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Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | chapter wide
Patented seeds violate farmers’ rights
December 2008

by Laurel Hopwood, Sierra Club
Genetic Engineering Committee Chair

The genetic diversity of our planet and the genetic resources which are the fruit of 100 centuries of human agriculture are a shared common treasure of mankind. Transgenic agriculture—using modern genetic engineering techniques to splice genes from one species into another—involves many risks which are yet to be fully evaluated, but one danger in clear sight is the use of patent protections to shift equity from the global genetic commons into private hands. This is theft in broad daylight.

The principle argument in favor of life patents is that they spur innovation. Yet genetic engineering in plants has so far consisted only of splicing genes from one species into another with no significant increases in yields or benefits to consumers. This rewriting of the genetic code has sufficed to win patents. This is not technological progress, but the veneer of technology being used for theft. The patents allow seed companies to impose new conditions in contracts with farmers. The actual “innovation” is a loss of farmers’ rights. In the United States and Canada, farmers are being sued for planting their own seeds (saving seeds) without paying a fee.

The U.S. has pushed life patents and genetic patents on the world. Sierra Club believes that, just as the nations of the world have agreed that there should be no slavery and that a contract which calls for slavery would be unenforceable, there should be no patents on the genetic machinery of life and that all contracts based on such an idea should be null and void. That would be to the advantage of every man, woman and child on this planet. We are the heirs to this planet’s genetic diversity and shouldn’t let that heritage be claimed by corporate greed.

One way to put the brakes on GMO agriculture that will soon be available is the Biosafety Protocol (Cartagena Protocol) of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Although the U.S. hasn’t ratified either the Convention or its Protocol, the Biosafety Protocol has obtained ratifications from over 50 nations and has entered into force. As part of international treaty law, it allows nations to invoke the Precautionary Principle in order to stop imports of GMOs. We urge farmers in the U.S., and likewise the farmers and nations of the world, to defend their rights to save seeds. We urge them to work for the abolition of patents on the molecular machinery of life. While changes in U.S. patent laws may be slow in coming, our position is that if farmers use their own seed or sell seed crops intended as food, they shouldn’t have to pay licensing fees twice.



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