Cropping the truth: patents, National Geographic and pernicious myths

"Oh no", said Old Mother Hubbard, "someone's
been eating all our genetic vegetable stock again"
The brain of the Kat's ever-productive friend Professor Paul J. Heald (University of Illinois College of Law; University of Georgia Law School) appears to have gone into overdrive again, with yet another superlative piece of research.  Paul's latest work, which is now available here via SSRN, is "Veggie Tales: Pernicious Myths About Patents, Innovation, and Crop Diversity in the Twentieth Century", a title which reflects some of his earlier research concerns. This 64-page paper, which has been produced together with Susannah Chapman, stems from the Illinois Program in Law and is Behavior and Social Science Paper No. LBSS11-34.

For the record,
"The conventional wisdom, as illustrated for millions of readers in the July 2011 issue of National Geographic, holds that the twentieth century was a disaster for crop diversity. In the popular press, this position is so entrenched that it no longer needs a citation. We conduct a study of all vegetable and apple varieties commercially available in 1903 and compare them with all varieties commercially available in 1981 and 2004 [You have to be a pretty obsessive academic to do this, says Merpel, or someone who has read National Geographic too many in the dentist's waiting room ...]. Along the way, we shatter the conventional wisdom and gut the 1983 study that previous scholars have taken as gospel. We also settle the debate between economists and social scientists [happy is the lawyer who can write words like that!] on the role that patent law might play in destroying or enhancing crop diversity. Both sides appear to be wrong [even happier!]. Our data show that patent law has not reduced crop diversity, nor has it significantly contributed to the introduction of new varieties. The diversity loss thesis espoused by ethnobotanists is wrong and so is the incentive-to-invent story told by patent economists, at least as regards the most common vegetable crops. Finally, we provide the first analysis of innovation in any comprehensive technology market by identifying the source of all products in the market and current commercialization rates for all patented innovations. This paper goes far beyond our prior three related postings of preliminary data".
The IPKat cheers this work to the rafters. Here is something that is based on fact.

Doomsday, National Geographic-style here
Earlier Kat reports on Heald v The Veggie Patent Bashers here and here
Cropping the truth: patents, National Geographic and pernicious myths Cropping the truth: patents, National Geographic and pernicious myths Reviewed by Jeremy on Sunday, October 09, 2011 Rating: 5


  1. Jeremy,

    You address your compliments to the person you know, but I would like to point out that there is a second author, Mrs. Susannah Chapman, who should also get her rightful share of the credit.

    Both sides appear to be wrong.

    Grippeminaud le bon apôtre
    Jetant des deux côtés la griffe en même temps,
    Mit les plaideurs d'accord en croquant l'un et l'autre.

    [The quote has something to do with cats, in case you ask]

    I had never given much thought about the claim of reduced genetic diversity, but I wonder whether the paper itself addresses the relevant aspects, as much of it is concerned with IP.

    The real issue would IMO rather be the very nature of agriculture and of food production which has changed tremendously in the last century.

    I could probably survive without most of the "fantasy" foods mentioned in the paper such as apples and radishes, or find a less palatable, but edible, substitute. I am however quite convinced that a very sizable part of the "basic" calories on my plate comes from a mere handful of varieties, as suggested by reference 143 ("over forty percent of corn planted in the U.S. was Monsanto’s patented “Roundup Ready”").

    There are examples where crop concentration nearly caused the disappearance of its respective industry, e.g. bananas. The tasty and convenient Gros Michel variety was nearly wiped out by the Panama disease in the mid-20th century, and had to be replaced by the inferior Cavendish. The story is now repeating itself and a new variety will have to be introduced, but it won't be the fruit of the industry's own effort. One can live without industrial bananas, at least in developed countries. But what about a disease or a pest which would befall RR corn? How long could it take for replacement seeds to be identified, grown and distributed?

  2. @Roufousse -- thanks for letting me know about Susannah, whose name did not appear on the SSRN front page for the paper.

    I see from your comments that you have thought a good deal about the issues which this paper raises. I'd be pleased if you get contact me by email at when it's convenient for you.

  3. For those of us living in the EU vegetable crop diversity has been reduced as an effect of legislation. Vegetable seeds can only be sold if on an approved list. To establish a variety on the list costs a considerable amount of money so seed firms only register the best sellers. Garden Organic have a way of supplying unlisted varieties that circumvents the law.


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