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Project: Genetic Engineering and the Privatization of Seeds
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Revisions to the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants strengthen the intellectual property rights of seed developers. The convention was created in 1961 and is one of several international conventions and treaties that operate under the umbrella of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The convention’s governing body is the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). The newly revised UPOV agreement extends the term of plant breeders’ intellectual property protections for new varieties from 15 years to 20 years. It also prohibits farmers from saving seeds, though there is an optional clause that allows member countries to exempt farmers from this restriction under certain conditions. For example, the clause says the restrictions can be waived if member countries implement other mechanisms that provide equivalent protections for the “legitimate interests of the breeder.” [International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, 3/19/1991; Dhar, Pandey, and Chaturvedi, 6/23/1995] The revisions will enter into force one month after five states have ratified, accepted, approved or acceded to UPOV ‘91.

Entity Tags: International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants

Category Tags: International agreements, Farmers' rights

Vice President Dan Quayle, chairman of the President’s Council on Competitiveness, and Louis Sullivan, secretary of health and human services, announce the FDA’s new policy on the regulation of genetically engineered foods. In the policy statement that is published three days later, the FDA will say it has determined that genetically modified (GM) foods are “substantially equivalent” to conventionally grown foods and therefore will not be subject to any special regulations. The agency justifies its position saying that assessments concerning the safety of food products should be based on the characteristics of the food product and not on the methods used to develop that product. [US Food and Drug Administration, 5/29/1992 pdf file] Specifically addressing the issue of labeling for GM foods, the May 29 statement will read: “The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding. For this reason, the agency does not believe that the method of development of a new plant variety… would… usually be required to be disclosed in labeling for the food.” Labeling would only be required in special cases, the FDA says. For example, if a genetically engineered tomato contains a peanut protein that is a proven allergen, a label will be needed. [US Food and Drug Administration, 5/29/1992, pp. 22991 pdf file] In their statement to the press, Sullivan says that biotechnology promises to develop new food products “that are tastier, more varied, more wholesome, and that can be produced more efficiently.” Quayle’s council played a key role in expediting the development of the policy. [Food and Drug Administration, 5/26/1992] Quayle explains that the policy will ensure the competitiveness of US firms. “The reforms we announce today will speed up and simplify the process of bringing better agricultural products, developed through biotech, to consumers, food processors, and farmers,” he says. “We will ensure that biotech products will receive the same oversight as other products, instead of being hampered by unnecessary regulation.” [New York Times, 1/25/2001]

Entity Tags: Dan Quayle, Louis Sullivan, US Food and Drug Administration

Category Tags: National legislation/policy

The 1991 revisions to the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (see March 19, 1991) are entered into force. The controversial changes limit farmers’ rights while extending intellectual property rights for seed companies and other plant breeders. [International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, 4/21/1998; Financial Times, 4/24/1998] A press release published by the UPOV notes that Article 27.3(b) of the WTO TRIPS agreement calls for its members to protect plant varieties with patents or other mechanisms, such as the UPOV convention, which it says is the “only internationally recognized sui generis system for the protection of plant varieties.” The press release also notes that this obligation in the TRIPS Agreement, which already applies to developed country members of WTO, will enter into force for many developing countries on January 1, 2000. [International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, 4/21/1998]

Entity Tags: International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants

Category Tags: International agreements

A bill that would require registration and state-level regulation for seed cleaners is introduced into the Ohio state legislature. Seed cleaners are businesses that “clean” seeds for farmers by removing the chaff (which includes grit, dirt, cut plant material). The proposal, introduced by Rep. Joe Haines, is being pushed by Monsanto. James E. Betts, a Columbus attorney who represents Monsanto, tells the Columbus Dispatch, “One of the things the state has a legitimate interest in is regulating the marketplace. It’s important that every seed a farmer gets is a pure seed and is, essentially, as advertised. The seed-cleaning business is not licensed or registered. It’s a segment of seed market that has not been identified.” Seed cleaners would be required to keep records on every farmer who has seeds cleaned or conditioned. For example, the cleaner would need to record the following: the accepted name and brand or variety of the seed; any patents or plant variety protection certificates associated with the seed; the farmer’s contact information; and the amount of seed being cleaned or conditioned. Farmers would also have to sign an indemnification statement, which would also be held by the seed cleaner. The seed cleaner would be obligated under law to store these records for five years and make them available upon request to the State’s Director of Agriculture. Roger Peters, an Ohio farmer and seed cleaner, asks, “Why should any farmer be forced to keep records on law-abiding farmers who clean their own seed? And why should public tax dollars be used to protect the patents of private seed companies like Monsanto?” Sean McGovern, executive administrator of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farmers Association, has similar feelings about the bill. “I can’t imagine any use for this bill accept to enforce Monsanto’s patents,” he says. [General Assembly of the State of Ohio, 1/28/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/7/1999; Columbus Dispatch, 4/4/1999] The bill is not passed. [General Assembly of the State of Ohio, 1/28/1999]

Entity Tags: Monsanto, Ohio

Category Tags: Farmers' rights, Biotech/seed industry, National legislation/policy

Grupo Maseca, Mexico’s top producer of corn flour, says it will phase out its use of genetically modified corn. Mexico purchased $500 million of US corn in 1998. [Food & Drink Weekly, 9/13/1999; Canadian Business, 10/8/1999]

Entity Tags: Grupo Maseca

Category Tags: Mexico, Corn, National legislation/policy, National policies toward GM food

Australia and New Zealand, in a joint statement, announce that they will require all genetically modified products to be labeled. [Australian Broadcast Corporation, 7/28/2000; Australia, 7/28/2000]

Entity Tags: Australia, New Zealand

Category Tags: National legislation/policy, National policies toward GM food

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) passes conference resolution 3/2001, approving the Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, popularly known as the International Seed Treaty. The vote is almost unanimous with only two countries abstaining: the United States and Japan. [The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 11/3/2001 pdf file; Financial Times, 11/6/2001] The treaty—under negotiation for seven years [Financial Times, 11/6/2001] —requires countries to share the genetic resources of all seed varieties from 35 food crops and 29 forage crops, officially designating them as part of the global commons. The seeds will be deposited in a network of seed banks for use by all member countries, free of charge, for research and experimental plant breeding. The treaty prohibits using the seeds for chemical or pharmaceutical research. Companies using the seed for commercial purposes are required to pay an equitable share of the resulting profits to a trust fund, which will finance efforts to improve the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources in developing countries. A multilateral system will be set up to facilitate countries’ access to the 64 selected crops. [Australian, 10/31/2001; Reuters, 11/5/2001; Financial Times, 11/6/2001; Food and Agriculture Organization, 6/29/2004] The treaty also affirms farmers’ rights “to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed and other propagating material, and to participate in decision-making regarding, and in the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from, the use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture… .” [Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,, 11/3/2001 pdf file] The US refusal to sign the treaty was based on its concern that the treaty does not do enough to respect intellectual property rights. Specifically, the US wanted “WTO rules on intellectual property rights [to] be applied without modification to the new treaty,” according to the Financial Times. It also wanted any references critical of intellectual property scrubbed from the text. But the Chair, Ambassador Fernando Gerbasi of Venezuela, would not permit it. The US, along with countries like Australia, expressed concerns during negotiation that there would be little incentive for biotech companies to invest in crop research if they were required to share their patented GM genes. [Australian, 10/31/2001; Financial Times, 11/6/2001] Additionally, the US wanted a provision in the treaty that would have allowed for germplasm embargos against Cuba or other “enemies” of “enduring freedom.” [ETC Group, 11/4/2001] The treaty will enter into force 90 days after the 48th country ratifies it. [Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,, 11/3/2001 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Australia, Japan, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Bush administration (43), United States

Timeline Tags: Food Safety

Category Tags: Biodiversity, International agreements, Food security, Farmers' rights

In a split 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada rules that Percy Schmeiser violated Monsanto’s patent when he grew canola in 1998 that contained the company’s patented Roundup Ready gene. [Washington Post, 5/22/2004; Vancouver Sun, 5/22/2004; New York Times, 5/22/2004]
Decision - Schmeiser’s lawyer, Terry Zakreski, argued that the protection of Monsanto’s patented genes and cells necessarily extended to restricting the use of any plants and seeds containing them. Since this in effect means that Monsanto is claiming patentholder’s rights for the whole plant, the court must rule, in light of its 2002 Harvard College v. Canada decision that higher-life forms cannot be patented, that the company’s patent must be invalid. However, the majority rejects Zakreski’s argument and affirms the validity of Monsanto’s patent. The majority says the “Harvard Mouse” case does not support Schmeiser’s argument because, while Harvard had sought to patent an actual mouse, Monsanto’s patent is limited to certain genes and cells. Furthermore, Harvard did acquire patents on certain parts of the mouse, a plasmid and a somatic cell culture, and therefore the “Harvard Mouse” case supports Monsanto case, not Schmeiser’s. [Percy Schmeiser v. Monsanto Canada Inc., 5/21/2004, pp. 8] The majority also rejects Schmeiser’s defense that he did not use Monsanto’s patented genes. While sidestepping the issue of whether or not it would be necessary to spray Roundup on the plants in order to exploit Monsanto’s patented genes and cells, the majority says that his 1998 canola crop provided him with “stand-by” utility, which a previous court decision determined constituted “use.” In possessing and growing the crop, the majority argues, Schmeiser had reserved the option to spray it with Roundup, should the need arise, or sell it to make a profit. The majority thus holds that Schmeiser infringed on the patent. [Percy Schmeiser v. Monsanto Canada Inc., 5/21/2004, pp. 11-13] It is important to note that the majority says this decision does not concern “the innocent discovery by farmers of ‘blow-by’ patented plants on their land or in their cultivated fields.” The majority makes it clear that they do not accept Schmeiser’s claim that his property was “contaminated” with Monsanto’s genes. [Percy Schmeiser v. Monsanto Canada Inc., 5/21/2004, pp. 5] For them it is accepted fact that (1) “tests revealed that 95 to 98 percent of his 1,0[3]0 acres of canola crop [in 1998] was made up of Roundup Ready plants” [Percy Schmeiser v. Monsanto Canada Inc., 5/21/2004, pp. 6] ; (2) “he sprayed Roundup to isolate the Roundup Ready plants he found on his land” [emphasis added]; (3) he “segregated the seeds”; and (4) “he ended up with 1030 acres of Roundup Ready Canola.” All of these statements are made as matters of accepted fact even though they were, in fact, all disputed by Schmeiser (see January 20, 2004). [Percy Schmeiser v. Monsanto Canada Inc., 5/21/2004, pp. 15] The court does however side with Schmeiser on the issue of compensation owed to Monsanto. “[Schmeiser’s and Schmeiser Enterprises’] profits were precisely what they would have been had they planted and harvested ordinary canola. They sold the Roundup Ready Canola they grew in 1998 for feed, and thus obtained no premium for the fact that it was Roundup Ready Canola. Nor did they gain any agricultural advantage from the herbicide resistant nature of the canola, since no finding was made that they sprayed with Roundup herbicide to reduce weeds. The appellants’ profits arose solely from qualities of their crop that cannot be attributed to the invention.” [Percy Schmeiser v. Monsanto Canada Inc., 5/21/2004, pp. 17]
Dissenting Opinion - The minority opinion disagrees that any of Monsanto’s rights as a patentholder extend to plants, seeds, and crops. It accepts that Monsanto’s patent claims for the genes and cells are valid, but says that none of the protections afforded by the patent extend “to the plant itself, a higher life form incapable of patent protection.” According to the minority, “In order to avoid the claim extending to the whole plant, the plant cell claim cannot extend past the point where the genetically modified cell begins to multiply and differentiate into plant tissues, at which point the claim would be for every cell in the plant, i.e., for the plant itself.” Consequently, only the original genes and cells produced by Monsanto in the lab and contained within the original seed are protected by the patent—the resulting plant, its seeds, and the plants that grow from those seeds, are not. “Therefore saving, planting, or selling seed from glyphosate-resistant plants does not constitute an infringing use,” the minority concludes. [Percy Schmeiser v. Monsanto Canada Inc., 5/21/2004, pp. 22]

Entity Tags: Monsanto, Percy Schmeiser

Category Tags: Monsanto v. Schmeiser, Court decisions, Farmers' rights

(Show related quotes)

The International Seed Treaty enters into force. The treaty, approved in November 2001 (see June 29, 2004), creates a mechanism for the global management and sharing of 64 major crops and forages, providing some measure of insurance against the risks posed by the loss of agricultural biodiversity. It also affirms farmers’ rights to save, trade, and replant their seeds. [Food and Agriculture Organization, 6/29/2004]

Category Tags: International agreements

Federal Judge J. Michael Seabright rules that the US Department of Agriculture violated both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it allowed the cultivation of drug-producing GM crops in Hawaii. The court says the USDA acted in “utter disregard” of the two laws because it failed even to conduct preliminary investigations before granting approval for the growing of these crops. The Hawaii islands are home to 329 endangered and threatened species. Seabright’s ruling is the first court decision regarding plants that have been genetically modified to produce pharmaceutical drugs or industrial compounds. The case primarily concerned four permits that had been issued to Monsanto, ProdiGene, Garst Seed Company, and the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center allowing them to grow drug-producing corn and sugarcane at various locations in Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, and Maui between 2001 and 2003. The plaintiffs in the case—Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Pesticide Action Network North America, and KAHEA (the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance)—also challenged the USDA’s practice of refusing to disclose the locations where experimental chemical-producing GM plants are being grown and what substances those plants are being developed to produce. [Center for Food Safety, et al. v. Mike Johanns, et al., 8/10/2006 pdf file; Center for Food Safety, 8/14/2006]

Entity Tags: Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, Center for Food Safety, Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, US Department of Agriculture, Monsanto, Pesticide Action Network North America, J. Michael Seabright, ProdiGene, Garst Seed Company

Category Tags: Experimental GM Crops, Court decisions, Environment

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