Basic plant breeding research and patenting of new breeds of agricultural crops is dominated by a small number of corporations, many of which are transnational.
Nations have historically struggled to monopolize certain plants of commercial importance. This struggle was strongest during the colonial era of the last century, when new scientific tools and a network of botanical gardens brought about the transformation of world agriculture. Today, the struggle to monopolize specific genes in the development of agriculture is leading to the development of other scientific tools and institutions; scientists are largely pawns in a much larger and expensive scheme. The cotton patent, granted in 1992 in the USA, was the first reported case of a patent covering all transgenic plants of an entire species.
According to a recent OECD survey, there were over 600 enterprises engaged in the international trade of agricultural seed in 37 leading countries. In 1979 the FAO identified nearly 1800 public and private entities engaged in plant breeding or seed trading. Of these, some 550 have been acquired by transnational corporations, and, in addition, some 300 seed houses, are linked to TNCs by contracts and other arrangements. The dominant transnationals are the major petroleum companies and pharmaceuticals houses.
It is estimated that 55% of the world's scientifically stored plant genetic resources is controlled by institutions in industrialized countries, 31% by institutions in developing countries and 14% by international agricultural research centres.
A single USA company (Agracetus Inc of W R Grace and Co) has been granted patents on all genetically engineered varieties of cotton and soybeans within the EEC/EU until 2010. In 1994 it also had a patent pending for transgenic rice and is understood to be working on patentable processes for groundnuts, maize and beans. This could lead to monopoly control of improvements in some of the world's major food crops, posing a serious threat to global food security and the well-being of small farmers.
In the Netherlands, the 'seeming' diversity of food products for sale in supermarkets can be deceptive. Supermarkets offer lots of potatoe-based processed products; but from the 50 or so potatoe species grown in the Netherlands, supermarkets only use one, called Bintje.
The European Patent Office, (EPO) decided in 1996 to grant Monsanto patents on the genetically engineered food crops. Even though patents on seed and plant varieties are against the european patent rules, the EPO granted Monsanto full property rights to GE varieties of maize, wheat, rice, soybeans, cotton, sugar beet, rape, sunflowers, potatoes, tobacco, tomatoes, poplars, pines, grapes and apples. Legal experts, including the German minister of justice, have questioned the legality of this kind of patent.