I have been following some interesting threads of discussion on the internet over the past few days, after receiving a number of invitations to sign a petition against the American chemical company Monsanto, probably best known as the inventor of Round Up. The petitioners allege that Monsanto has gained patent rights on all vegetable varieties and will enforce a ban on gardeners and farmers saving their own seeds.
It has certainly vexed some people and there are some outraged people, posting all sorts of strange stories on-line. Needless to say the story is more interesting, and less alarming than that. Monsanto has bought a number of seed companies over the past few years, including Seminis, a large supplier of commercial strains of vegetable seeds. Monsanto does not have a monopoly on seeds, and only has any patent rights on vegetable seeds that were patented through Seminis.
So what are plant patents and how do they affect gardeners?
All of our vegetable varieties have been derived from wild species, usually by many generations of gardeners saving seeds from varieties which are an improvement over the wild kinds. In that way beans and peas were cultivated for their sweetness and the increased size of the seeds, while carrots were changed from pale-rooted vegetables into the (usually) orange vegetable we are familiar with. Perhaps the most remarkable series of changes has taken place within the Brassica group of vegetables, where one species has been, through patient selection, turned into kale, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, broccoli and collards.
That process of careful selection meant that a century ago seed companies were able to offer their own strains of most vegetable types, and employed breeders and manual labour to ensure their varieties were true to type, and to also instigate new varieties. This would be achieved by hand crossing two differing varieties, each with a particular point the breeder was interested in - early cropping, better colour, larger size for example – then the resultant seedlings would then be reselected until the best traits were combined in a stable strain. This was usually achieved by growing the vegetables in large numbers, keeping only the very best for seed and ruthlessly rouging out any plants that were not true to type. Then, and only then, would the strain be released onto the market. This type of seed is pollinated by insects and is referred to as Open Pollinated, or OP.
But once it was released, any seed was fair game, and could quickly be bulked up and grown and sold by any competitor, thus denying the original breeder of the full fruits of their labour in developing the variety in the first place.
That all changed with the introduction of the Plant Variety Protection legislation in the United States, and later in other places, especially when that was extended to seed strains as well as cloned cultivars.
In a local sense, this idea of being able to patent a plant variety came too late for Robinson’s Nurseries who bred the phenomenally popular Photinia ‘Red Robin’ in the 1940s. Nowadays they would be able to license such a variety and would be able to secure a payment for every plant sold around the world, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Then they only had the introducer’s bonus, of being able to bulk to a sufficient number of plants before they were released onto the market.
In recent years plant breeders have concentrated on producing F1 hybrids, with interesting results for gardeners. These are strains where two different parent strains are kept going, and crossed with each other, thus producing hybrid vigour, and much better uniformity. This is a similar technique to that used by farmers for generations where they cross Romney ewers with Southdown rams to produce vigorous lambs.
The seed company only sell the seeds resulting from the first generation of crosses, thus the home gardener cannot replicate the strains, and is forced to buy seed fresh each year. This is worthwhile for some varieties, but of less value for others, as F1 seed is usually exponentially dearer than OP seed. I would never grow OP broccoli as F1 plants are much better, and the same applies to cauliflower, tomatoes and peppers. On the other hand, OP lettuce and cabbage are generally fine – in fact, F1 hybrid cabbages tend to be too big for the home gardeners and older varieties, such as ‘Derby Day’; are probably a better bet.
Monsanto, and other chemical-producing firms have taken plant breeding a step further – a step too far many people - by using human genetic modification to breed plants with specific traits not found in nature, especially so in the case of Monsanto, which has released a Round Up resistant variety of soybean to the market, and has quickly captured the majority of the seed market. They have also bred strains of maize and other crops that are also Round Up resistant. They are remarkably popular as they allow farmers to sow seeds much closer as they can use Round Up as a post-emergence spray thus obviating the need for mechanical tillage between rows.
There is an inherent risk in this, of course, that being the possibility of the gene for Round Up resistance passing to a weed, this removing Round Up’s efficacy. So far that does not seem to have happened.
The other area of concern for some is the issue of ‘terminator seeds’, varieties where the seed produced is sterile and cannot be used for a second generation. This is obviously an issue for poorer farmers in less developed countries, and although it is claimed that such seed is produced, in fact it has not been commercially produced by any company.
So, in short, Monsanto is not going to try and patent all vegetable varieties, and does could not if it wanted to, so you will still be able to grow ‘Great Lakes’ and ‘Webbs Wonderful’ lettuce, ‘Moneymaker’ tomatoes and ‘Nante’ carrots without adding to the riches of the shareholders of Monsanto.