The trend towards protecting breeding methods and agricultural food products with patents is a major threat to farmers, breeders and food producers in Europe, argues campaign group
The concept of patents is to grant exclusive marketing rights to the developer of a new technical invention, thereby boosting innovation. However, patents on resources can have the opposite effect by creating monopoly control and hindering free access to such resources. This is what we are seeing in the agricultural sector, where plants and animals, breeding methods and even food products are being subjected to patents.
It may seem odd, and a contradiction, to want to patent plants and animals. But this is exactly what is happening, as a newly published report shows. The international coalition No Patents on Seeds, comprising farmers' organisations, development and environmental non-governmental organisations, has looked into the practices of the European Patent Office, based in Munich. In recent years, there have been an increasing number of patent applications for conventionally bred plants and animals.
Patents are being filed for seeds and breeding material, processes for breeding, on plants and animals and food derived thereof, such as oil, flour, tomatoes, melons, milk and eggs. While the technical innovation in most cases is only minor, the scope of the patents is extremely broad, covering the whole chain of food production, from farm to fork. Several such patents have already been granted.
The findings of the report show that there are already around 1,000 patent applications pending that are connected to the conventional breeding of plants. Around 100 new applications were filed in 2011 alone, more than a dozen patents were granted in this field. Another dozen patents were granted in connection with farm animal breeding claiming breeding material, sex selection, marker assisted selection, cloning or genetic engineering. All in all, by the end of 2011, nearly 2000 patents on plants and around 1,200 patents on animals were granted by the EPO. In many cases not even technical genetic engineering is involved, the plants are merely bred by conventional cross-breeding methods.
This development is a major threat to farmers, breeders and food producers in Europe. The patent holder can prevent access to breeding material which is needed for the development of new, better varieties. One company can decide who and what new developments will take place, and for what price. This is not competition and innovation, this is monopolising and privatising. Patent law is being abused in an attempt to take control of genetic resources and the process of food production.
It comes as no surprise that only a handful of international companies from the agrochemical sector, like Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer, have become major players in the seed business. Market concentration in this sector has steadily intensified within the last decade and patents are a main driving factor in this context. Farmers, seeds developers and food producers become dependent on the commercial policies of these giants. This practice of patents on conventionally bred plants and animals also clearly contradicts European patent law, as for example the European Union directive "on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions", the European Patent Convention and even the rulings of the patent office's Enlarged Board of Appeal.
In recent months many stakeholders have raised their concerns about current developments. During a public debate in the European Parliament in February speakers included representatives from the various sectors along the food chain. The picture that emerged was that all rejected such patents and of a common understanding that changes are urgently needed. Seed breeders, farmers, food producers and even development organisations all called for political action to remedy these developments, and so the debate is gaining speed again: the German and the Dutch parliaments have just adopted resolutions against patenting and increasing monopolisation of plant and animal breeding, and many observers now expect a clear signal from the EU within the coming months.
The No Patents on Seeds initiative is calling for clarification in European patent law to exclude patents on plants and animals, breeding material, processes for breeding, selecting of plants and animals for breeding purposes, food and other products derived from plants and animals.Christoph Then is co-ordinator of No Patents on Seeds. The report can be read here