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Thankfully, new rules will prevent the worst excesses of such situations by starting the clock ticking on a patent’s life when an application is filed. But under the rules operating in this case (and all pre-1995 filings), the clock doesn’t start until a patent is granted. Which means that Monsanto is poised to walk away with a spanking-new, 17-year monopoly on a technology that has long since become indispensable.

Which leads me to another gripe: the private capture of public investment. Several teams that developed this powerful technology included academic researchers operating partly on government grants. In a collegial spirit, these scientists freely passed valuable findings to Monsanto, which is now turning them into an exclusive claim.

The full story is chronicled with great insight by Daniel Charles in Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money and the Future of Food. The book has a lot more on its mind than Agrobacterium tumefaciens, as Charles examines the outsized ambitions that characterize the whole ag biotech industry. But to my eye, if Monsanto succeeds in patenting the use of this germ, it will go down as a classic tale of a collaborative scientific endeavor perverted by a capricious, winner-take-all patent system.

The problems extend far beyond two bad patents. In fact, so many overly broad patents have issued in agricultural biotechnology that the entire field will likely suffer. With tremendous consolidation in recent years, warring fiefdoms of technological know-how have emerged. Firms like Monsanto use their patents to squelch competitors and leverage control of technology in the pipeline. Researchers are becoming so hamstrung by proprietary claims to key conceptual tools-sometimes shut out from using them entirely-that it is becoming ever harder to bring new inventions to market.

This is bad enough in the commercial sector. But the tangle of exclusive claims on basic research is also smothering public-sector researchers who, just a generation ago, launched the Green Revolution to bring high-yield crop varieties to the famine-plagued developing world. That revolution was spawned not only by new technology but by a commitment to use new seed varieties as building blocks to breed even better varieties in the future. With proprietary claims like Monsanto’s, we’re tilling a far less fertile field. Maybe we should call it the Greenback Revolution.

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