Seed restrictions may prompt suit; Competition: A biotech activist weighs a suit against giant seed merchants, fearing their policies will give them control of world agriculture.


LAZY GARDENER that I am, I realized recently that I'd waited too long to pick my string beans, and I'd let them grow so fat with seeds they had lost their taste.

As I cracked open the swollen pods, I consoled myself with the thought that at least I could dry the seeds and replant them next year.

Had I planted genetically altered crops, I wouldn't have any such legal right.

Modified crops are protected by patents and contracts. Farmers who plant them must promise not to keep seeds for future use. Monsanto and other companies are developing ways to alter plants genetically so they don't produce usable seeds. This would force farmers to buy seeds year after year.

This issue of seed control is at the heart of an antitrust lawsuit that biotech activist Jeremy Rifkin hopes to bring against the world's largest corporate seed merchants.

Rifkin fears that the giant seed companies will end up controlling too much of the world's agriculture.

The Washington, D.C., law firm of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll -- which recently won a case that forced Swiss banks to pay $1.25 billion to Holocaust survivors -- has taken on the potential seed suit.

"We haven't filed a case yet but hope to do so by the end of the year," said attorney Rich Lewis. "A central concern will be that, throughout the history of civilization, farmers have been able to grow food and sow their own fields with their own seeds. These companies are trying to change that."

Rich's firm is looking for a provision of antitrust or contract law that would let Rifkin challenge the seed restrictions in a state, federal or foreign court.

Biotech industry advocates consider Rifkin a gadfly with a penchant for legal stunts. He is seeking a patent on using DNA splicing to create human-animal hybrids -- not so he can create mutants, but with the hope that the Supreme Court will ban the issuance of patents on human life.

The firms that would be likely targets of Rifkin's threatened lawsuit, including Novartis and Pioneer Hi-Bred, denied that they constitute a global seed monopoly. Monsanto, another likely target, declined comment.

If Rifkin's attorneys find a legal theory to support the grievance, they should walk into court with history on their side. Seed gathering and propagating are part of the bedrock of civilization.

Granted, some ancient customs are better off confined to history books. Few would argue that match manufacturers should be snuffed out just to preserve the art of making a fire by rubbing two sticks together.

Rifkin would argue that seeds are different, that the staff of life should not be patented and packaged by a handful of companies.

Tom Abate wrote this piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, in which it first appeared.

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