Patent Free Seeds
For countless generations, seed saving created a delicious abundance of crop diversity and supported healthy, regenerative food systems. But modern laws now threaten this practice, making it illegal to save and share seeds from plants protected by utility patents.
The Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance believes that plant utility patenting poses a risk to seed diversity and our seed freedom. We are raising awareness about this threat and mobilizing our communities to identify and boycott utility patented seeds.
A Brief History of Plant Patenting
It is important to understand the history of plant patenting and the difference between various patent-type protections for plants in the United States. The first attempt to privately own plant genetic material was the Plant Patent Act (PPA) of 1930. With this legislation, breeders of vegetatively produced plants (i.e., by grafts or cuttings, as with fruit trees) could claim their newly developed variety as intellectual property. Unauthorized propagation of these patented plants was now illegal. However, other breeders could still use these crops as the basis for creating new varieties. Importantly, the law did not prohibit seed saving as those crops that reproduce sexually (that is, by seed germination) were exempted.
Next came the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) of 1970. This law granted intellectual property rights over many seed- and tuber-propagated plants to Plant Variety Protection certificate holders. For the first time, seed saving from protected varieties was prohibited. This law included some important exemptions: farmers and gardeners could save and replant seed from PVP certificate crops, as well as sell their saved seed to other farmers. (Amendments to the act in 1994 eliminated farmers’ right to sell saved seed.) Similarly, researchers were permitted to use protected varieties in breeding projects.
These vital rights for the free and open use of seeds were effectively ended by plant utility patenting. Two landmark court decisions – Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980) and Ex parte Hibberd(1985)—cleared the way for this most restrictive form of proprietary ownership over our seeds. In the Chakrabarty case, the Supreme Court radically reinterpreted existing patent laws to state that “anything under the sun made by man” was patentable – including forms of life. This premise was extended to plants by the Hibberd decision, leading to the first utility patents of plants. Utility patented crops have legal protections that forbid growers from saving or sharing seeds or using the plant in research or other plant breeding projects. Nearly 17,000 utility patents have been filed for plants to date, including many popular vegetable varieties.
Here’s more shocking news: You may already be growing patented plants and not realize it! Many popular seed catalogs now contain utility-patented varieties, some improperly labeled or not labeled as such. Plant patenting regulations intended to serve as an incentive for crop breeders can create the opposite effect. They have become tools to restrict our right to save and share seeds.
Resist Plant Patenting – Support Open-Source Seed
At the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, we believe plant utility patenting is unacceptable. It stands in direct opposition to our mission for resilient, regenerative local food systems. To fight it, we are raising awareness among gardeners and farmers about this crucial issue and spreading information about what Rocky Mountain communities can do to resist patented seeds.
Here are some things you can do to take action against seed patenting:
- Avoid purchasing or planting utility patented seed varieties. Seed saving is an ancient tradition and fundamental right for all people that must not be infringed. Source your seeds from small, bioregional companies (like these listed here) or community seed libraries and exchanges. Look for terms like “open-pollinated,” “heirloom,” and “landrace” which are not likely to be patented. Always contact seed sellers and ask about a variety’s patent status.
- Demand full patent disclosure from seed companies. Plant utility patenting is becoming increasingly prevalent, yet few seed companies, especially organic seed companies, openly declare the extent to which they are now selling patented varieties. For example, by our count in one popular 2019 organic seed catalog, 49% of the lettuce varieties listed for sale were now patented. This company declined to provide a complete list of the patented varieties they sell. This must change. Make your voice heard: Contact seed sellers and insist that patented varieties be clearly labeled in catalogs and on packets. Complete lists must be made available to growers.
- Support open-source seed initiatives. The Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance is not alone in this fight. We proudly stand alongside other organizations who oppose seed patenting and are working to offer alternatives to the industrial-proprietary seed complex.
The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) is an essential resource that has compiled a list of hundreds of “open source” seed varieties, as well as a wealth of knowledge on the open-source seed movement. OSSI is an incredible organization leading the way in the seed freedom movement. Their listing of non-patented seeds is an excellent place to start for sourcing seeds. Only two of OSSI’s listed Seed Company Partners sell utility patented varieties, High Mowing Seeds and Harris. Be sure you ask. Dr. Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya network and Seed Freedom initiative are also vital forces in the fight against seed patenting.
- Grow, save, and share your own seeds. The best way to oppose a system is often by creating something better to replace it. Save your seeds each season and share them with friends and neighbors. If you don’t know how to save seed – learn! RMSA has many educational resources and programs to guide you on your seed saving journey. Our Grown with Local Seeds campaign is another powerful way to support this effort by raising public awareness about the link between local seeds and local food. Together, we can build vibrant, resilient food systems with heirloom varieties that make industrial agriculture and patented seeds a thing of the past.
A number of organisations in Europe have joined forces around this issue and have created a campaign called NO PATENTS ON SEEDS! Members are concerned about the increasing number of patents on plants, seeds and farm animals and their impact on farmers, breeders, innovation and biodiversity. From their website: “These patents are an abuse of patent law and put in danger the access to basic resources in agriculture and food production. Therefore, we call for an urgent re-think of European patent law in biotechnology and plant breeding and for clear regulations that exclude conventional breeding, genetic material, animals, plants and food derived thereof from patentability!”