Patenting plant varieties is surprisingly common these days, whether by a public institution or a private company. Recently, I tasted a delicious new apple variety (Sweet Tango or Minneiska) and was looking forward to investigating the variety’s origins and availability. My first stop, though, showed that it’s a patented plant. I generally prefer to support the “freeware” versions of food plants, though, so I’m sad to say I won’t be buying more Sweet Tango apples.
Why do I object to patenting plants? First, the development of crops and edible varieties was truly established over centuries. We don’t generally do that much to change them at any single shift in genetic code. Second, there’s a despicable trend toward patenting varieties developed by others– like basmati rice. Basmati rice was not developed by an American or Swiss plant breeder or tech company and they should not have the ability to claim it for their profits. Third, the free exchange of plants and cross-breeding is essential to developing and adapting plants to local bioclimes. Without the ability to save seed and propagate plants, farmers and gardeners lose out on a wealth of opportunities to adapt to their circumstances and develop the self-sufficiency necessary to food sovereignty.
Patenting plants does raise revenues for research institutes and plant breeding facilities, but we should find our research funds without limiting access to the plant genome and stifling innovation. How about just selling the plants or seeds? Why don’t we direct some of the Farm Bill and state funding towards developing plants able to withstand the rigors of climate change (or any other desired characteristic)? Our public institutions were founded to support national interests, not corporate interests. (You can argue that academia has become a “corporate” interest, but that is well beyond the scope of this post.)
Finally, I do firmly believe that access to food (and thus seeds and plants) is a human right. Patenting food plants or varieties removes them from the public sphere into a business sphere. Saving seeds and participating in the process of plant reproduction domesticated our food plants; continuing this tradition allows us to understand our food as well as enabling small producers to survive.