You would assume that the idea of patenting a plant would be one of Fairytales. The thought of a capitalist enterprise being given legal ownership and control over the DNA of a living being sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie.
Well it is not just a script reserved for the movies, it is actually beginning to happen, with cannabis strains. The idea being that once patented, nobody can legally grow anything that falls under that patent (the specific strain or breed) without getting the permission of whoever has the patent. The luxury of which is reserved for those who can afford to splash out on the BIG price tag that comes with it.
Patents already exist for several varieties of Crop already including strains of GMO corn that are resistant to specific pesticides and specific types of apples that have been bred for extra sweetness. This has been the norm in “Big Ag” (big corporate agriculture) for quite some years now!
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has already issued several patents for specific kinds of cannabis (including one for a variety of high-CBD hemp), and for more wide-ranging utility patents and whilst so far they have gone relatively unenforced that is unlikely to be the case much longer.
Whilst a “plant” patent covers just one particular cannabis strain, “utility” patents stretch much further and give the holder complete ownership of a wide ranges of plant characteristics. It’s these utility patents that are of most concern and which could stop large groups of small farmers or home growers from growing specific strains without fear of legal action.
There are those in the industry however who believe that these very broad patents may not in fact be legally enforceable. This is because, if it can be proved the that the chemotypes (chemically distinct entity in a specific species of plant), claimed in these patents are not new, then the patents would not be valid or enforceable.
This idea, is all that the old school growers and farms have in their defence arsenal and as a result breeders such as those from the Emerald Triangle—Northern California’s legendary cannabis growing region compasses Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties have been forming alliances and trying to get authentication and patent their own plants in order to protect both their livelihoods and heirloom strains that they have been growing for generations.
Problem is that some of these cannabis patents that big ag is looking in to don’t just cover the plants they cover everything from methods of analysis and classification, to plants with unique chemistries, newly developed strains, propagation methods; and composition claims.
Dale Hunt, a plant scientist and an attorney who specialises in both cannabis and patents has summed up the situation, recently stating that “Big Ag will force farmers to stop growing their own plants and start growing Big Ag’s patented GMO plants or eventually go out of business. While Big Ag can’t directly make you stop growing your own plants, they can make it impossible for you to compete with the farmers who embrace their system of patented seeds and related Big-Ag products to produce maximum-efficiency yields. The whole program is designed to drive you out of business if you don’t go along. And it will do exactly that”
Today’s legal cannabis market is worth an estimated $11 billion, with estimates that it could at least double over the next few years. With federal legalisation in the USA becoming a a real possibility many of the big agriculture companies have already put the wheels of their master plan into motion and are just waiting in the shadows, ready to purchase any and all patents at the first opportunity.
Whilst this situation may be the norm in the world of ‘big agriculture’ it represents a gargantuan shift for traditional cannabis growers in both the physical growing of plants and their values and belief system. Imagine how much it would change things if a single company or person held a patent that required everyone who grew a particular strain of cannabis (maybe your favourite) to pay a fee for the privilege!
Illegality may have brought its own threats but now, in this new legal era there is a more dangerous threat and its coming mainly from the “Big Four” agricultural and seed corporations (Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont, ChemChina-Syngenta, and BASF)
One only has to look at the recent Phylos Bioscience debacle to see that this corporate “cloak and dagger” behaviour is becoming more commonplace. It makes you wonder whether legalisation is the way forward after all especially when it could actually destroy our freedom in doing what we love.