Patenting Seeds: Conference Lecturers Weigh In

Posted on October 11th, 2010 by

Here are the first two responses we received to our query of the Nobel lecturers, regarding the matter of patenting seed life.

Marion Nestle notes “I wrote about the patenting issue in my book, Safe Food, half of which is about genetically modified foods.” She also points to the film FOOD, INC., and the work of Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva.

Paul Thompson sent the following response:

“The ethical questions arising in connection to intellectual property rights (IPRs) in genes, gene processes and seeds are very tricky. I think that it is important to recognize a distinction between questions that can be tied to specific legal documents, such as the Supreme Court decision referenced in the question or the TRIPS Agreement (the component of WTO that deals with international standards for intellectual property), on the one hand, and processes of commodification, on the other. Commenting on the legal questions inevitably entangles one in a number of technical issues. For example, several Supreme Court decisions  have increased the scope of patents during the last thirty years, but patents had been awarded for a specific class of seeds for decades before that. What is more, registered varieties also provided a form of intellectual property for plant breeders well before these decisions. As such, an informed discussion of how these decisions actually changed the legal status of seeds or genes would presuppose familiarity with the pre-existing legal precedents. It would become embroiled in technical details, and attorneys specializing in IPR would probably disagree. Only a series of further court decisions (as well as WTO disputes) will eventually determine how these legal questions are resolved.

“Commodification, on the other hand, refers to changes in the way that human beings relate to one another with respect to the various goods and things in their environment. Items that once would have been regarded as “unownable,” as the common heritage of humankind, or as tokens of friendship or affection that become devalued when they are bought and sold come to be traded like ordinary commodity goods. Here, too, the issues are complex. On the one hand, it seems like one can hire someone to do all kinds of things that we used to get only from friends and family. We routinely pay for child care, companionship, and even “personal training.” Employers now talk openly about “emotional labor”—the idea that they are paying their employees to be friendly to customers. On the other hand, it is still illegal to sell body parts in the United States: an organ can only be exchanged through gift. And we are still rather squeamish about the sale of sexual services! So there are some forms of exchange that are still regulated by moral considerations.

“I think there is no doubt that commodification in seeds and genetic resources is undermining traditions of seed saving and exchange that were important forms of non-commercial reciprocity, solidarity and mutual support in rural communities of the past. These are themes that are central to my discussion of commodification in The Agrarian Vision, even if IPRs get only a brief discussion there. A longer treatment can be found the chapter on property rights in my 2007 book Food Biotechnology in Ethical Perspective 2nd Edition. Patents are important in this context because they tend to channel financial returns to the science-based innovations, and do not recognize that genetic resources have a long history of development by farmers, well before the biotechnologist enters the scene. These are important issues, but those who see the ethics of IPRs solely in term of whether farmers share in the benefits are using what I called “an industrial philosophy” in my Nobel talk. The larger issue is the general trend of commodification, and this encompasses much more than IPRs. Hybrid seeds, for example, do not need a legal system of property rights to force farmers back into seed markets every year. They encourage commodification without needing patent protection.

“In short, while I acknowledge the importance of change in the legal rules, I think the ethical importance of these changes needs to be seen in the context of broader and more subtle social changes.”


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