NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Challenge To Seed Patents

March 3, 1999

A case wending its way through the nation's courts could seriously affect the future of biotechnology research, say observers. At issue is whether modified plants can be patented.

  • The case started when Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. sued an Iowa seed merchant for reselling corn seed Pioneer had developed without permission -- contending that only it has the right to decide who sells its seeds.
  • The reseller and his attorney requested that the case be thrown out of court on the grounds that plant patents are illegal because Congress doesn't want major food crops to be patented.
  • A U.S. district court judge rejected that request -- but he considered the contention serious enough to warrant the attention of a higher court, at which point the federal appeals court in Washington that specializes in patent law decided to take up the patent legality issue.
  • Oral arguments could begin as early as this spring.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that General Electric Co. could patent a genetically-altered oil-eating bacterium. That cleared the way for patenting biologically-altered species and the U.S. Patent Office granted the first modified plant patent in 1985.

With legal obstacles cleared, chemical and seed companies began to invest heavily in research. The result has been thousands of patents on products that are just now sweeping across the U.S. and South America. An adverse ruling on plant patentability would seriously cripple the biotech industry, insiders say.

The case is also viewed as an opening for anti-biotechnology groups, which question the safety of altered foods and oppose corporate ownership of the genetic blueprints for crops.

Source: Scott Kilman, "Biotech Industry Shivers at Threat to Seed Patents," Wall Street Journal, March 3, 1999.


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