Patents fail to boost crop yields

Planting rice
Copyright: Flickr/IFPRI/Ian Masias

Speed read

  • Intellectual property rights are designed to drive tech roll-out
  • But they often fail to boost tech transfer and investment, and so harvests
  • Increasing scientific capacity in poorer nations can do more for yields

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Policies that secure intellectual property rights (IPRs) for agricultural innovations often fail to encourage technology transfer to developing countries or increase crop yields, a study shows.
“Intellectual property rights are not all they are cracked up to be,” says David Spielman, a co-author of the study and researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute, based in the United States. “They are certainly not a silver bullet to attract investment and technology transfer into agriculture.”

“IPRs are useless unless you have the means to enforce them.”

Deepthi Kolady, South Dakota State University in the United States

Published in The Journal of Development Studies, the study found that the impact of IPRs on yields varies hugely between crops, making one-size-fits-all approaches to innovation difficult.
IP protection can take legal form in patents or be ensured biologically, for example by making hybrids of existing crops difficult to copy or breed. In international development, such forms of IP assertion are seen as important to get companies to roll out technologies and improved crop varieties among farmers.
But Spielman says it is unclear how effective IPRs are at boosting agriculture. The study, published on 12 October, investigates links between IPRs and the yield of eight major crops, including rice, maize, cotton and wheat, between 1961 and 2010.
The researchers found that, while yield gaps between developing countries and the world’s top producers of the studied crops narrowed during this period, legal IPRs only played a marginal role in this.
Biological IPRs had a more significant impact for some of the crops, the study says. To grow some maize and cotton crops, for example, farmers must buy seeds every year, making these products profitable enough to warrant private investment in their research and marketing in developing countries.
The findings should force policymakers to go beyond intellectual property when designing tools to increase agricultural yields, says Spielman.
For example, it is essential to boost scientific capacity in poorer nations because companies want good researchers on the ground to develop their products, he says. Science spending would also allow governments to harness agricultural innovation and enable them to plan the right strategies for individual crops, he adds.

But Deepthi Kolady, an economist at South Dakota State University in the United States, says developing nations should not give up on implementing rigorous IP regimes despite the complexities identified by Spielman.
After all, they are making a difference in developed countries, Kolady says: a study she coauthored in 2008 directly linked the development of high-yield wheat in the United States to the implementation of legal protection for new plant varieties.
But to replicate this success, countries need a robust legal system to prevent any violations, says Kolady. “IPRs are useless unless you have the means to enforce them.”


[1] David J. Spielman & Xingliang Ma Private sector incentives and the diffusion of agricultural technology: evidence from developing countries (The Journal of Development Studies, 12 October 2015)
[2] Deepthi Elizabeth Kolady and William Lesser  But are they meritorious? Genetic productivity gains under plant intellectual property rights (Journal of Agricultural Economics, 28 August 2008)