Access to Seeds Index 2019 - Global Seed Companies

Measurement Area c
Intellectual Property

A small majority of global seed companies explicitly state that they do not restrict farm-saved seed practices through intellectual property (IP) protection, although only four companies have strategies, including the sale of open-pollinated varieties (OPVs), which allow effective on-farm seed saving. Several companies provide royalty-free access to protected materials and technologies for collaborative projects that result in varieties benefiting smallholder farmers.

East-West Seed, Syngenta and Corteva Agriscience perform well in this measurement area, with positions on IP that consider the needs of smallholder farmers. East-West Seed demonstrates many relevant practices, including developing open-pollinated varieties for many of the crops in its portfolio, a favorable position on farm-saved seeds and opposing patenting of native traits. Syngenta and Corteva Agriscience owe their high scores in part for providing royalty-free access to their protected materials and technologies in collaborative projects.

The level of transparency among the companies that disclose their position on IP varies significantly. Companies publicly state their position on patents and plant variety laws but often disclose little about their position regarding farm-saved seed practices.

A lack of transparency on their IP activities in relation to smallholder farmers results in low scores for Bejo, Enza Zaden, KWS and Sakata.

Corteva Agriscience’s royalty-free licensing of its CRISPR-Cas and Optimum Haploid Value™ (OHV) technology and Monsanto’s royalty-free contribution of maize materials and technologies to the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project are examples of leading practices that facilitate the development of maize and cassava varieties for smallholder farmers in index countries.

Main Findings

This measurement area seeks to clarify and assess the way companies handle their IP, both plant variety rights and patents, in index countries, and whether this allows for further use in breeding by others and on-farm seed saving by smallholder farmers.

Global seed companies offer royalty-free licensing of protected materials and technologies to smallholder-focused projects

Nine companies have approaches for licensing their intellectually protected material and technologies for the benefit of smallholder farmers in index countries. Three companies, Monsanto, Syngenta and Corteva Agriscience, participate in public-private partnerships through which they offer royalty-free licensing of genetic materials and/or technologies. Abiotic stress tolerance in maize appears to be a popular trait in these partnerships. Besides maize, Corteva Agriscience also supports cassava improvement by offering royalty-free licensing of its OHV technology.

Through the WEMA project, Monsanto and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) provided royalty-free licenses to the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, which in its turn gave more than 20 local companies in Eastern and Southern Africa licensed access to improved maize hybrids and inbred lines derived from the WEMA project. The resulting drought-tolerant hybrids are made commercially available to farmers at prices similar to other hybrids. Similarly, a public-private partnership between the Syngenta Foundation and CIMMYT developed several maize hybrids to increase smallholder farmer productivity in Asia. The Affordable, Accessible, Asian Drought Tolerant Maize Project combines CIMMYT’s expertise in maize breeding and Syngenta’s germplasm.

Syngenta reports that two Indian companies have signed licensing agreements as part of the project. Corteva Agriscience provided access to its protected CRISPR-Cas technology to CIMMYT, ICRISAT and the Danforth Plant Science Center.

In addition to such partnerships, the majority of companies with vegetable crops in their portfolio have formed a collective framework known as the International Licensing Platform (ILP). This enables ‘vegetable breeders to license the traits they need at a fair and reasonable cost, so they can bring new products to the market that meet demands from growers and consumers’. The benefits of the ILP are, however, limited to its members. In addition, no evidence was found that this platform has an explicit policy regarding index countries or smallholder farmers.

Syngenta’s e-licensing system TraitAbility allows industry-wide access to the company’s patented native traits in vegetables. Although there is no indication that the licenses are offered at a lower price for use in index countries by smallholder farmers, it is notable that nonprofit organizations are given free access to these traits for research purposes, providing opportunities for the development of varieties suitable for smallholder farmers in index countries in the future.

A small majority of global seed companies explicitly state that they do not restrict farm-saved seed practices through IP protection

Most companies support the breeders’ exemption under plant variety protection regulations. However, only seven of the 13 companies have a position on IP that does not restrict on-farm seed saving by smallholder farmers, and they indicate that they do not use contractual clauses to prohibit the use, exchange and sale of farm-saved seed by smallholder farmers in index countries.

East-West Seed states that it respects farmers’ rights to save, use and exchange seed for their own use. Several others companies impose some restrictions. Limagrain states that farmers can use the seed from their own harvest for the next sowing season but they have to compensate seed companies when they benefit from the use of these genetic resources. However, small-scale farmers are exempt from this stipulation.

Syngenta states that saving seed should be limited to ‘crops where seed saving is a traditional practice and should require farmers to pay a reasonable license fee for farm-saved seed unless it is being used for private, non-commercial use’.

In contrast, Monsanto states that when farmers buy its seed, they sign an agreement not to save and replant the seed, although it is not clear to what extent this agreement is enforced in the index countries where the company operates.

Although most companies do not block on-farm seed saving of their commercial varieties, a focus on developing hybrids as opposed to ensuring the availability of OPVs effectively restricts the practice. Only East-West Seed, Advanta, Sakata and Limagrain have a company policy to sell hybrids as well as OPVs for crops in their portfolio.

Global seed companies have differing positions on patents

Companies differ widely when it comes to patenting their material. Corteva Agriscience, Monsanto and Bayer cite patents as an incentive to invent. While Bayer supports the patenting of native traits as well as any other form of plant-related invention, East-West Seed strongly opposes the patenting of native traits and essential biological processes. Syngenta states that ‘it does not enforce patents in seeds or biotechnology in least developed countries by subsistence farmers for predominantly private or non-commercial use’.


Although Bejo does not support patents on native traits, Rijk Zwaan states that extending patents to cover biological material can hinder innovation, and that patent-protected biological material should remain available for use in developing new varieties. However, it is unclear whether these two companies consider the needs of smallholder farmers in index countries.


In each measurement areas activities or approaches are identified that stand out or can be considered innovative in the industry. They contribute to the score of a company through leadership indicators.

Corteva Agriscience – Royalty-free access to technologies

Corteva Agriscience provides royalty-free access to its technology related to CRISPR-Cas and plant transformation in collaborations with CIMMYT, ICRISAT and the Danforth Plant Science Center to improve food security crops.

The company also supports cassava improvement by offering royalty-free licensing of its OHV technology to the Boyce Thompson Institute and Cornell University. The technology is implemented in the Cassava database, maintained at BTI, as part of the Next Generation Cassava Breeding (NextGen) project.

Monsanto – Royalty-free licensing of drought-tolerant traits

Monsanto, through the WEMA project, facilitated licensing agreements with more than 20 local companies in Eastern Africa to make drought-tolerant maize hybrids available to smallholder farmers.

The company states that as a part of WEMA’s continuous work to improve food security in sub-Saharan Africa, additional conventional hybrids are in the pipeline for commercial release in the coming years.