Morning Edition had an interesting segment reporting on a new effort to promote open source seeds. These seeds could be freely reproduced and varied, as long as any resulting seeds were also freely available.

Unfortunately this piece did not fully flesh out the economic implications of this movement. While it included the comments of the representative of a seed company, saying that it would likely avoid open source seed in order to be able to continue to sell patent protected seed, it didn't include any discussion of the larger implications of patents in seeds.

The seed companies and many of their top executives and scientists are getting very rich from patent protected seeds. This is not technology. This is not technology. (Sorry, had to repeat this in case any economists were reading.) This is the result of a government policy that hands out monopolies to certain companies and threatens to arrest competitors.

Patent monopolies are one way to finance research into developing new seeds. It is certainly not the only way. Much of the research into agriculture is paid by universities or government agencies. The government could increases this sort of funding to replace the research done by the private sector.

This would allow all seeds to be available at the free market price. This would likely eliminate many of the large fortunes earned by selling seeds. It would also eliminate the enormous distortions associated with patent protected prices. If the patent leads to a price that is 500 hundred or 1000 percent above the free market price it leads to the same amount of economic waste as if the government were to impose a tariff of 500 or 1000 percent on imports of the seed.

Publiclly funded research would also likely lead to more effective development of new seeds since making all research findings public could be a requirement for getting public funding. Under a system supported by patent monopolies companies only make available the information needed to get a patent. In fact, they have a strong financial incentive to misrepresent and conceal research findings in order to promote their product and inhibit competitors.

Since science advances much more rapidly in a context of open research it would have been worth including this point in the discussion. It also is important to point out that, insofar as patent protected products are a source of great wealth and a factor in inequality, it is the outcome of government policy, not technology.  

 

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