Remembering the ‘People’s Department’

There shall be at the seat of government a Department of Agriculture, the general design and duties of which shall be to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture, rural development, aquaculture, and human nutrition, in the most general and comprehensive sense of those terms, and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants.

– Department of Agriculture Organic Act (May 15, 1862)

It is also the intent of Congress to assure agriculture a position in research equal to that of industry.

– Morrill Act (July 2, 1862)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of two laws that significantly transformed U.S. agriculture. The first law launched the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which President Abraham Lincoln, in his last address to Congress, called “the people’s department.” He placed the farmer’s interest above all others. The second law, the Morrill Act, established our land grant university system, intended “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture.”

The new infrastructure established through these laws aimed to expand U.S. agriculture for the sake of prosperity and security – to further research, education, and innovation, and make advancements accessible to all.

In important ways these laws were about sowing seeds, literally and figuratively. But today, their intent has been undermined by policies and practices that collectively leave farmers with less access to what was once a public resource.

A core function of the Department of Agriculture when it was formed in 1862 was the collection and distribution of germplasm. Concerted efforts to introduce new plants to the U.S. began centuries before, but for much of the nineteenth century, before USDA was established, the Patent Office fervently carried out these activities, mailing millions of seed packages to farmers across the nation. (There is great irony in this fact, as you’ll read.)

By the end of the nineteenth century, a third of USDA’s budget was allocated for germplasm collection and distribution. The department encouraged farmers to trial any crop that seemed economically important to U.S. agriculture, and continued the practice of distributing seed free of charge. And, thanks to the Morrill Act, states had a place in the plant sciences. Land grants largely focused on collecting germplasm and conducting research in areas that were not profitable to burgeoning private ventures.

Picture it: USDA freely distributing seed to farmers (at the time, half the population) not so much as a commodity but as an essential natural resource best managed in the hands of the people. The department understood that the nation’s growing crop diversity was a product of farmers serving as the nation’s first plant breeders. Their labor and land – and the knowledge base they built through experimenting, screening, and selecting – effectively adapted exotic plants to regional agricultural economies.

Meanwhile, land grant universities’ regional breeding programs gained momentum, providing new seed varieties to farmers. These public programs advanced U.S. agriculture by increasing yields and developing a strong base of scientific knowledge. Private companies emerged, but at first their products were inferior in quality and quantity.

The private seed trade expanded, and organized to confront their most formidable competitor: the government. After years of lobbying against USDA’s free seed distribution, the seed trade convinced Congress to shut it down in 1924. Over the decades that followed, farmers and public breeders saw the number of independent seed companies grow.

The political climate was such that lawmakers were facing heightened pressure throughout the twentieth century to create policies that protected investments in research and development. Intellectual property rights had been discussed for decades, and the first law to provide breeders some protection passed in 1930. Importantly, the Plant Patent Act excluded sexually reproducing plants as patentable subject matter, and only applied to asexual reproduction, such as grafting and cuttings.

In fact, Congress long argued that sexually reproducing plants should not be awarded utility patents – “patents for invention” – for fear of curtailing innovation, threatening the free exchange of genetic resources, and increasing market concentration.

But the seed trade and plant breeders were eventually successful in convincing Congress that more protection was warranted. This came in the form of a “patent-like” protection under the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) of 1970. The law represented a compromise: Breeders had the exclusive right to propagate and market the variety for 20 years, but the law provided important exemptions: 1) other plant breeders can use protected varieties for research, and 2) farmers can save seed from protected varieties to replant on their own farm.

Although many breeders still use PVP protections today, Congress’ concerns regarding intellectual property and plants have been realized – but not because of this law. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Supreme Court upheld a case where the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) awarded the first utility patent on a lifeform. (The PTO had originally refused to award this patent, but the U.S. Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences disagreed, and granted it.)

Once the provider of free seed, the modern day PTO is responsible for setting a precedent that forever changed farmers’ and breeders’ access to, and relationship with, seed.

Owners of utility patents have far-reaching control over access and use of their protected products. While the PVPA has exemptions for researchers and farmers, utility patents can be legally enforced to forbid access to protected genetic material for purposes of innovation as well as on-farm seed saving. Patents therefore remove valuable genetic material from the pool of resources that breeders rely on for improving agricultural crops. What access breeders do have often hinges on restrictive licensing agreements.

In the seed sector, utility patents quickly led to increased concentration of financial and genetic resources. Transnational chemical and biotechnology firms entered the seed industry to capitalize off the new intellectual property playing field. Their expansion of agricultural biotechnology, and the profits from their patented products, led to dozens of unchecked acquisitions and mergers.

One incentive to patent research was the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. This law allowed universities, for the first time, to patent products that result from publicly funded research. Universities had previously regarded patents as at odds with their non-profit educational mission, but following Bayh-Dole, they began to earn royalties in exchange for licensing their inventions to private companies. Industry funding for academic research surged after Bayh-Dole as public support diminished. Today, private contributions provide nearly a quarter of the funding for agricultural research at land grant universities (see a new report from Food and Water Watch entitled Public Research, Private Gain).

Industry’s funding of public universities may not be something to criticize on its own, especially in light of dwindling public funds, but it’s clear that industry funding can come with strings attached that dictate the terms and direction of research. Crop research in general has narrowed, prioritizing commodities where the most profit can be made.

That is why it is more important than ever to bolster public support of classical plant breeding and public cultivar development, where research goals don’t focus on the interest of shareholders, but on the diverse and regional needs of farmers. Cultivars developed in the public sector are also needed to balance an increasingly concentrated seed industry, where growing sectors like organic are often neglected.

This summer OSA was on Capitol Hill advocating for classical plant breeding and public cultivar development. The 2008 Farm Bill included a congressional mandate that classical plant breeding be a priority within the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). There have been other requests by congressional agriculture and appropriations committees for USDA to make classical plant breeding and public cultivar development a priority. To date, USDA has not fulfilled the 2008 congressional mandate.

Farmers and plant breeders have played crucial roles in building our nation’s germplasm base for modern agriculture to thrive, expand, and meet new agricultural challenges. Saving seed and the free exchange of germplasm is central to this history of innovation and genetic diversity, which takes us back to the beginning.

This doesn’t mean we have to return to the day where all farmers saved seed. But we must be aware that, like our water, air, and soil, seed is a natural resource that requires careful management – especially at the farm level.

Farmers are already responding to concentration by reclaiming their place as seed stewards. Take Nash Huber, who realized the importance of on-farm plant breeding and seed production when his favorite carrot variety was discontinued in the late 1990s. Working with OSA’s breeders, Nash spent years adapting carrot seed to his local farming system and market niche. He now grows not only carrot seed, but also other vegetable seed crops as part of a participatory plant breeding model – an approach that involves a close collaboration between farmers and researchers.

And, as you’ll read this week, these researchers are working with OSA and farmers in collaborative organic plant breeding networks representing six land grant universities. These networks include the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) and Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture (CIOA). Many of these breeders believe in plant breeding governed by intellectual property principles that ensure fairness and resource sharing, while recouping research investments.

Make no mistake: land grants continue to play a key role in managing plant genetic resources and breeding new varieties. And more public programs are working to advance much-needed research in organic farming. There is good news in the way of industry contributions as well. Some of these partnerships are groundbreaking.

This year, Clif Bar Family Foundation announced its support of university fellowships in organic plant breeding — the first of their kind in the U.S. These grants, which are awarded through the foundation’s Seed Matters initiative, fund Ph.D. fellowship students for five years in organic plant breeding at three public land grant universities. You’ll hear from one of these fellows this week, Brook Brouwer, and his work on improving grains for low-input systems in western Washington.

Projects like these are vital. They support organic seed system development and foster the next generation of plant breeders. More than that, they provide seed for the people, where the interests of farmers can and should align with the public good.

“The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people, who have invested in these public universities their hopes, their support, and their confidence.”

— President Abraham Lincoln upon signing the Morrill Act, July 2, 1862

A version of this article was first published by the Tilth Producers of Washington

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