Saskatchewan, Canada, March 12, 2004: Cross breeding
of plants to produce new varieties is a relatively recent
science, little more than 100 years old. Improving plant varieties
by selection, on the other hand, has been going on for about
10,000 years. All cross breeding, or modern plant breeding,
is built on that first 10,000 years during which farmers around
the world created an astounding legacy.
One hundred years ago, no one owned plant varieties. Plant
breeders around the world co-operated by sharing germplasm
and passing on new discoveries. The creation of Marquis wheat,
forerunner of nearly all bread wheats in western Canada, illustrates
how plant breeders built on the legacy left by generations
of farmers. Marquis is a cross between Red Fife and Hard Red
Calcutta. Red Fife was brought from Scotland, by a farmer
who got the seeds from a Polish ship that carried wheat from
the Ukraine. It was given to another Scottish farmer in Ontario,
Hard Red Calcutta came from India, but it was a type of wheat
rather than a single variety. Crossed with Red Fife and carefully
selected for several generations, it yielded Marquis wheat.
By 1918, Marquis was grown on more than 20 million acres,
from northern Saskatchewan to southern Nebraska. James Boyle
of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University said this
about Marquis wheat: “The greatest single advance in
wheat ever made by the United States was the introduction
of that class of hard spring wheat known as Marquis wheat.
The idea came to us free of charge from the Dominion of Canada’s
cerealist, Sir Charles E. Sanders."
The development of Marquis expanded wheat production and
brought agricultural and economic prosperity. It also brought
great numbers of immigrants to the southern parts of the three
The development of Marquis wheat is a story of co-operation.
Co-operation, whether wittingly or not, between farmers of
that day in Poland, the Ukraine, Scotland, India, Canada and
the United States, and farmers from thousands of years before,
whose careful work in selecting and preserving wheat seeds
made all the other co-operation possible. This co-operation
occurred because people recognized the importance of progress
and development, and they knew it would only happen if people
shared their knowledge.
Contrast this with the story of Larry Proctor and the yellow
bean. Larry Proctor was a Colorado farmer who went to Mexico
in 1994 and brought back some unusually colored beans. They
were cream-colored, with a yellow hue, or so he said. Proctor
planted the seeds. He claims that, generation after generation,
(all five of them) he selected for deeper yellow color. With
each generation, Proctor says, the roots ran deeper than other
bean plants; the plants were more resistant to drought.
This was special, Proctor thought, and he wanted to protect
it. So he got a plant variety protection certificate from
the USDA, which gave him exclusive rights to multiply the
new creation he called the Enola bean. Then he went a step
further, to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, to apply
for a patent for his new invention. This would prevent others
from developing any new beans based on the Enola. And, he
thought, it would give hurting farmers in his Colorado valley
a chance to grow beans that could fetch a better price. In
1999, the government awarded the patent to Proctor's company,
based on the bean's color.
There was only one problem with Larry Proctor's version of
history. Yellow beans found in Mexico have been dated back
some 4,000 years to a time prior even to the Incas. And in
the late 1970's, plant breeders in Mexico had taken some of
the native yellow beans and bred them to produce a new variety
– a variety that looks identical to Proctor's Enola.
In fact a Mexican entrepreneur living in the U.S. was importing
yellow beans to sell to Mexican migrant workers and immigrants
from Mexico who had grown up eating those beans. In 1998,
she imported and sold 6 million pounds. In 1999, patent in
hand, Larry Proctor shut down her business by demanding a
royalty on the beans he had "invented".
As a footnote, The Center for International Tropical Agriculture,
in Cali, Colombia, is challenging Proctor's patent. In its
collection of over 260 types of yellow beans is one with an
identical genetic footprint to the bean Proctor patented.
As a result of actions like those of Larry Proctor, public
seed banks like CIAT are now demanding that researchers in
the United States and elsewhere sign agreements not to use
the seed for commercial purposes, lest this public knowledge
get locked up by private interests.
You can see that the story of Larry Proctor's beans is an
exact opposite to that of Marquis wheat. Proctor's patent,
which is so broad that it encompasses all beans of almost
any shade of yellow, was intended specifically to stop further
research on yellow beans. He wanted to prevent others from
developing any new beans based on the Enola. Where would wheat
breeding have gone on the Canadian prairies if Charles Saunders
had been able to patent Marquis wheat?
The patenting of plants, far from encouraging innovation,
as is the purpose of patents, is now used to stifle innovation.
It allows companies to tie up germplasm for their exclusive
use. While plant breeders' rights do not now allow a breeder
to restrict further work using his creation, patents do. We
do not yet allow patenting of plants in Canada, but the pressure
is on to do so. Farmers must let their voices be heard.
Editor’s note: Paul alerts
readers to a new research publication quite relevant to issues
here: Stolen Seeds: the privitasation of Canada’s agricultural
biodiversity, by Devlin Kuyek. The 40pp document is available
as a PDF file on the web at http://www.showcommunications.com/omp/affinity/stolen_seeds.pdf
or in print (English and French) at www.ramshorn.bc.ca
© Paul Beingessner, firstname.lastname@example.org
. The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and
third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.