Growers breed plants to selectively express desirable traits — from those that will improve a crop’s taste or color, to those that help crops thrive in certain environments and resist threats such as pests or disease. Opponents of crop-trait patents say the increase in patents is shrinking the catalog of plant material available to breeders at a time when the need for genetic diversity is greater than ever, thanks to the less-predictable conditions brought on by climate change.
In an email, Monsanto spokesperson Carly Scaduto recognized the importance of genetic diversity, saying it’s crucial for the company’s operations and Monsanto works to preserve diversity through its four gene banks and by collaborating with institutions around the world, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But she disagreed with the notion that intellectual property suppresses other breeding efforts. “Patents and [plant variety protection] inspire innovation,” she wrote. “Basically, the patent creates a map to allow anyone else to do the same once the patent expires. Oftentimes those ‘how to’ instructions enable others to accomplish the same result by finding another method to get there. So rather than hindering innovation, such protection facilitates it by placing more material and know-how in the public domain.”
Morton, however, argues waiting the 20 years for a patent to expire is no way to encourage innovation, and waiting that long to breed crops that can adapt to changing conditions is a losing battle. Even that misses the main point for Morton, though: genetic resources have always belonged to the commons, and should continue to be a public good, he says. “[Independent plant breeders] have neither the time nor money for such formalities, and monetary incentives are not what move us. We want to improve farming for farmers. That’s a different motivator, not promoted by stifling the free use of the best and newest genetic resources.”
Furthermore, Morton takes issue with the very concept of patenting a plant trait. “You didn’t actually create it,” he says. “The plant created it, and the plant breeder has no idea how the plant created that trait. It is just nature at work.”