Broccoli Set to Rewrite Patent History in Europe

plateMost people in the Western World have heard of Genetically Modified (GM) plants or crops. Would it surprise you to learn that GM plants are routinely patented by companies? Probably not. What if I were to tell you though that it wasn't just GM plants that are being patented, but plants that have existed, in some cases, for thousands of years? Unbelievable, isn't it. But believe it. In fact some of the plants that large corporations are attempting to patent may very well be on your dinner table tonight.

As Jeanne Roberts reported in her article GM Seeds, a Rape Disguised as a Courtship, nearly two-thirds of the GM seeds available in the world are controlled by three large corporations; Monsanto, Syngenta and BASF. It seems though that we are not quite dependant enough on these corporate giants for their liking - GM foods are still not available in most countries. So, in what seems like an alarming twist, patents are being applied for not just GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), but also for plants developed using normal breeding practices.

At the European Patent Forum in 2007, Christoph Then of Greenpeace outlined that Monsanto has made patent claims for soy beans simply on the basis of a trait; better oil quality. Syngenta has filed patents claiming large parts of the common rice genome. He also pointed out that the European Patent Office (EPO) has granted a patent on aphid resistant composite plants produced using marker assisted breeding. Marker Assisted Breeding works by selecting a trait based on a genetic marker linked to that trait. It does not involve genetic modification.

I suppose it wasn't much of a leap. If a patent is granted on a particular organism does it really matter how that organism came into existence? Does it matter if that plant or animal was developed through direct genetic engineering, or through some more subtle genetic manipulation, such as natural breeding techniques?

brassicaWell, under the EU directive 98/44/EC, no purely biological process is patentable. That hasn't stopped companies trying though. In 2002 the EPO granted a patent on a method of increasing a specific compound in the Brassica plant species, through conventional (marker assisted) breeding. The Brassica genus contains more important agricultural crops than any other genus, including turnips, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. The patent also includes the seeds and any edible plants obtained through these methods.

Syngenta and Limagrain filed oppositions to the patent, which was issued to the UK company Plant Bioscience. This seemed very unusual at the time, as Syngenta is applying for similar patents and should this patent be denied it would undermine their claim. It's thought, however, that Syngenta expect the EPO to confirm, rather than deny the patent, thus bolstering Syngenta's claim.

The EPO has referred the case to its Enlarged Board of Appeal which is expected to make its decision shortly. This ruling will be final and will serve as law within the EU for future cases. The ruling may also have far wider implications. While most developing countries do not allow patents on plants or animals, precedents established within EU and U.S. patent law are often forced upon other smaller nations through the World Trade Organisation agreement on trade related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS).

broccoliSo what might it mean if broccoli and other plants are patented? Farmers will no longer be able to save the seeds from such crops in seed banks. Plant breeders will no longer be permitted to use the patented seeds for further breeding. According to Greenpeace, it would inhibit research and innovation in plant breeding and lead to a situation where the majority of the seeds are produced by a small number of corporations and could endanger the world food supply.

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9 comments

If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

Uncle B (anonymous)

Capitalism is a disease carried by democracy throughout the world. Thank God the Chinese still have remnants of Communism in their system to balance out the ravages of capitalism. The current American dilemma is really a confrontation of capitalism gone wild and democracy , brought to its very knees by the power wielded by capitalists. If the Capitalists win, the American people are enslaved, if Democracy wins the American people are impoverished. Some Choice! The world needs a new system. The Commies raped Russia. The Capitalists are raping America as we speak. A new and very different alternative must rise up from mankind and save them from themselves!

Written in October 2008

RebelFarmer (anonymous)

Dig this: A French producer of organic seed of old races cannot longer sell them legally because of the impossibility to register them all according to the new EU legislation. It is very expensive and the seed are not “stable” enough.

Strange: the fact that they are not stable genetically is the main reason why we have agro-biodiversity…..
But this year they lost a trial against the French state. This means in fact that all producers of local races and varieties are in trouble and hence the agro-biodiversity!

See more info on the website of this producer:
www.kokopelli.asso.fr
EU regulation: www.organic-europe.net

From: www.rebelfarmer.org/2/post/2008/09/first-post.html

Written in October 2008

John P. 194°

"not stable genetically". Does this mean that they just cannot be classified?

It seems from the producers site that he is keen on cross breeding, which is perfectly valid and in-fact promotes bio-diversity and food security.

Thanks for the comment RebelFarmer and nice site by the way.

Written in October 2008

Dimitri F. 100°

Profit driven insanity.

I really think a quiet sort of revolution is the only thing that will save humanity's future. What's going on here? It's just insane to patent nature whether it is grown in the wild or in the lab. In my opinion it is plain disgustingly greedy for any corporation to try to "own" and "sell" a natural processes. The genius award belongs to nature itself not to some oh-so-clever people just so they can dominate the rest of the world. Man, where are they going next?

Patents and copyrights are definately outdated mechanisms in my view (they were never any good anyway). They serve the few and cost the masses and the planet. With climate change, over population, pollution, energy over consumption etc. as context (all symptoms of profit-greedy corporations' activities btw.) more intelligent and social mechanisms need to be applied in the "free" (yeah, right) market place. Like copyleft for example or the free software movement (donating to the author what you thinks it's worth) and honesty boxes type of arrangements. Empower people to be responsible rather than make them into consumption slaves being forced to purchase something that was there before humanity even existed!
It's like attempting to copyright ... God!

Written in October 2008

Leanne V. 197°

I refue to buy foods with US content these days, as I assume that anything from the US has GM content (probably true). I'm growing more and more of my own food when I can, and eating as locally as possible, talking to the people who grow my food for me.

GM is a travesty against nature. Diversity is what makes nature flourish, and GM is the antithesis of that.

Written in October 2008

C Robb W. 444°

That's a good bet Leanne, in south Dakota a farmer spent 50 years developing alfalfa seed to suit the local conditions. Monsanto put in a GM crop nearby, the pollen got into his field and destroyed 50 years of work, on top of that he was sued by Monsanto! In the US GM can be grown, for human consumption, without public notification and the food does not carry a label to identify it. 52% of americans believe they have never eaten GM food, when in fact they eat it every day. When the agribiz scientists raised the alarm that the babies of rats fed GM soy died in large numbers, they were fired and attempts were made to silence them. The senators that work for Cargill and the senators that work for Monsanto, and the Bush administration of course, see to it that the USDA and FDA are well stacked with industry insiders.
Welcome to the Corporate States of America.

Written in October 2008

John P. 194°

Hi folks,

The really worrying thing for me is this trend of patenting foods that are not genetically modified. The patent mentioned in this article is for a variety that is not GM. Normal breeding techniques were used to produce it.

However, the argument seems to be that because marker assisted breeding was used there is some inherent right to own the resultant genome. Will the EPO uphold the patent and begin a precedant that could see global food supplies in the hands of a few large companies?

At least 35 patents have been granted on normal plants.

see here: http://www.no-patents-on-seeds.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=69&Itemid=20

You can sign a global appeal against the patenting of normal plants here: http://www.no-patents-on-seeds.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=56&Itemid=39

Thanks for commenting folks.

Written in October 2008

RebelFarmer (anonymous)

Sorry, for not answering timely... I found the original text of Kokopelli's objection against the conviction. "Genetically instable" means in this context: not a hybrid, and the seed they sold were not homogene. So how can you register a variety that is not stable and homogene?? They argue that the system of registration is based upon hybrids so against old races and "own varieties"... Each registration costs 500 euro plus annual costs. A punishment for a NGO that tries to preserves biodiversity!

Written in July 2009

RebelFarmer (anonymous)

Here is the orginal text in French:

from http://www.kokopelli.asso.fr/proces-kokopelli/gnis-fnpsp7.html

Pourquoi les variétés commercialisées par KOKOPELLI n’étaient-elles donc pas inscrites au Catalogue Officiel ? En vérité, ce catalogue, qui fait la part belle aux variétés technologiques, posent des conditions à son accès qui le rendent incompatible avec les caractéristiques même des variétés vendues par l’association, librement reproductibles, mais également non homogènes – puisque les fruits, sur un même plant, ne sont pas exactement identiques les uns aux autres – et capables d’adaptation et d’évolution en fonction des terroirs où elles seront plantées. Au surplus, les tarifs d’inscription au Catalogue sont prohibitifs (500 euros en moyenne pour chaque variété, sans compter les droits annuels à payer pour les différents types d’examens obligatoires). En définitive, ce catalogue, initialement facultatif et ouvert à toutes les semences, est devenu, par une dérive administrative totalitaire, le pré carré exclusif des créations variétales issues de la recherche agronomique. Le Registre créé à l’origine pour protéger ces créations variétales n’ayant rencontré aucun succès, l’administration a accepté de faire droit aux revendications des semenciers professionnels et des instituts de recherche publics en organisant, avec le Catalogue et ses conditions d’inscription, le monopole de la semence hybride - qui présentait l’immense avantage, du point de vue commercial, de n’être pas reproductible et d’impliquer l’utilisation massive d’intrants chimiques. Au-delà de la désobéissance civile, ce sont donc bien les conditions d’inscription au Catalogue Officiel, faites pour des types précis de semences uniquement, qui rendent impossible l’inscription des semences de KOKOPELLI au Catalogue. Sont-elles pour autant inintéressantes sur le plan agricole, commercial, ou nutritionnel? Pas du tout, car leurs utilisateurs les plébiscitent, pour leur diversité de formes et de couleurs, leurs qualités gustatives, leurs richesses nutritionnelles, leur résistance aux maladies, leur résilience et leur productivité. La protection des consommateurs exige-t-elle alors que cette collection de variétés soit interdite à la vente ? Encore moins, dans un contexte d’érosion généralisée de nos ressources phytogénétiques, et alors que les variétés anciennes présentent de véritables atouts pour faire face aux changements climatiques. De plus, il faut préciser que les conditions d’inscription au Catalogue n’ont rien à voir avec les exigences strictement sanitaires auxquelles les semences doivent satisfaire.

En réalité, il convient ici de faire le constat de l’inadaptation de la réglementation à la diversité des modes d’activité agricole. Cependant, soyons lucides, cette situation résulte d’un processus d’inadaptation volontaire, largement motivé par les ambitions monopolistiques d’un secteur professionnel sur le marché tout entier, ainsi que par une volonté politique d’industrialisation et de mécanisation de la production agricole.

Malheureusement, pendant la seconde moitié du siècle dernier, la France a réussi à imposer cette réglementation aussi bien au niveau international qu’en Europe, de sorte que ce totalitarisme, extrêmement pénalisant sur le plan de la biodiversité, est à l’œuvre dans tous les pays de l’Union et ailleurs.

Précisons enfin que, si la France a créé un catalogue consacré aux “variétés amateurs” - lequel est présenté par nos institutions comme une panacée -, celui-ci ne règle nullement le problème puisque les conditions posées à son inscription sont les mêmes que pour le catalogue général et les tarifs d’inscription en sont restés rédhibitoires (250,49€ pour chaque variété, en 2008). Il est de plus fort inopportunément destiné aux seuls jardiniers non professionnels.

Written in July 2009

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