Expert response from Chelsey Robinson
Former Global Preparedness Content Manager, Monsanto Company
Tuesday, 25/11/2014 11:29
Agricultural companies such as Monsanto, as well as public institutions and individuals, are able to patent seed trait technology because it is considered intellectual property. Intellectual property rights are protected in the United States and many other countries. It has been well documented that a robust intellectual property system helps drive investment and invention. For example, ASTA sponsored this study on the value of IP rights in the seed industry. In order for the system to work, however, inventors must be willing to enforce and defend their patents against those who are engaged in theft.
A basic reason for patents is to protect intellectual property, which allows inventors to recover their research and development costs. Research and development in the area of GM traits is expensive and generally has a low probability of success; on average, a new GM trait product takes an average of 13 years and $130 million to get to market (CLI Philipps McDougal study). A more important reason is to help foster innovation. Without patent protection, there would be little incentive for inventors to pursue and reinvest in innovation. Monsanto invests more than $2.6 million per day in collaborations, as well as research and development, that ultimately benefit farmers and consumers, which would not be possible if we did not recoup our investment.
Monsanto and many other seed companies do, however, ask farmers to sign agreements when they buy patented seeds. And these agreements state that the farmers will not save and replant seeds produced from the seed they purchase. They understand the basic simplicity of the agreement, which is that a business must be paid for its product. The vast majority of farmers understand and appreciate our research and are willing to pay for our technology and the value they provide. These farmers respect patent laws and honor their agreements to abide by that law. In fact, oftentimes the reports Monsanto receives about farmers saving patented seeds come from other farmers in the same community.
Monsanto does look into these allegations if infringement is a possibility; in these cases, a Monsanto manager will meet with the individuals involved. When violations have occurred, we have been able to settle most of these cases without ever going to trial, and in many cases, these farmers remain our customers. Sometimes, however, we are forced to resort to lawsuits. This is a relatively rare circumstance, with 145 lawsuits filed since 1997 in the United States. This averages about 11 per year for the past 17 years. To date, only nine cases have gone completely through trial, and in every one of these instances, the jury or court decided in our favor. All funds awarded in these cases were donated to local charities. The seed industry, which includes our competitors, is very supportive of intellectual property rights in seeds and the enforcement of those rights. The American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) “believes that, worldwide, affordable intellectual property protection systems, including patents and PVP and other methods of protection including trade secret and contracts, should be available to allow new inventions to be protected in the most appropriate manner as determined by the inventor.” The ASTA’s Position Statement on intellectual property rights for the seed industry is available for more information.
Regarding why Monsanto appears to be the only company showing up in Google searches for this type of litigation: while I don’t understand the specifics of the Google algorithm, when I do my own search, I do find only examples relating to Monsanto specifically. These are cases relating to farmers like Vernon Bowman and Percy Schmeizer. These are egregious examples that activists use to perpetuate the myth that Monsanto sues farmers for saving seeds, when GM seed is accidently found in their fields or for cross-pollination. Monsanto has a long-standing public commitment that “it has never been, nor will it be, Monsanto’s policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seeds or traits are present in a farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.” In fact, in 2012-2013, two separate courts acknowledged that Monsanto has not taken any action — or even suggested taking any action — against organic growers because of cross-pollination. Since 1996, millions of farmers in the United States have planted billions of acres of GM crops, and there are very few cases of litigation. My best guess as to why Monsanto is the only company appearing in a Google search would be because of the proliferation of these myths by activists, as well as the fact that Monsanto is a leader in the space of seed technology.
You might be interested in this response from Andre Roef, head of Law, Patents & Compliance Seeds, Bayer, who has also answered similar questions on GMOAnswers.com:
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