Year of Award


Document Type

Professional Paper

Degree Type

Master of Science (MS)

Degree Name

Environmental Studies

Department or School/College

Environmental Studies

Committee Chair

Neva Hassanein

Commitee Members

Rosalyn LaPier, Robin Kelson


University of Montana

Subject Categories

Agricultural Science | Agriculture | Agronomy and Crop Sciences | Environmental Studies | Food Studies | Plant Breeding and Genetics


Over the last 150 years, the food system in the present-day United States has undergone a transformational restructuring, from a diversified, decentralized, network of farmers and seed growers, to one in which the majority of crop production is controlled by a few industrial corporations. The consolidation of power has been under-girded by the application of intellectual property rights (IPR)—especially utility patents—to plant varieties and genetic traits, which are leveraged to exclude small-scale seed growers from accessing quality germplasm. Patents and restrictive licensing agreements recapitulate colonial structures by appropriating common and traditionally community-held resources for profit, and by creating reliance on the companies that have the power to pursue and defend legal strategies. Plant breeders and seed growers who operate outside of the agricultural-industrial complex, and especially those who associate with agroecological and organic principles, are left to navigate the complex and expensive legal arena of IPR to source, market, and protect their seeds—decisions which have direct implications on relationships between individuals and companies operating on a small- to medium- scale. This paper consolidates current and relevant information about intellectual property rights as they pertain to seeds in the US and provides a road map for plant breeders and seed growers confronting the issue in their own work. By interviewing people directly involved in alternative seed networks, I draw on common questions, concerns, and paths forward as illuminated by those with lived experience. I then analyze those interviews around the core tenets of an ethical seed system based on themes set forth by the Organic Seed Alliance Seed Ethics Intensive in 2020: transparency along the seed value chain, ethical recognition, ethical compensation, and the stewardship of biodiversity. These agreements, while yet uncodified, could serve as guiding principles for the exchange of seeds in the absence of policy change that could more holistically resolve the pressures coming from mainstream agriculture.



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