Johanna Eckhardt studied linguistics at the University of Vienna and in Spain. She worked in Austria, Spain and France as a language teacher and in the tourism sector. In 2015, she completed an internship in the seed policy team of ARCHE NOAH. Since 2016, she is part of the European coalition No patents on seeds! where she is project coordinator, focusing on public communication and contact with experts from the contracting states of the European Patent Office (EPO).

Johanna Eckhardt

50% of the world seed market is controlled by only 4 companies. Is genetic diversity patentable?

Following the EU Biopatent Directive 98/44 and the European Patent Convention of the European Patent Office (EPO) technical inventions are patentable. In the field of plant breeding this means genome editing (GE), that is regarded as technical. However, patents on plants and animals derived from traditional breeding, such as crossing & selection, are not allowed. But legal loopholes are to blame that nevertheless in the last 15 years over 200 patents on traditional breeding have been granted, f.e. on broccoli, tomato, lettuce, soybean, melon, barley & beer. Plus, patents on GE can aswell affect traditional breeding, if f.e. a trait of a plant is protected by a GE-patent, but can as well be found in a traditional plant.

«Legal loopholes are to blame that in the last 15 years over 200 patents on traditional breeding have been granted»

How do patents on seeds affect biodiversity?

We need genetic diversity in plants so that breeders can adapt plants to new environmental conditions, such as pests, diseases or climate change. This is very important to keep our food system resilient. But when a patent is f.e. granted on a specific trait of a plant, such as a resistance to diseases, this can affect a lot of plant varieties and breeders may not have access to the genetic material anymore. This can put agro-biodiversity and food security into danger. If small and medium-scale breeders are forced out of the market by big corporations, we would end up with a very limited amount of seed varieties and a market monopoly.

How and why was the No Patents on Seeds! organisation born? What are its main goals?

More than 15 years ago the European coalition No patents on seeds! observed worrying developments of patents being granted by the EPO on plants and animals derived from traditional breeding which is a threat for food security in Europe and world-wide. The main goal is to close existing legal loopholes and make sure that the prohibition of patents on conventional breeding is enforced. We ask the 39 Contracting States of the EPO to take action, we reach out to ministers and organise public campaigns. Our last petition gathered over 250.000 signatures against patents on seeds until the end of 2022.

«50% of the seed market is in the hand of 4 big companies who on the same time own two -thirds of the pesticide market»

Let’s talk about organic farming: Conventional or hybrid seeds are used in a large part of agricultural production. Why?

50% of the seed market is in the hand of 4 big companies who on the same time own two -thirds of the pesticide market. They don’t have any interest in organic farming. Patents give those companies even more power. At the moment there is not enough supply with organic seeds. We need more public financial support for biological plant breeding. And the current seed marketing law favours hybrid seeds and makes it very difficult for heterogeneous material to enter the market because it cannot fulfil the characteristics required, such as f.e. uniformity.

Why go for traditional seeds? Why are they associated with the concepts of diversity, taste, independence and cultural value?

To be resilient against plant pests and diseases as well as changing climate conditions, it is very important to have a huge genetic variety in our food crops so that we can adapt accordingly. Additionally, local varieties can be adapted over generations to a specific region. There are so many wonderful food crops that bring so much value in regards to taste, gastronomic culture, regional heritage, local food production, health and pure pleasure for our eyes and our taste buds – so they are well worth protecting.

«We need a legal framework that keeps traditional plant breeding out of patentability»

Does food sovereignty start with seeds?

Of course. When we walk into a supermarket these days, we may not be aware anymore that everything starts with a seed. Without seeds, no food. Such an important good should not be left to a few big corporations, but it should be part of our culture – and agriculture. And it is not only the seeds, but as well the knowledge on how to breed and cultivate the plants – and on how to prepare them in nutritious and delicious plates.

What political and economic frameworks need to change for a more sustainable agriculture?

In regards to patents on seeds, we need a legal framework that keeps traditional plant breeding out of patentability so that small and medium-scale breeders and farmers are not forced out of the market. The ministries of the 39 Contracting states of the EPO have to take political action to saveguard biodiversity and food security. Policy makers have to support a resilient system that favours organic breeding and agriculture and the use of a big diversity of traditional plant varieties. As a consumer, we can decide whether to support big food companies or rather local, organic farmers and producers that act sustainably and provide us with high quality food that is good for our health and for the planet.

Author: Ariadna Coma, Journalist.

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