Most 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?
Well, 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).
So 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.
- GM Seeds, a Rape Disguised as a Courtship
- The Food Crisis Spurs Gene Patenting Race
- Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation
- Seeds of Democracy Alive in Montville, Maine
- Orchestrating Famine: A Must-Read Backgrounder on the Food Crisis
- The Failures of Genetically Modified Crops Continue