Veggie Tales: Pernicious Myths About Patents, Innovation, and Crop Diversity in the Twentieth Century

The conventional wisdom, as illustrated for millions of readers in the July 2012 issue of National Geographic, holds that the twentieth century was a disaster for crop diversity. In the popular press, this position is so entrenched that it no longer needs a citation. We conduct a study of all vegetable and apple varieties commercially avail-able in 1903 and compare them with all varieties commercially available in 1981 and 2004. We question the conventional wisdom and cast serious doubt on the 1983 vegetable crop diversity study that previous commentators have taken as gospel. We also enter the debate between economists and social scientists on the role that patent law might play in destroying or enhancing crop diversity. Both sides may be wrong. Our data suggest that patent law has not reduced crop diversity, nor is it likely to have significantly contributed to the introduction of new vegetable varieties. The diversity loss thesis espoused by ethnobotanists is as suspect as the incentive-to-invent story told by patent economists, at least regarding the most common vegetable crops. Finally, we provide one of the first analyses of innovation in any comprehensive technology market by identifying the source of all products in the vegetable market and current commercialization rates for all patented innovations. This paper goes significantly beyond our prior three related postings of preliminary data.

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