Great question. First of all, from a farm perspective not all of our seeds are genetically modified. We choose to use or not use GMOs based on the needs of our farm. When we do buy GM seeds, we are required to sign a technology contract where we agree not to save seed from year to year. This protects the research that whatever seed company we purchase from that year has put into the seeds. That being said, the seed is still viable. Technically, it could be replanted and grown the next year; however, we choose to abide by the legal restraints of our contract and do not save GMO seed.
GMOs are pretty unique in how they are made but aren’t all that uncommon when you think about how nature works. They are really a method of speeding up what is already naturally occurring in nature overtime. Plants and animals have to evolve to overcome obstacles that threaten their livelihood. This could take thousands of years. With GMOs, this process can be sped up as scientists pinpoint specific places in a plant’s DNA that can be changed to make that plant have a higher survivability rate.
As a farmer, GMOs make sense when it comes to sustainability. Sustainability is more than just seed availability. It’s the preservation of our natural resources and the reduction of waste. Through the use of some GMOs, we are able to use fewer restricted-use pesticides, choosing instead weaker chemistries that aren’t as harmful on the environment.
To answer the first part of the question, none of the seeds that is genetically altered “requires” a man-made chemical to grow—just soil, air and water. I’ll explain more at the bottom why that last part is important.
A list of GMO crops currently approved or under consideration for cultivation in the United States is available from USDA’s website. On that site, you can see for yourself the data submitted for each GMO crop. One of the key studies GMO crop developers submit to USDA is a comparison of agronomic requirements between the GMO crop and its non-GMO counterpart. USDA specifically considers whether a new GMO crop plant has requirements different from crops already being grown. None of the GMO crops listed at the link above depends on the use of specific chemical inputs that are not needed by the non-GMO counterpart.
Within the list on USDA’s website, you will see a variety of GMO traits, the two most common of which are herbicide tolerance and insect protection. Herbicide-tolerant crops can withstand applications of herbicide that non-GMO crops cannot, but they do not require herbicide sprays to grow. In some cases, the herbicide may be made by the same company that produced the GMO seed; in other cases, the herbicide is available from other suppliers, not affiliated with the GMO seed company. With insect-protected crops, farmers are able to protect their crop from insects while using fewer chemical pesticide treatments. A third type of trait is called an output trait. These are for things like improved nutrition, such as soybeans that make more long-chain omega-3. This requires no change in inputs at all and relies on a change to a metabolic pathway that exists in another plant with a history of safe use.
The reason why not changing inputs (man-made chemicals) in some traits is important can be illustrated by the example of insect-protected traits that use Bt. In some regions of the world, many smallholder farms don’t have the equipment to safely or effectively use pesticides, and some of these farmers can’t read labels. This type of trait may be perceived as “high-tech,” but its use does not require equipment and can be really low-tech in practice.
Professor Drew Kershen, Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law (Emeritus) at the University of Oklahoma College of Law recently answered a question about seed patents, and an excerpt is below:
“…Beginning in the early 1900s scientists began to understand the process of developing hybrid plants. Scientists learned to develop two in-bred parent lines that when crossed produced hybrid vigor – most often meaning greatly increase yields. Using this scientific knowledge, Henry Wallace Pioneer Hi-Bred controlled the information about the parental lines as a company secret, thereby gaining the intellectual property known as a “trade secret.” Thus, seed companies have been able to have trade secrets in plants for almost a century in the United States.
Farmers would go to a local seed dealer and request to purchase a particular brand and variety of a seed. Upon purchase, the farmers would then own the seed for planting and harvesting a crop. However, because of ordinary rules of biology, hybrid seeds if saved and replanted lose about 30 percent of their yield. Thus, farmers in the United States are accustomed to returning to a local seed dealer each year to purchase new hybrid seeds. The same is true for farmers around the world.
As knowledge about plants and breeding continued to develop, scientists learned in the early 1970s to use new breeding techniques based on knowledge of genetic information. In 1980, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that an organism produced through modern biotechnology can be protected under general patent law – via a utility patent. In 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States reaffirmed that plant breeders can obtain a utility patent in biotech organisms, including seeds and plants. Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. (# 12-398 decided June 13, 2013).
Therefore, on the United States, plant breeders can own intellectual property in seeds and plants through each of the legally protected property rights – plant patents, trade secrets, trademarks, plant variety certificates, and utility patents. Farmers purchase seeds from local seed dealers and farmers then own the seeds for the purposes of producing a harvest. But the farmer does not own the intellectual property in the seed or growing crop…”
The full response is available here: http://gmoanswers.com/ask/does-%E2%80%9Cpatent%E2%80%9D-allow-private-company-own-seeds-created-0.