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Corporatizing Seeds of the Commons: Patents Enabling BigAg Control

New report details how patents allow 'private companies to assert ownership over a resource that is vital to survival'

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

The paradigm shift that has transferred control of seeds from the commons to corporations has brought harmful consequences to farmers, seed diversity and the environment while making a few agricultural firms owners of the "irreplaceable element of all food," according to a report released Tuesday

Collecting seed. (Photo: Jeremy Halls) Entitled Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers (.pdf), the report from the Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds highlights how patents have enabled global corporate control over seeds, and how agricultural heavyweights are poised to follow in the steps of Monsanto in launching lawsuits against farmers for alleged seed patent infringement.

“Corporations did not create seeds and many are challenging the existing patent system that allows private companies to assert ownership over a resource that is vital to survival, and that, historically, has been in the public domain," stated Debbie Barker, Program Director for Save Our Seeds and senior writer for the report.

The report points to the tremendous control exerted by a handful of large agricultural corporations, creators of a "seed oligarchy":

Three agrichemical firms—Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta—now control 53 percent of the global commercial seed market. The top ten seed firms, with a majority stake owned by U.S. corporations, account for 73 percent.

In addition to contracts some firms require farmers to sign stating that they will not save the corporate-owned seeds, some contracts allow "intrusive invasion of farmer privacy," the report explains:

For example, Dow’s technology agreement requires farmers to complete questionnaires for, and provide planting information to, company investigators. Farmers must also agree to give Monsanto their internet service provider records, purportedly to “validate Grower’s electronic signature.” Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta agreements allow the companies to access records concerning farmers’ activities held by third parties, such as the U.S. government. In particular, the agreements allow investigators to review USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) crop reporting information, including aerial photos and farmer submissions, on any land farmed by the grower. [...]

Additionally, the agreements contain broad provisions giving seed companies access to any documents they deem to be necessary when investigating farmers. As one example, the Monsanto agreement obligates farmers: “To provide Monsanto copies of any [emphasis added] records, receipts, or other documents that could be relevant [emphasis added] to Grower’s performance of this Agreement.” This includes receipts for any chemicals or herbicides purchased, acreage reports, and aerial photographs. Growers have to produce these records seven days after written request. The breadth of this provision allows the company to obtain documents that are not necessarily directly related to a farmer’s seed and permits investigators to assess a farmer’s financial state prior to filing suit.

Other invasive aspects of the agreements include requiring farmers to identify and provide investigators access to all the farmer’s land and facilities.

The report also documents how the use of genetically engineered (GE) seeds "has fundamentally altered farming for thousands of American farmers." And it is these GE seeds, implicated in the rise of "super weeds," that have been behind lawsuits targeting farmers.

The report comes a week before the U.S. Supreme Court hears the case Bowman v. Monsanto Co., which pits Indiana soybean farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman against Monsanto.