What Planet Money’s Apple Story Tells Us About Food and IP Law

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Planet Money has an excellent little piece spearheaded by NPR’s ag reporter, the excellent Dan Charles, on the breeding and marketing efforts that went in to creating and bringing really good apples back to the masses.

For years, supermarket produce sections had been dominated by very handsome, but flavorless and mealy red delicious apples. Only the appearance matter, not the quality. This turned apples into undifferentiated commodities, making it hard for apple growers to turn a profit in an endless race to the bottom.

The story Charles tells is of a farmer and a breeder who teamed up to bring the Honeycrisp to market. This turned out to be revolutionary for the mass market. Seeking ways to differentiate in the market, but limited by the fact that patents barely outlive the time it takes to breed and bring a new apple to market, growers turned to trademarks, coming up with novel names for their various varieties (often the same varieties, with different proprietary names). The result is that we can finally get decent apples in the supermarket.

Of course none of them stand up to the apples of my New England youth. I spent my high school years working on an apple and peach orchard and farm stand. We grew the home town favorite, MacIntoch, but also Cortlands – a great baking apple. But ever fall I looked forward to the arrival of Macoun’s from Vermont and Empires from New York. But those came in limited runs at our farm stand. The supermarkets just had MacIntosh, Red and Gold Delicious, and the green Granny Smiths.

The story of the Red Delicious and it’s eclipse by the Honeycrisp is a cautionary tale for those who balk at intellectual property rights being extended to breeders and the crops they create. US patent and copyright law could use an overhaul, but I’ve never seen the case made beyond inchoate sentimentality that IP should not extend to breeders. If you want innovation, innovators need some way of protecting their work, at least for a reasonable period of time.

Take a look at historical corn yields.

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What you see is yields taking off with the first hybrids. Although the Plant Patent Act was passed around that time, it was limited to asexual breeding, mostly fruit trees. The thing that turned on the jets with hybrids is that they don’t breed true, so you can’t save seeds for commercial cultivation, the next generation will not yield a consistent product. If farmers wanted seeds to compete with their neighbors, they need to go back to the seed company every year for the good seeds. Now you had a way for breeders to compete to produce better hybrid crosses every year. You can see the result. Of course, you were free to save non-hybrid corn seed. You could save money on seed and get the same kind of yields that farmers had been getting for hundreds of years.

What does freedom from IP look like? As you can see in the chart, in Mexico it’s the freedom to get WWII era corn yields in 2015. In Africa, it’s the freedom to get the same yields American farmers were getting in the 19th century. At US supermarkets, it’s the freedom to buy mealy, flavorless apples.

Let’s have a conversation about common sense IP reform. Let’s talk about restoring funding to land grant university breeding programs. But please, stop insisting that food crops should be exempt or that innovation should happen, just because we all wish it would.

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3 Comments

  1. excellent article and the statistical back up, so lacking in rants against IP. Well done. I especially like this conclusion statement:
    ” But please, stop insisting that food crops should be exempt or that innovation should happen, just because we all wish it would.”

    That is exactly what I think about all technologies, for the same reasons. Unfortunately, the statistical innovation charts are in decline, due to weakening of patent laws in the US generally.

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