NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Patenting Crops Seen As "Unavoidable"

May 24, 2000

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, located near the town of Texcoco in central Mexico, startled a number of the world's plant geneticists recently by deciding it would patent new seed types it develops -- rather than make them available to everyone, which had been its previous policy.

The move added more fuel to the debate over who owns plant genes.

  • The center's directors called attention to the fact that private companies and universities are busy patenting plant genes and claiming intellectual property rights to biotechnology advances.
  • They said the policy change was a defensive tactic to block attempts to patent the center's discoveries and thus keep small farmers from using them.
  • Companies such as Monsanto and Novartis have progressed rapidly in biotechnology -- genetically modifying tomatoes to make them last longer and creating soybeans resistant to a herbicide.

Such large private companies have shared genes with the center's researchers in the past and the center makes its research available to everyone -- heightening concerns at the private companies that their secrets might slip into competitors' hands.

Source: Anthony DePalma, "The 'Slippery Slope' of Patenting Farmers' Crops," New York Times, May 24, 2000.


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