Mont. student researches organic seed policy
Ellie Costello wants to tell the story of seeds. "It has taken until now in the food movement for the public to realize that seeds are an integral part of what they eat," she says. As a grad student in the environmental studies program at the Uni...
Ellie Costello wants to tell the story of seeds.
"It has taken until now in the food movement for the public to realize that seeds are an integral part of what they eat," she says.
As a grad student in the environmental studies program at the University of Montana, she has partnered with the Organic Seed Alliance to conduct research that could help classical plant breeders have more freedom to develop useful seed varieties for the farmers they serve.
She says utility patents on plants are making it difficult for breeders to produce and release seed variations they have developed.
Learning about their stories through the past two years has made her passionate about organic seed policy.
She and OSA contend utility patents might not be the best way to go when it comes to protecting seed developments, especially since many of the patented traits occur naturally and patents can last 20 years, which is a long time to sit on a new seed variety.
By compiling case studies where the organic farming industry is negatively impacted by utility patents, Costello is providing the OSA with documentation to support their cause.
Her case studies will be included in the State of Organic Seed report, which comes out every five years, according to Costello's mentor at OSA, Kristina Hubbard.
Hubbard is an alumna of the EVST program at UMT.
"I've been honored to work with Ellie, who has proved to be one of the program's exceptional students," Hubbard says. "Ellie understands well the multifarious challenges farmers face when it comes to sourcing seed that is optimal for their farms. Her work will inform how farmers, plant breeders, seed companies and policy advocates respond to utility patents, a form of intellectual property protection that my organization, Organic Seed Alliance, views as an inappropriate tool for protecting our crop genetic resources. Widespread utility patenting of seed has facilitated extensive consolidation in the seed industry, altered farmers' relationship with seed and restricted important research."
Last spring, Costello won a $500 scholarship to help fund her research from the Organic Crop Improvement Association.
She will finish the project before she defends her research portfolio in December.
Beyond her research, Costello is also active at UMT's PEAS farm, a university affiliated community-supported agriculture farm.
She says UMT's reputation for community involvement is one of the reasons she chose to study there.
"Our program faculty are creative, hard working and (in)vested in the community," she says. "As a result, student's projects are the same. We are a department of activists, and I so appreciate being a part of a learning community with a primary focus on real world change."
She advises prospective graduate students choose a program based on their learning style and lifestyle.
She recommends UMT to those looking for a hands-on experience.
"I love that my education is as much outdoors, hands in the dirt, as it is in the classroom," she says.