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Why We Need IPR for GMOs

June 11, 2014
At GMO Answers, we’ve received several questions about corporate intellectual property rights (IPR) and patents on GMO seeds, with many believing that patents hurt farmers by forcing them to purchase new seeds each year instead of using the seeds they harvest. On the contrary, patents actually help farmers gain access to new technologies by facilitating innovation, by enabling seed developers to invest significant time and resources in creating new technologies that will provide farmers with the tools to meet current and future challenges, such as climate change, plant disease, and constant weed and pest pressures. And, it’s not just GMO seeds that can be patented; since the 1930s a patent could be applied to any new distinct plant variety, whether it’s used for conventional or organic agriculture.

The following question about GMO seeds and patents was submitted to our GMO Answers website:
Why should seeds of second generation, third generation, four generation and on, be considered intellectual property of the original company that produced the strain in the first place? … That sounds like a really bad idea to me? At (sic) what point does it end?

To answer this question, Drew Kershen, Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma, provided detailed background and context explaining the laws and policies governing the U.S. intellectual property rights system. He then focused on the issue of invention and innovation costs, excerpted below:
"Plant breeders (whether individuals, companies, cooperatives, or universities, or USDA) invest significant sums in creating, developing, and testing new varieties of crops. For seed varieties, it is not unusual for a plant breeder to invest millions on a single variety in research and development costs. Plant breeders would not invest these millions unless they had a way of recovering research and development costs. Intellectual Property provides the 'exclusive right' that allows the plant breeder to have a chance to recover those costs if seed dealers and farmers adopt that variety and pay for the seed. These research and development costs can also be called ‘invention’ costs.

In addition, depending upon governing statues about how a seed can gain authorization for commercial release, plant breeders can also spend millions of dollars to gain regulatory approval for sale to seed dealers and farmers. These regulatory costs are particularly large for genetically-engineered seeds. The 'exclusive right' of Intellectual Property allows the plant breeder also the chance to recover these regulatory costs. Regulatory costs can be also be called 'innovation' costs.”

Here’s another example: your friend buys a new music CD and offers to burn you a copy of that CD for free. The composer of that music won’t be reimbursed the innovation costs associated with the burnt CD, reducing the incentive to create more cutting edge music. This concept is similar to the production costs for a GM seed. When farmers choose to purchase GM seeds, they agree not to reuse the harvested seeds and thereby help cover the innovation costs associated with the invention.

BIO encourages conversation about GMO products, so if you have got a GMO question or want to read more about this topic, please visit here to view Fran’s response in its entirety.