The past decade has seen a growing number of patent applications filed for conventionally-bred plants, including broccoli, tomatoes, melons, spinach, lettuce, maize, wheat and barley. These patents are a violation of European patent law which prohibits patents on plant varieties and conventional breeding. It is mostly international companies from the agrochemical sector that are filing these patents.
In order to obtain patents on conventionally-bred plants, companies frequently introduce specific wording into patent applications, which suggest the use of genetic engineering processes. However, a closer look at the patents shows that, in most cases, these technical methods were not applied and were simply not necessary to develop the desired plants. Ultimately, the strategy behind these patents enables companies to establish claims on the biological resources (gene variants) needed by all breeders. For example, a patent application by Syngenta/ChemChina shows that the company is trying to claim around 45.000 genetic variations in wild relatives of soybeans as their invention (WO2022173659).
Another example is a patent on maize (EP 3380618) granted to KWS using existing maize lines that where already known to tolerate colder climate conditions such as in northern Europe. Interestingly, tools such as CRISPR/Cas are mentioned in the patent. However, new genomic techniques were not applied and are also not necessary to obtain plants which already exist in nature. This case highlights how CRISPR/Cas is frequently abused as a tool within the patent system to take over the genetic resources of biological diversity needed for traditional plant breeding. This patent creates a monopoly for the patent holder who can thus try to stop all other breeders from using these varieties.
Such patents hamper or block access to the biological resources needed by other breeders to develop new plant characteristics and thus adapt to present and future challenges. Beyond that, there is a risk that farmers and our future food security as well as food sovereignty may be severely impacted. As a result, breeders, farmers and consumers are all at risk of becoming more and more dependent on big companies that can control access to biological resources needed for further breeding. Political action and a change of legislation is urgently needed to stop these patents and protect Europe’s food sovereignty.
Author: Johanna Eckhardt, No Patents on Seeds! project coordinator.
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