatoes very quickly, but many of these are inferior plants. They aren't adapted well to the places where they're grown, and so they need lots of pesticides and fertilizers to keep them alive. Very often these varieties are engineered with specific features that are actively detrimental, such as an inability to reproduce, or a dependence upon pesticides and fertilizers. It's no coincidence that these innovations benefit the corporations that "invented" them; it's harder to see how these innovations benefit the society as a whole.

The argument for patents has never been simply that they promote innovation per se; it's always been that they promote socially useful innovation. It's hard to see how patents on plants do this.

Second, I don't understand why agricultural knowledge would suffer from excessive secrecy if patents on plants weren't available. Farmers have always benefitted by sharing their seeds with other farmers -- they've always had the incentive to exchange seeds in the hope of developing better varieties for their own farms.

Plant patents seem less about promoting innovation and knowledge than about shifting power from farmers to agribusiness. If farmers have to purchase seeds from biotech labs that they are forbidden to save or to trade, then the farmers have been deprived of a function which they have performed ably for centuries, namely, adapting their crops to the place where they farm. That function has been transferred to agribusiness, which performs it through biotech rather than by natural selection. I don't understand why this redistribution of power should be good for any society, including Iraq.

Am I just missing something?


cough "Monsanto" cough

I don't think that the law should be written purely on the basis of whether it benefits society as a whole. I may think that Portnoy's Complaint doesn't benefit society as a whole due to its rampant misogyny, but that doesn't mean Philip Roth should be denied copyright on his work. As long as the agribusiness only patents genetically engineered seeds and doesn't try to interfere with farmers who aren't buying those seeds, it doesn't seem to be doing much harm. The one that worried me was when the makers of Texmati tried to patent the term basmati, thus challenging the use of the word by Indian farmers who'd been raising basmati rice for only a thousand years or so.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)