Scandals on the illegal release of some GM crops have shown that it is hard to control such traits even within the commercial product chain. Ordinary seeds are frequently contaminated with GM traits in areas where GMOs are planted. This poses a massive immediate threat to farmers wishing to continue producing GMO free products, also in response to the growing world wide consumer rejection of GM foods.
So far two traits only have significant market shares, one conferring resistance to a broad spectra- herbicide “Roundup” (Rr) and another making plants poisonous to insects by means of a soil-microbe Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt). Within a few years these GM-plants – soybeans, maize, oilseed rape and cotton – cover an area of about 90 million hectares annually, concentrated in 5 “GM- countries” (USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and China plant over 90% of the total GM plants).
Their impact on seed diversity as well as on the overall biodiversity in these areas is devastating. A single multinational company, Monsanto, holds the patents for 90% of all GM-plant traits commercialized.
II. Corporate take-over of seed: a threat to seed freedom and the rights of farmers
Until recently seed has resisted basic principles of capitalist market laws, the most important barrier being the nature of the seed, which reproduces itself and multiplies. Thus seed has been both a means of production as well as the product itself. Research and development for seed improvement has long been a public domain and a government activity for common good. But private capital started to flow into seed production and take it over as a sector of the economy, determining an artificial split between the two aspects of the double nature of the seed: means of production and product.
This process gained pace after the invention of hybrid breeding of maize in the late 1920s. Today most maize seed cultivated are hybrids, which allow withholding the distinct parent lines from farmers and result in grain not suited for seed saving and replanting. The extension of patent laws as an Intellectual Property Rights tool into the area of seed varieties soon started to create a growing market for private seed companies. Intellectual property rights previously had a much milder effect on the seed market to the extent that they were based on the initial concept of plant- variety rights, that did not prevent the use of seed for further sowing and breeding, upholding the farmers’ right to use freely the yield of seed once purchased, except for commercial re-sale as seeds.
II a. Intellectual Property Rights and Seed Monopolies
The advent of genetic engineering in the 1980s led to the generalization, in practically the whole world, of the introduction of industrial patents upon life- forms granting exclusive and total private control over discoveries, now redefined as inventions. Under these patent laws seeds are entirely subdued to a system of “intellectual property rights” (IPRs), which by law – though not necessarily in reality – convert such seeds into non-renewable production inputs that require them to be re-purchased by farmers every year. In addition, the past two decades have seen a boost in hybrid seed production of plants previously inaccessible to this technology.