by Linley Dixon, PhD
Seed diversity is undeniably essential to life. Scientists have only scratched the surface in identifying the millions of genetic traits stored in seed banks including variations in appearance, and nutrition, as well as resistance to disease, drought, and salinity.
Intellectual property rights allow research plant breeders to patent new plant varieties they breed and gene sequences they “discover.” There are some philosophical questions to grapple with here.
First, should we even be allowed to patent life? Patenting seed encourages the use of a narrow set of traits to which biotechnology and breeding are targeted—for example, the ability for a plant to break down a patented chemical. Innovations are restricted to the best-selling crops and are targeted toward mechanized monoculture farming because large-scale production sells the most seed and chemical inputs. If genes and varieties are not patentable, big seed companies are not able to make big financial investments in varieties that promote big monoculture farming practices.
To try and change this trend, a group of scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison are raising awareness of the growing number of patented genes and seeds by coordinating the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI, www.opensourceseedinitiative.org).
OSSI was launched in 2011 with the realization that, according to their website, “continued restrictions on seed may hinder our ability to improve our crops and provide access to genetic resources.” In April 2014, OSSI’s first release of seeds included 36 varieties of 14 different crops with an open-source license stating that the seeds and DNA sequences cannot be legally protected in any way in the future.
Though this is a small step toward decentralizing the responsibility for agricultural innovation, the OSSI is raising awareness that we cannot leave our future in the hands of a few corporations.
It is impossible to know what genes will become useful for adaptations to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, drought, salinity, and other future shifts in environmental conditions.
Seed viability diminishes with time. Therefore, if unique varieties of seeds are not continually grown, pollinated, and new seeds collected and properly stored, some traits will be lost forever. Likewise, if farmers are not saving and replanting their seed, adaptations to local conditions will not be preserved. Future food security depends on the availability of a diverse gene pool within each food crop that is available to all for future experimentation.
With the increasing industrialization of our global food supply, the number of unique cultivars farmers are growing is dramatically being reduced.
When a crop species lacks diversity in the field, conditions favor the spread of plant diseases. The United States’ most economically devastating crop epidemic was caused by the intentional use of cytoplasmic male sterility genes, which also unknowingly created susceptibility to a disease.
In the summer of 1970, Southern Corn Leaf Blight, caused by a type of fungus, Bipolaris maydis, wiped out a billion dollars’ worth of corn in the United States. Seeking to reduce the labor involved with hybrid corn seed production, seed companies used the trait for cytoplasmic male sterility. This eliminated the need for hand detasseling of female plants so that foreign pollen could more easily be introduced to create hybrids.
The disease resulted in the loss of 250 million bushels of corn in Illinois alone that year, clearly demonstrating the threat to food security from genetic uniformity and monoculture farming practices.
There are numerous examples of plant epidemics triggered by a lack of genetic diversity in the field, including Stem Rust of Wheat, which contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, and Late Blight of Potato, which caused the death or emigration of 2 million people from Ireland.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just a story of our past. Biotech seed companies count on farmers to be lured by their latest high yielding varieties as American tax payers foot the bill in the form of subsidies and federal crop insurance when disease inevitably strikes the thousands of acres planted with genetically related seed.
Genetic uniformity lends itself well to industrial-scale, monoculture food production that depends heavily on mechanization, subsidies, and chemical inputs—and, more recently, patented, genetically engineered seed. These practices threaten our food security and the health of farm workers, and leave chemical residues on our food and in our environment.
In recent years, the lack of genetic diversity has continued to contribute to widespread epidemics. Genetic uniformity can be linked to the top ten emerging plant diseases and is likely the cause of Goss’s Wilt, a new disease of corn, as reported in the New York Times in 2013. In addition, 90% of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are genetically engineered. The hybrids chosen for genetic modification come from a small gene pool of high yielding varieties and are planted in vast monocultures across the globe. The combination of large acreages planted to identical or similar genotypes produce ideal conditions for severe epidemics.
It is imperative to do all we can to shift to a more sustainable model of agriculture. Citizens have a social responsibility to challenge policies that allow for the patenting of life. We need to support public sector breeding programs, seed banks, and public access to the genetic resources they preserve. If we can prevent genes from being patented, plant breeding research will largely return to the public sector and to the many smaller diverse seed companies. This will encourage the development of genetically diverse plant varieties adapted to local conditions and resilient to environmental changes.
This story originally appeared in The Cultivator, The Cornucopia Institute’s quarterly print publication available to members and online.