Innovation Plant Variety Protection Traditional Knowledge

The Sustainable Seed Innovations Project: Prong 2 – Re-Designing Education for Agricultural Students and their Teachers (Part IV)


Prong 2 – Re-Designing Education for Agricultural Students and their Teachers (Part IV)

Prof. Gregory Radick

Of course, training in genetics is just once facet of farmer education, and training for a more sustainable future will require coordinated changes across the curriculum.[1] As a second, shorter example – but one that will lead us towards Prong 3 of this position paper – considers how farmers might usefully be taught to think in fresh ways about their innovations as their property.

From an “IP-narrow” to an “IP-broad” understanding of the ownership of innovation

Until recently, for farmer education, there would have seemed no point devoting any classroom time to intellectual property – “IP” for short.  IP meant patents, plant variety protection certificates, and other legal instruments by which innovators acquired the state-sanctioned right to prevent other people from profiting from the innovations.  In the world of seeds, such instruments were the province of the so-called “formal sector”: the firms and associated laboratories that were in the business of bringing new seeds to market.  So, for those concerned to incentivize innovation with seeds, a choice seemed to be faced.  Either one could pay attention to the incentivizing role of IP, in which case, automatically, one was excluding farmer-level innovation in favour of the formal-sector firms.  Or one could concentrate on farmer-level innovation in the informal sector, where the seed savers and sharers, individual and collective, operated independently (but not in isolation) from the formal sector, and independently (as well as in isolation) from the legal world of IP.  After all, the kinds of “open-source”, genetically and phenotypically non-uniform seeds in which the seed savers and sharers dealt simply were not the sort of seeds that could satisfy the criteria for even the lowest levels of legal protection.[2] Any concern with innovation in this sector would have to concentrate on other kinds of incentive, most obviously those to do with the enhanced status that comes with being known as an innovator.

But there is another and potentially more fruitful way to look at the situation, in line again with Radick’s research in the history and philosophy of science. Yes, patents, plant variety certificates and so on are one form of IP.  Let us call that form “IP in a narrow sense,” or “IP-narrow.”  But the ownership of knowledge can take other forms: “IP in a broad sense,” or “IP-broad.”  And in the sciences, as long ago recognized by the sociologist Robert Merton, public crediting as an innovator, and the status flowing from it, is the major incentivizing form of IP.  To be hailed by the community as the discoverer of a new species or law of nature, with one’s name appended to it forever more, is the goal for the ambitious, who, in exchange for the promise of a fair deal, willingly share their discoveries with the community as soon as possible. In Merton’s view, this credit-distribution mechanism was absolutely crucial to the ceaseless innovation that has been Western science’s trademark since the seventeenth century.[3]

A second form of broad IP identified by Radick are what he has called “productivity claims”, asserted on behalf of a body of knowledge.  From early days, Mendelian genetics was promoted as the intellectual key to future success in plant and animal breeding.  So successful were Mendelism’s partisans that it was and remains difficult to tease apart the reality from the PR when it comes to what breeders, and the rest of us, actually owe to Mendelism.[4]  As we have seen, in the case of twentieth-century American seed firms, and the scientists who served them, seeds created through hybridization were attractive in the first instance because, in the absence of patent protection for novel varieties, hybrid seeds ensured future profits for the breeders.  And once breeders began concentrating on hybrid varieties, innovative activity in the sector increasingly clustered around hybrid seeds, which duly improved.[5] In due course, unprecedentedly high-yield varieties were developed. But the notion that they could only have been developed that way is groundless.  It is commercial bluster that became Cold War propaganda.[6]

Returning now to farmer education for a more sustainable future: if we ask, “How, if at all, can IP arrangements be used to incentivize farmer-level innovations in plant breeding in India, in a way that not only strengthens the traditional culture of seed sharing and exchange but promotes the wider goals of sustainable agriculture?”, where before the answer would have to be “it cannot be done!”, now we can say: “consider IP broad as well as IP narrow!”  For farmers to understand the systematic crediting of their innovative activity with indigenous seeds not as a kind of ego-boosting bonus, but as an essential part of putting Indian agriculture on a more sustainable basis, will be empowering for them, giving them a greater stake in the system and its good management than they would have merely as individual beneficiaries, even of the monetized, Digital-Ledger-Technology-run version of the system to be described in the next part of this position paper.  Likewise, it can only empower farmers to know something of the history of how hybrid seeds came to seem so irresistible, and to see it as a history in which different forms of IP were interacting.  It will help them resist talk of how, by failing to embrace hybrid seeds, they are dropouts from scientific and technical modernity.  At the same time, it will embolden them to see the value in developing their own productivity claims, in support of the particular seeds they work with, and more generally in support of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).

To summarize: as with genetics education, so with an education in IP: recent research has opened new possibilities for giving farmers as sustainable seed innovators intellectual tools more fit for purpose than what was available previously.

Literature Cited

Charnley, Berris, and Gregory Radick. “Intellectual Property, Plant Breeding and the Making of Mendelian Genetics.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44, no. 2 (2013): 222-33.

Gupta, P. K.   “Teaching Genetics in India: Problems and Possible Solutions.”  Indian Journal of Genetics and Plant Breeding 79 Supp. (2019): 326‒39.

MacLeod, Christine, and Gregory Radick. “Claiming Ownership in the Technosciences: Patents, Priority and Productivity.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44, no. 2 (2013): 188-201.

Perkins, John H.  Geopolitics and the Green Revoolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War.  Oxford University Press, 1997.

Radick, Gregory.  “The Professor and the Pea: Lives and Afterlives of William Bateson’s Campaign for the Utility of Mendelism.”  Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44, no. 2 (2013): 280‒91.

[1] On room for improvement in the way genetics is taught in India generally, see Gupta, (2019).

[2] In the section of this position paper on “Legal and Ethical Issues in the Current System,” Co-I Kochupillai discusses an attempt within Indian law to recognize the work done by farmers in developing new varieties.  But the retention of the DUS criteria (Distinctness, Uniformity and Stability) means that it is often difficult for farmers’ indigenous seed innovations to get the offered protection.  Even more problematically, the criteria are contrary to the embracing of genetic variability as a major asset for sustainable agriculture.

[3] MacLeod and Radick, (2013).

[4] Charnley and Radick, (2013); Radick, (2013).

[5] Lewontin, (1991).

[6] Perkins, (1997).

Please click here, here and here to view Parts I, II, III  of this four-part post and here to view the version the post with full references.

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