IwantyouIt's election time in Finland. And while I am not a Finnish national I am happy to take part in the campaign and happy to live in a democracy. This country even has an elected head of state. Not fake like in neighbouring Russia, but a real one that needs to convince people why hän is the right the person for the job. It's way I like to see things.

Democracy is precious thing and a source of concern is that over the last decade it has gone globally into decline. The guardian of 27th of March reports that 11 opposition leaders are behind bars facing jail or death. The countries being Venezuela, Ethiopia, Maldives, Kuwait, Democratic Republic of the Congo,Tanzania, Rwanda, Sudan, Swaziland and Burundi. Many of these countries lie in Africa and you might think that it is reason enough for being backward, but the cause of decline of democratic values is in each case wildy different.

However, what for me immediately catches the eye is Venezuela. It used to be a democratic country until Hugo Chávez, a left populist, came to power. During his in office democracy took a big blow. And while he enjoyed a lot of popular support his successor Nicolás Maduro does not. It has led to ever harsher suppression of the opposition. Another country is Kuwait. Wasn't that the one Americans fought for to free from Saddam Hussein? You would think that a more lenient, democratic government would be in place now. But that hardly seems to be the case.

Democracy in decline. It should worry us. And yet there are other things that bother us. The borders of the EU are restless to the point that some politicians are longing for the days of autocratic regimes along the Mediterranean. That seems to me wishing for more trouble. The autocratic regimes were toppled because they were not stable enough to endure. And Putin sets an example of being the kind of dictator that will take democracy away from you if you don't have the weapons to defend it. What is needed is a formula to promote democracy where it is does not exist. What really spooks me is that since world war II we have developed no framework to extend our democratic values to others. In the cold war we were only too happy to accommodate anyone who was nice to us. Never minding what they did to their own people. Now that comes back to haunt us. Europe is still an isle of democracy and it is a real victory that we have drawn the eastern block into our democratic camp, but there it has stopped. We had no solution for post-jugoslavia and now we are helpless in the aftermath of the Arab spring. That bothers me. It might seem a matter of no interest for anyone here, however the middle-east is already boiling over and it looks like it only will get worse. It will soon turn into global issue. Then we have to deal with it, whether we like it or not. I wish we had a cunning plan.

It's already common in tech-industry that some company claims a perfectly ordinary computer routine (like clicking your mouse on an icon) as one of their inventions. Patented here and there in various parts of the world. Patenting itself is not so difficult. In the US it happens without a thought. The difficulty comes when you start sending letters to other companies demanding money for your invention. Then you are immediately facing a court battle. The outcome of that determines whether you can make actually money out of your invention or not. It goes without saying that you need deep pockets to make your claim stick. As a small inventor you need the backing of bigger brother and you are probably happy to sell it for thousands even when big brother will make millions.

Patent troll

Enter the patent trolls! These are companies that skim the market for inventions. They usually have some hollow technical names, but patent trolls don't produce anything substantial. You might not think highly of either google, apple or microsoft, but those companies at least produce something (tablet, phone, game console, software) that makes us happy. The trolls don't. Nothing ever left their offices but legal mumbo jumbo with the smell of a hold-up.

Now that I have described to you what a patent troll is, it is easier to explain why it is so serious that their kind is spreading to other areas of technology. In this case agriculture! Agriculture, you say? I don't blame when you start rolling your eyes. Agriculture is quite basic isn't it? Something we know how to do for millenia. How can that be patented?

fieldThe truth is that innovations are still made. We breed varieties, we test varieties under different conditions. We try to modify the genes so that the vegetables become more resistant to certain diseases etc. In other words, we try to invent something new all the time. It is perfectly normal that the inventors want money for their inventions, so we submit those inventions to the European Patent Office (EPO). This is not problem. The problem comes when patent trolls enter the market. They are claiming that some normal properties of plants are their inventions!

According to a Dutch MOT-like program called Zembla large companies file more and more patents on natural properties of ordinary vegetables, like broccoli. The 10 largest vegetable seed companies in the world have at the moment 19 patents on natural properties of vegetables. 132 patents are waiting for approval from the European Patent Office, reports Zembla.

The patents can be used to monopolize a vegetable market and to block free access to vegetable materials (like seeds). This will put a strangle hold on ordinary farmers. Zembla notes that the US multinational Monsanto, a leader in genetically modified crops, currently holds 5 patents on vegetables. Furthermore they have 60 pending patents (nearly half of all filed). The Swiss company Syngenta currently holds 4 patents on vegetables, and has 26 applications pending. The largest Dutch vegetable seed company "Rijk Zwaan" has 3 patents and 25 applications pending.

When asked about the patent that the company has for broccoli with an extra long stem, Monsanto responds "We were the first who managed to develop such a broccoli It is legal.."

Their response is the hallmark of a true patent troll. Fortunately, we consumers have also some power. For one to stay informed. To buy or not to buy, and last but not least to push our politicians to do something about it. After all they make the laws and determine what is legal.