If I Grew It, Doesn’t That Make It Mine?

How many of you garden or farm on some level or another? I can’t actually see your hands, but I’m going to guess that at least some of you do, and a smaller number are involved in farming and agriculture. For those of you who don’t, where do you think crops come from? Well, seeds, right? But where do those seeds come from?

This seems like a pretty obvious question (uh, plants, right?), but it’s actually at the core of some significant issues in both farming and gardening right now, and it’s something that people outside these communities should be talking about, because it has massive social and bioethics implications. Increasingly, seeds are being viewed as something proprietary that can be owned by a corporation, rather than part of the public commons, and that means that it’s possible to patent them and take legal action when patents are violated by, uh, growing plants. This poses rather a problem for a whole host of reasons that are worth taking a closer look at.

Monsanto is one of the largest firms involved in the rush to patent as many cultivars as possible. When seeds become patented, companies acquire a legal right to them, which means that when you grow them, you’re actually acquiring a license to grow, and the terms of that license are very specific. Basically, you’re allowed to grow the specified crop, use it personally or sell it at market, and…that’s it. The thing you are not allowed to do is save seeds and replant them next year, or use them in a breeding programme to improve your stock. This is a violation of the patent and could be grounds for legal action.

I know I’ve talked about this issue before, but sit here and ponder for a moment. Biotech firms like Monsanto are arguing that by investing in genetic research, they are improving crops, and they need to recoup their investment with these kinds of patents, which are often reinforced by creating sterile cultivars. But they’re also snapping up heirlooms and other cultivars that are not genetically modified, making it impossible to obtain them off-patent and grow them independently. In essence, it’s very similar to the debate going on right now over the ownership of human genes; can researchers and biotech firms patent a gene? Who ‘owns’ something that is technically in the commons of human DNA?

Here’s the thing about plants: they evolved to grow. The fact that humans and other creatures eat them is all well and good, and in fact sometimes helps them in their end goal (birds, for example, helpfully spread seeds), but the point of a plant’s existence is to grow, pass on some genes, and die. Which means that seed patents are very difficult to enforce, even in highly genetically modified cultivars, because those crops want to go to seed, and they want to spread, and they do. Genetic drift has been documented all over the world as crops cross-breed, sprout up on their own, and generally make a royal mess of seed patents.

And, in some cases, because farmers have chosen to save and replant seeds. Patented seeds can be very costly, especially in high volume, which can be a consideration for some farmers. Or it can be a simple token act of protest, anger that a company wants you to buy its proprietary seed year after year instead of allowing you to build up your own seed bank and be independent, growing crops from seed you harvested and saved—seed saving, incidentally, requires patience and time, and breeding crops to be ideally suited for your climate and needs takes even longer, so one tends to take extra care with those seeds in particular.

One might reasonably ask, then, if you grow something, doesn’t that make it yours? If a farmer grows some tomatoes, aren’t they hers to do with as she wishes? She could eat them all, plow them under, make and sell tomato sauce, have a tomato-throwing competition, crate them up for the farmers’ market, sell them to restaurants, create complex tomato art, or any number of other things. They are her tomatoes, because she’s the one who put in the energy to grow them. And those tiny seeds inside are hers too, because she grew them. She’s the one who nursed seedlings, planted them out, maintained them as they grew, patiently watered and fertilised and cared for her beloved plants until they produced glorious fruit; purple and green striped globes, big juicy red heirlooms splitting at the seams with sweetness, tiny yellow pear tomatoes, and more.

Yet, under the bizarre world of seed patenting, those seeds are not hers to do with as she wishes. She cannot save and grow them next year, because the genes inside those seeds belong to a company. If she does, she could face penalties including fines so high that she might be forced to sell part or all of her farm to pay them off; a tactic used by companies like Monsanto to force small farmers out of business, in fact, as the company knows full well that it can win large judgments against people who can’t afford to pay them. For our small farmer, saving those little tomato seeds, painstakingly processing them so they’ll keep until next year, could spell the end of her career.

The politics of seed saving aren’t widely discussed outside the farming and gardening community, except by some food activists who rightly identify this as a serious concern. People should be worried about the ownership exerted over crop genetics and what it means, because it is part of a larger thematic push towards corporate ownership of things that should be considered part of the commons. How long until corporations control all means of food production and people are dependent on them for everything they eat? Is that what you want for the next generation?