Food, Inc. Movie and Seed Patents

"The Patent System added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." - Abraham Lincoln

The film, Food, Inc., briefly raises the issue of patents on seeds in the United States. The patenting of seeds was first permitted under the Plant Patent Act of 1930. Since that time the law has developed as technology has advanced.   Patents – whether on new plants or biotech traits – allow the creator of the technology the opportunity to commercialize their innovation and to obtain a return on their investment of time and money.

Plants have long been subject to provisions of U.S. patent law, and plants were patented long before the 1980s.

It is true there have been a number of court challenges relative to the patenting of plants since the 1980s. All have found patent protection provisions do indeed apply to plants.

The ability to secure some intellectual property protection with respect to plant-related inventions is common in most developed countries. Patents encourage and reward innovation. If plant breeders were not able to protect the plant varieties they develop from unauthorized reproduction, there would be less incentive for them to develop improved plant varieties.

History of Seed Patents

1873 The patenting of living organisms dates back to at least 1873 when Monsieur Louis Pasteur was awarded US Patent #141,072 with a claim to "yeast, free of organic germs of disease, as a living organism." Pasteur was using the yeast to make beer.
1930 The Plant Patent Act of 1930 is passed. Since the passage of the Plant Patent Act of 1930, it has been possible to patent new varieties of plants in the United States.
1954 An amendment to the 1952 Patent Act clarifies that cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly found seedlings were patentable.
1970 The Plant Variety Protection Act is approved on December 24. The act provides a protection system for sexually reproduced plant varieties.
1975 The first utility patent on a plant seed product (US Patent #3,861,079) is issued to Earl Patterson of the University of Illinois – a public sector researcher – for a maize seed.
1980 The case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty held that a genetically modified bacterium was patentable, affirming living things are eligible for patent protection.
1982 Scientists working for the original Monsanto Company are the first to genetically modify a plant cell. The original Monsanto acquires the Jacob Hartz Seed Co., known for its soybean seed.
1985 The Patent and Trademark Office rules plants are patentable subject matter in Ex parte Hibberd.
1996 The original Monsanto acquires the plant biotechnology assets of Agracetus and purchases an interest in Calgene, another biotech research company. Monsanto introduces its first biotech seeds to market – Roundup Ready® soybeans with in-seed herbicide tolerance and Bollgard® insect-resistant cotton.
2000 A new Monsanto Company, based on the previous agricultural division of Pharmacia, is incorporated as a stand-alone subsidiary.
2001 U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that plants are protectable by patents in the case J.E.M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Int’l, Inc.