The German government wants to prevent the patenting of agricultural livestock and plants. "There are limits that we should not cross," Germany's Minister of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Ilse Aigner told SPIEGEL. In order to preserve genetic variety, farmers and breeders should not be handcuffed by biological patents, she argues.
Aigner, who is a member of the conservative Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, wants to make European rules regarding biological patents more precise. Although the agriculture minister does not oppose the patenting of new breeding procedures, she argues that the resulting whole organisms should not be patentable.
She is supported in her position by the parliamentary group of the opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD). The SPD even goes one step further, arguing that neither conventional breeding methods nor whole organisms should be patentable.
European Test Case
Aigner's push for a refinement of European regulations on biological patents comes shortly before an important precedent-setting decision that will be made by the Munich-based European Patent Office (EPO). In a hearing that begins on July 20, the office's Enlarged Board of Appeal, the EPO's highest board of appeal, will be looking into the validity of two patents, one applying to broccoli and one to tomatoes. The EPO's ruling will be final once a decision has been made and will serve as a precedent for further patents on conventional seeds.
The patents were actually granted several years ago. In the case of the broccoli, which is bred to contain elevated levels of glucosinolates, compounds believed to have anticarcinogenic properties, the patent was given to UK-based Plant Bioscience Limited in 2002, while the patent on the tomatoes, which have been bred to contain less water, was awarded to Israel's Ministry of Agriculture in 2003. The patents have been opposed by various parties, however, including other companies working in biotechnology such as Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever and Swiss-based company Syngenta Participations AG.
Opposition to Patents on Conventional Breeding
Another of the organizations opposed to the patenting is the lobby group No Patents on Seeds, an initiative founded by Greenpeace Germany together with the Swiss development organization Swissaid and Misereor, the overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Germany.
The lobby opposed to seed patenting is concerned that what is being patented involves conventional plant breeding techniques and not genetic modification technology. For example, the drier tomato in question is produced by crossing several tomato hybrid seeds, then observing how the eventual tomato fruit dries, to see which plants have less moisture.
According to European regulations, as an EPO statement on the vegetable cases explains, "European patents shall not be granted for essentially biological processes for the production of plants and animals." A process for the production of plants or animals is essentially biological "if it consists entirely of natural phenomena such as crossing or selection," the EPO continues.
No Patents On Seeds is concerned about the implications of the EPO's impending ruling. "If the patent is revoked, it might become more difficult for similar patents on normal seeds to be granted," the group said in a statement. "On the other hand, it is likely that the companies mainly filed their oppositions to get the EPO to confirm, rather than to revoke, the patentability of conventional seeds." The lobby group points out that one of the commercial opponents of the broccoli patent, Syngenta, has also applied for a similar patent on a type of rice.
Traditionally, a kind of open-source principle applied in agriculture, whereby newly developed varieties of plant or breeds of animal were available to all users. In contrast, patents give their holders exclusive rights and controls over any new varieties.
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