How farmers’ plant breeding is appropriated

The production and use of landraces (indigenous varieties evolved through both natural and human selection) are essential to Third World farmers. These are termed ‘primitive’ cultivars, whereas those varieties created by modern plant breeders in international research centres or by transnational corporations are called ‘advanced’ or ‘elite’. Trevor Williams, the former Executive Secretary of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, has argued that it is not the original material that produces cash returns, and at a 1983 forum on plant breeding, stated that raw germ plasm only becomes valuable after considerable investment of time and money. According to this calculation, peasants’ time is considered valueless and available for free. Once again, all prior processes of creation are being denied and devalued by defining them as nature. Thus, plant breeding by farmers is not breeding; real breeding is seen to begin when this ‘primitive germ plasm’ is mixed or crossed with inbred lines in international labs by international scientists.

But the landraces that farmers have developed are not genetically chaotic. Nor do they lack innovation. They consist of improved and selected material, embodying the experience, inventiveness and hard work of farmers past and present; the evolutionary material processes they have undergone serve ecological and social needs.

As Pat Mooney has argued, “The perception that intellectual property is only recognizable when produced in laboratories by men in lab coats is fundamentally a racist view of scientific development.”

The denial of prior rights and creativity is essential for owning life. A brief book prepared by the biotechnology industry states: “Patent laws would in effect have drawn an imaginary line around your processes and products. If anyone steps over that line to use, make or sell your inventions or even if someone steps over that line in using, making or selling his own products, you could sue for patent protection.”

Jack Doyle has appropriately remarked that patents are less concerned with innovation than with territory, and can act as instruments of territorial takeover by claiming exclusive access to creativity and innovation, thereby monopolizing rights to ownership. The farmers, who are the guardians of the germ plasm, have to be dispossessed to allow the new colonization to happen.

– Vandana Shiva, ‘Biopiracy’, p 55-57