Who owns the seeds?

This is a crucial question: who owns life? Who owns the genetic resources for our seeds? Who owns the penguin, or the maize plant? Everyone, or no one? The key stakeholders? Or those who have isolated a gene or created a plant with new techniques and then patented it?

The question to whom belong the genetic resources of the earth will become increasingly important in the coming decades. Because the selection of new varieties will depend on the free exchange of genetic resources. Patents (and increasingly also the new laws on the protection of varieties) put a stop to this possibility. Patent owners enjoy a monopoly on the objects they have patented.

Florianne Koechlin is a biologist and author. She writes on the subject of plants, especially communication with plants, relational networks, and sustainable concepts for agriculture. She has published books on different subjects, such as PflanzenPalaver ("Speaking plants"), Mozart und die List der Hirse ("Mozart and the cunning of millet") and Jenseits der Blattränder ("Beyond the leaf’s edge").  (www.blauen-institut.ch and www.floriannekoechlin.ch)


Patents ad absurdum

An example: when the Research Institute Agroscope at Wädenwil marketed a new variety of apple – developed after 20 years of extremely expensive selection work, requiring the cross-breeding of many varieties of apples from both Switzerland and abroad – if in this variety, there were to be (perhaps only by chance) a patented Syngenta gene, then this apple variety would belong to Syngenta.

Such increasingly absurd claims to monopoly protection are driving plant selection ever more into the hands of a few giant agrochemical businesses – a dangerous situation.

Living beings are not things

The next question is: What is a living being? To obtain a patent on something, three conditions must be fulfilled: 1. It must be an "invention". 2. The object must be fully described in the text of the patent (and not just a "discovery" that it is not patentable). 3. Any competent person must be able to reproduce it.

But is this not precisely the huge difference between a living being and a machine? Living things cannot be invented, or described, or replicated! It is of the very essence of a living being that it is not a thing. It is not an object.

The Patent Act was written for non-living matter – chemicals or machinery. Patents in that case are legitimate protectors of innovation. But the authors of the patent law were quite clear that living beings cannot be patented. Thus Article.2.3.a of the Swiss Patent Act specifically excludes "plant varieties" and "breeds" from patentability.

How "discoveries" have become "inventions"

Since the 1980s, with the development of genetic engineering, this consensus began to change. Under massive pressure from major groups, the patent law has been so distorted by the contortions of legal discourse that living beings became patentable. "Discoveries" are now called "inventions".

But a living being is never the "invention" of a company. It should never be patented. Patents on living things should be vehemently rejected not only for social reasons, but also on ethical grounds.

Florianne Koechlin

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MASIPAG - A Success Story
MASIPAG is a network of farmers' organisations and scientists in the Philippines; one of the largest and most successful of its kind in the world. Its purpose is to preserve and select rice varieties adapted to local conditions. Equally important is its aim of enabling farmers and peasants to regain control of their lives and so free them from the trap of debt and poverty.

The process of selecting rice varieties is always the same: if a village wants to participate in the project, farmers must first make a field available for the "experimental farm" (which is no easy thing to do!). Then with the help of MASIPAG trainers specialised in selection they plant at least 50 different varieties of rice. They observe their growth, then evaluate and choose the best after each season’s varieties. "Variety of high quality" means a robust variety, pest resistant, palatable, and beautiful in colour. Selection and cultivation are practiced organically, without pesticides or agrochemical products and without genetic engineering.

60 farmers' organisations have now joined MASIPAG and it has about 35,000 farmers and peasants. The movement is growing every year, supported by 200 trainers in selection techniques, plus 70 breeders and 15 agronomists. MASIPAG’s seed banks conserve and preserve more than 1,000 varieties of rice.

Florianne Koechlin