The Global Politics of FoodA Bean of a Different Color
A Bean of a Different Color
By Sandy Tolan
NPR News and American RadioWorks

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Field Notes

I wanted to take the beans with me—The yellow ones from Larry Proctor's bean operation on Colorado's Western Slope. I was fixing to leave Mr. Proctor's place, which was converted by hard times from family farm to "Red Beard Bean" processing plant near land where his father once grew onions and alfalfa. I asked he of the red beard if I could take some yellow beans with me.

What do you think of when you hear the word patent? A goggle-eyed scientist toiling at a row of steaming test tubes? Rube Goldberg crouched behind a maze of contraptions? The American patent system offers its inventors a deal: You come up with something that's useful and novel, and we'll protect your invention for a time, so that all of society can benefit. The light bulb comes to mind. But 20 years ago, the whole idea of patents broadened immeasurably, when a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court allowed a man named Chakrabarty to patent a simple life form—a bacterium known to gobble up oil molecules. Seven years later, scientists at Harvard patented a genetically engineered mouse. And more recently, companies in the United States have begun patenting plant varieties. But the genetic heritage of these plants often lies elsewhere, prompting fundamental questions of ownership, often accompanied by accusations of biopiracy. Sandy Tolan has the tale of a bean of a different color. And the problems it's creating.

"…the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world…"
—Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca

You know, Bogart may be right. But sometimes, in this crazy world, a hill of beans can add up to a hell of a problem. In our case, we start with three people whose livelihoods are tied to the mystery of the yellow bean. Why a mystery? Well first there's the question of origin.

NEXT: Larry Proctor and the Enola Bean >>

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