What the Tech Industry Can Teach Agriculture

Myers contends that, when applied to plants, patents are stifling. They discourage sharing, and sharing is the foundation of successful breeding. That’s because his work is essentially just assisting natural evolution: He mates one plant with another, which in turn makes new combinations of genes from which better plants are selected. The more plants there are to mix, the more combinations are made, and the more opportunities there are to create better plants. Even some breeders who work for the companies that are doing the patenting still believe in—indeed, long for—the ability to exchange seed.

“It’s this collective sharing of material that improves the whole crop over time,” Myers told me. “If you’re not exchanging germplasm, you’re cutting your own throat.”

If all of this seems like the concern of a specialized few, consider that plant breeders shape nearly every food we eat, whether a tomato from the backyard or the corn in the syrup in a Coke. Because of intellectual-property restrictions, their work increasingly takes place in genetic isolation and is less dynamic as a result. In the short term, that can mean fewer types of tomatoes to plant in the garden, or fewer choices for farmers and, by extension, consumers. In the long term, it could hinder the very resilience of agriculture itself.

Lisa Hamilton, in the Virginia Quarterly Review, on how plant breeders are adapting open source principles from the tech industry to guarantee the sustainability of our food systems.

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Photo: Agriculture in Israel, Wikimedia Commons.