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History of U.S. Seed Development and Patent Regimes

Center for Food Safety

The history of seed development, distribution, and ownership reflects today’s dominant economic paradigm of the last several decades, which converts basic elements of life – such as seeds and genetic resources – into private, commercial assets.  

Until the last few decades, seed development and distribution in the U.S. was largely under the purview of the public sector and augmented by hundreds of small, often family-run, seed breeder businesses, which acted mainly as distributors of publicly developed seed varieties.  This contrasts sharply with the situation today in which the top ten companies control 65 percent of proprietary, or intellectual property (IP)-protected, seed.[1]

The vibrant seed trade between early European settlers and Native Americans established an important agricultural germplasm base that is still evident today in American farming.  During the colonial era, the landed gentry formed “agricultural societies” that saved, cultivated, and exchanged seeds, though these were not widely distributed to the general populace. 

In the early 1800s, the Secretary of the Treasury initiated a program requesting U.S. ambassadors and military officers to gather seeds and seed data from their posts around the globe.  In 1839, this program became more methodical when the U.S. Patent Office established an agricultural division, which began collecting seeds and launching free seed distribution programs. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), established in 1862, devoted at least one-third of its budget to collecting and distributing seeds to farmers across the country.  U.S. farmers saved seeds and developed steady genetic improvement; in fact, some of the most well-known seed varieties such as Red Fyfe wheat, Grimm alfalfa, and Rough Purple Chili potato are the result of farmer breeding and cultivation.

Concurrent to government agency programs, legislation was passed to provide publicly funded resources for institutions of higher learning devoted to agriculture, referred to as land grant universities, and also for experimental and research services for rural communities. 



[1] Kristina Hubbard, Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Eng’g, Nat’l Family Farm Coal., Out of Hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry p4 (2009),  available at


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