Seed Diversity Threatened by Monopolies and Patents

Photo by Jan Mangan

Bill McDorman is the founder of a number of small regional seed companies and seed organizations and the former Director of Native Seeds/ SEARCH. He is currently the co-founder and Director of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance working to connect communities with locally adapted seeds. McDorman was interviewed by Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Director Arty Mangan.

Arty: Why is genetic diversity in seeds important?

Bill: The strength of any ecosystem is its diversity. Drought-tolerant varieties will make it through the droughts and flood tolerant varieties will make it through the floods. But if we’re only planting a handful of varieties worldwide, conditions don’t have to change much before we lose huge parts of the food system either to diseases or the climatic conditions.

According to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization, by 1990 compared to 100 years prior, about 90% of the food plant diversity that was planted in farms and gardens was gone. 

For the majority of the food being produced worldwide, everyone is growing the same 10%. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t huge diversity still available all over the world, it’s just that it’s not being grown very much, and a lot of it isn’t being grown at all.

To face climate change with a 90% decrease in diversity just doesn’t make sense. Even if we got it all back, we may not have enough to deal with some of the environmental and climatic changes that have been unleashed, but at least, we need to start working on diversity as a primary aspect for developing resilience in the food system.

Arty: How has plant breeding changed over time?

Bill: We have a delusional scientific community that thinks they have the answers by being able to speed up breeding with genetic engineering, but it just hasn’t worked. You can genetically engineer single genes now, but single-gene traits don’t cover heat tolerance, or drought tolerance, or some of the other things that we’re facing. Generally, it’s been used to increase chemical sales by engineering plants to be resistant to herbicides. That’s the vast majority of all the genetic engineering. Even more destructive is the idea that that kind of science will save us. 

It takes $150 million to release a new variety and that can only be done in highly centralized locations. 100 years ago, as Dr. Bill Tracy of the University of Wisconsin in Madison says, we had millions of plant breeders breeding for every crop in every microclimate all over the planet for every kind of disease and for every kind of cultural and flavor need. That’s what we had in 1900. Now we have a handful of professional breeders breeding crops for high profit and yield only in the places that they grow best. That’s a recipe for disaster.

I’ve never said that genetic engineering may not have a breakthrough someday that saves us. I don’t know about that. I’m too much of a scientist to say never. But what I do know is that with the $150 million it takes to create one new crop, we could teach seed schools in all 50 states. I could create hundreds of new, small, bioregional seed companies; thousands of seed libraries; tens of thousands of seed exchanges; and re-engage the population in a beautiful ritual that’s been the foundation of civilization. We should be putting all our resources into going back and using the tried-and-true system that we’ve had for 10,000 years. 

Bill McDorman leading a seed school

Arty: 100 years ago, there were a million grassroots seed breeders; 50 years ago, 1,000 small companies producing seeds for sale; today, four companies control 60% of the seeds sales. Those are the same companies who produce all of the agro-chemical sales. Why isn’t that level of consolidation being challenged in the courts as a monopoly?

Bill: Because we’re in late-stage monopoly capitalism. The large corporations have totally co-opted the government. They’re writing their own checks, and they’ll bail themselves out if they have to. Bernie Sanders is right. We don’t just need a new president; we need to upend the whole way we think about the system. I’m afraid it’s not going to happen just through education and gatherings. It’ll probably take a serious disruption for people to actually realize that the food system is only three days deep. Even the local organic food system, which is being highly industrialized, is not going to save them. 

Dr. Carol Deppe, who taught genetics at Harvard for 25 years, in her book How to Breed Your Own Backyard Garden Vegetables, said that until recently all farmers and gardeners saved their own seeds. The only kind of plant breeding was amateur plant breeding. We created most of what we eat from wild plants that are largely inedible. That happened over roughly a 10,000-year period by people who were saving their own seeds and had no idea of genetics. Much of it happened before Gregor Mendel [founder of the modern science of genetics]. It happened in a natural culturally driven process largely by indigenous women. 

We are hugely indebted to them. We don’t have time to recreate what they’ve done. We should save what we have. We should go back to the kinds of processes that are low-carbon input, decentralized, and shorten our supply lines; all these things can be done.

Seeds are self-replicating. They can take information on each life cycle and change themselves each generation. It’s an intelligent, self-replicating system. You can take a pocketful of seeds anywhere on the planet and start a whole new agriculture. 

Arty: For 10,000 years, farmers bred seeds working with the genetics that their ancestors developed and now biotech companies genetically alter seeds, place patents on them and legally own all the genetic development that was previously in the commons. 

Bill: Vandana Shiva said the most compelling thing about that that I’ve ever heard. She said that kind of thinking is the same as believing that people had the right to sail a ship from Spain to the New World and plant a flag in the beach and say, “I claim all of North America for Spain.”

Arty: She identifies DNA as the latest arena of colonization. Explain how utility patents are being used. 

Bill: The basic thing to understand is that, until relatively recently, patenting seed-producing plants was never allowed. It’s an abhorrent thought to peoples around the world. Seeds were held in common. The original Plant Patent Act happened in the United States in 1930 after 40 years of lobbying by the American Seed Trade Association, which was one of the first trade associations. They exempted seed-producing plants. Only cloned plants like fruit trees and ornamentals could be patented. Everybody knew that farmers should be able to grow and save their own seeds. That’s how the system works. There was a deep understanding about that.

Then 40 more years of lobbying got the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) passed in Congress in 1970. That was not patenting per se. It is not run through the Patent and Trade Office; it’s a program in the USDA. The PVPA allowed an exemption for farmers to save their own seeds and for breeders to use any kind of seed to breed new varieties. It gave a 20-year protection to somebody who came up with a new variety. It said that no one else will be able to sell that variety or the traits that you found in it for 20 years unless they pay a royalty. 

You can find those varieties in seed catalogs, even organic seed catalogs, with the moniker PVP. After 10 years of the industry filing lawsuits, the Supreme Court finally ruled that plants can be patented. In fact, “anything under the sun that is made by man” is patentable, that’s a direct quote out of the majority opinion written by Clarence Thomas, of all people, who had worked for Monsanto as an attorney at one point in his career. 

After that, if you look at the graph, the number of seed companies that were purchased, largely by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, went up in the hockey stick exponential curve. We went from maybe 20,000 independent entities to, as you said, four that now control 60% of the world’s seeds.

I believe it was Joy Hought, who succeeded me as director of Native Seeds/ SEARCH, who said when you choose a variety, you’re choosing a whole agricultural system. Patents are a tool of industrialized agricultural monopolies. 

Arty: The corporate seed industry claims that patents are necessary for innovation. 

Bill: That’s a delusion on an unbelievable scale. I was at the UN with groups that were representing 55 million smallholder farmers around the world who have what’s left of the world’s diversity growing on their farms. A lot of it has been moved to seed banks that are underfunded and are falling apart. Millions of varieties have been there for 40 years and are dying. The Global North wants access to all that living genetic diversity. Those varieties have been created from wild plants historically by small farmers, and their descendants today are stewarding them. Those farmers know that corporate “innovation” leads to monopolistic control of seeds, poverty and starvation. 

Sure, corporate innovation has increased yields. But yield at the expense of destroying whole communities and ecosystems is a pretty narrow definition of yield. 

Small farmers are organizing and are going to take their seeds and refuse to participate in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture because they just don’t believe it anymore. There’s no benefit sharing; the whole thing has just been a rip-off. The corporations take the small farmer’s varieties, patent them, and then say they own them. They make it illegal for small farmers to grow their own seeds. 

Arty: What are some utility patents that are egregious in terms of their claims? 

Bill: There’s a color purple in lettuce that’s been patented. If we had a rational patent system, they would never allow that because it’s too wide; it’s too undefined. Plant breeder Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed says, “I’ve got 20 purple lettuces growing. I don’t know which ones are illegal now and which ones aren’t. Why should they be illegal after the fact, if I had them in the public domain before they patented them?” 

We’re starting to see utility patents creep into our organic seed catalogs. Organic farmers are good people who want to do the right thing, but forty percent of the lettuces in Johnny’s catalog carry utility patents. In a sense, farmers are not farming anymore; they’re sharecropping. They don’t own the seeds. They’re just borrowing the seeds from the seed companies. Legally, you can’t even let those plants go to seed. I called Johnny’s to talk to them about it, and I got banned from customer service. I just kept asking. I was nice.

When you look at that 10,000-year arc of adapting plants to a location and think about the potential to exponentially increase supply of seeds everywhere, it’s just the biggest rip-off to keep people from saving seeds. I learned this at the United Nations that the corporate aim is to have everything patented before anybody even knows it happens. 

Arty: What are some of the strategies to push back against this kind of corporate bio-piracy?

Bill: Save seeds wherever you are, and get everybody everywhere doing that. We don’t have the money to fight the world’s biggest corporations, but we don’t have to as long as we have our own seed system operating underneath the corporate system. They closed down a seed library in Pennsylvania, but we worked with them to make sure that seed libraries can be open. 

Every bit of local food should be grown with local seeds. That’s a big change we could all make. That’s number one. There’s an organic local food movement in the Bay Area. My guess is that 90% of those seeds are not coming from California but are coming from Johnny’s or High Mowing or Territorial who contract to have seeds grown in China. 

Number two is just be aware of the utility patents. When you buy seeds – if you’re still buying seeds – find out if they’re utility patented or not. If they’re selling utility patented seeds, ask them why. I think that kind of awareness aimed at Johnny’s would be the only thing that could make them change. 

We have a sticker that we give away for free that says Grown with Local Seeds. That should be on every piece of produce in the farmers’ market so people know that these people are actually doing the right thing with their seeds as well as with their growing practices.

Arty: Is there a legal mechanism that grassroots seed breeders can use to put varieties into the public domain and protect them from being patented? 

Bill: There’s questions about it legally because when you’re going up against some of the world’s largest corporations in a court case, it may not hold up. But after years of research, Jack Kloppenburg helped spearhead the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) where you can register new varieties. It does not cover all the heirlooms and the landrace varieties, those cannot be protected by OSSI. To register, it has to be a new variety that is uniform, distinct, and somewhat stable – the same kinds of requirements for regular breeding protection.

There are 200 to 300 varieties that plant breeders have registered with OSSI. It’s a grassroots movement. Jack has been meeting with people from the alternative seed movement in Europe and they are ready to adopt it. European Union law and the European Patent Office have both agreed not to allow patents on anything that is created using traditional biological breeding methods. The only things allowed to be patented as a new invention would be genetically engineered seeds. 

Arty: How is the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance working to protect seed sovereignty?

Bill: Our whole thing is to inspire, educate, and try to recreate a network of people in our region like we had in the 1900’s. We chose one region because it’s easier to pass seeds around and we all speak the same language. The bioregional development of the grassroots seed movement is going to be so important. 

We teach seed schools. We’ve done about 60 programs in 10 years and graduated about 1500 students. We’ve trained 130 seed teachers to teach their own seed schools. We give all of our information and data away, so our seed teachers can go and replicate what we’re doing. They’re starting to do that in their own communities now. We’re really proud of that. That’s the only way we’ll exponentially grow this. 

 We went to Rome for the international treaty. We were the first grassroots representative at that international treaty meeting since the treaty was signed. We represent smallholder farmers from the United States. Before we became involved, only big corporations were represented.

We need a grassroots movement to save agro-biodiversity in order to be sustainable and to face the storms that we will be encountering. Nobody is coming to save us. Our vice president doesn’t even believe in evolution. We’re the only people who can do this. We need millions of people growing and saving seeds right where they are to get millions of new varieties that are adapted to that place. That’s diversity. The more people we get involved, the more diversity we’ll have. No top-down, centralized institution will have the time, energy, money or vision to do that. It’s up to us. 

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