Saturday, March 02, 2013

Expiration of first-generation Roundup Ready soybeans

The patents for Monsanto's first generation of pesticide-resistant soybeans will expire in 2014.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have for many years been protected by patents, which allow one company to forbid farmers from saving and growing a particular type of crop seeds.  Without patent protection, farmers will be able to grow the pesticide-resistant soybeans, called Roundup Ready soybeans, without paying royalties and licensing fees to Monsanto.

For example, the case of the farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman was argued before the Supreme Court last month, receiving a lot of attention.  Bowman had purchased commodity soybeans, meaning non-brand-name soybeans ready to be used by food manufacturers.  A substantial fraction of his commodity soybean seeds did indeed have the Roundup Ready trait, merely because most U.S. soybeans have this GMO trait.  After patent protection expires in 2014, a farmer such as Bowman would be free to do as he likes.

Monsanto will still use patents to protect the company's new line of GMO soybeans, called Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield.  There had been some fear that Monsanto would use patents on specific seed varieties to extend the protection of first-generation Roundup Ready technology, but -- if I understand this Monsanto press release correctly -- it appears the company plans to let this first-generation technology really enter the public domain without any trickery involving specific seed varieties.  Monsanto does not plan to require farmers to destroy unsold seeds from the final patent-protected harvest, but instead the farmers may go ahead and save those seeds for the first legal non-licensed planting.

We should not exaggerate the importance of this news.  The change makes little difference for organic farmers or for people who have broad food safety concerns about GMOs.  If anything, wider availability of inexpensive Roundup Ready seed could worsen the problem of new weeds that are resistant to glyphosate (the generic name for Roundup).  The end of patent protection could in principle lead to new university-based crop breeding programs that seek to make seed technology more freely available, although I wonder if U.S. universities have lost the capacity to do so without corporate financial support. 

Yet, for some people who follow the ferocious public debate about GMOs, the end of patent protection seems like a big deal.  It helps to weaken the perceived linkage between the two distinct concepts, "GMO technology" and "corporate control of the food system."

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