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When Agrochemical Corporations Invented Nature

Julio Godoy* - IPS/IFEJ

BERLIN, Aug 6 2010 (IPS) - A civil society protest against a British agrochemical company that claims it has invented a particular sort of broccoli has again focused attention on the question who owns natural biodiversity, especially vegetables, seeds, and many forms of meat and animal food products.

Greenpeace protests in Munich against the patent on broccoli. Credit: Falk Heller/argum/Greenpeace

Greenpeace protests in Munich against the patent on broccoli. Credit: Falk Heller/argum/Greenpeace

Delegates from some 300 environmental and consumer organisations from all over the world gathered last month in Bavarian capital Munich, some 500 kilometres south of Berlin last month to demonstrate outside the headquarters of the European Patent Office (EPO) against the patent the agency accorded on broccoli seeds, plants and breeding methods to the British agrochemical company Plant Bioscience.

EPO granted the patent in 2002, on a method claimed by Plant Bioscience for increasing a specific compound in broccoli through conventional breeding methods. The patent, which also faces opposition by two other agrochemical multinationals, includes the breeding methods, and the broccoli seeds and edible broccoli plants obtained through these procedures.

The demonstration in Munich took place as the EPO opened its litigation procedure on the legitimacy of its own patent agreement. A decision on the issue is expected in October.

Plant Bioscience claims that its breeding methods increase the anti- carcinogenic glucosinolates in the species. This is one of hundreds of similar claims presented by numerous agrochemical multinational companies, such as Monsanto and Syngenta.

For environmental and consumer activists and independent farmers, such patents amount to an attempt to expropriate natural biodiversity for the benefit of a handful of corporations, which would rule as a cartel upon agriculture, especially in developing countries.

Christoph Then, expert on intellectual property rights for the environmental organisation Greenpeace, told IPS that what a handful of biochemical multinational companies are doing is to “misappropriate biodiversity.”

Then is co-author of a study on the ‘The future of seeds and food’, in which he warns of the “monsantosizing of biodiversity.” Earlier this year he led a successful European campaign against a patent filed by Monsanto, in which the company claimed it had invented a particular sort of ham.

Last April, EPO revoked this patent given to Monsanto in 2005. Then told IPS that the “revocation of the patent is a major success for consumers and farmers in Europe. The EPO’s decision shows that even the most powerful transnational companies must give in to public pressure.”

According to Greenpeace and other environmental organisations researching patent claims by agrochemical corporations, the EPO has to decide on more than 1,000 other property rights filed on vegetables, seeds and animal products presented by the firms Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, Bayer Cropscience, BASF and Dow Agrosciences, and others.

The broccoli case is typical of this battle among multinationals over conventional breeding methods. The agrochemical companies Limagrain and Syngenta, which have filed opposition against the Plant Bioscience patent, argue that the patent has to be revoked as its claims refer to an essentially biological process, and so to conventional methods.

According to the European Patent Convention, essentially biological processes are not patentable.

Despite this, most patents filed today by agrochemical multinationals concern conventional breeding methods. In a study for the Gen-Ethical Foundation, German biologist Ruth Tippe showed that the number of patents filed by agrochemical multinationals on conventional breeding methods has grown more than 20 percent since 2000.

“Nowadays, 30 percent of all patent applications on plant breeding filed by Monsanto involve conventional breeding methods,” Tippe told IPS. “Before 2005, such patent applications did not reach five percent of the total.”

“The patent on broccoli has become a test case for the patentability of conventional seeds and breeding methods,” Franz Schaettle, director of the international campaign No Patent on Seeds, told IPS.

No Patent on Seeds represents hundreds of environmental, consumer, and farmer organisations across the world, to fight the “monsantosizing of biodiversity”, and has formulated a global appeal against patents on conventional seeds and farm animals addressed to the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office, governments, and the executive boards of agro-business companies.

“The continuing patenting of seeds, conventional plant varieties and animal species leads to far reaching expropriations of farmers and breeders,” Schaettle told IPS. “Farmers, especially in developing countries, are deprived of their rights to save their harvested seeds, and breeders are under strong limitations to use the patented seeds freely for further breeding.”

Numerous examples of patent applications by agrochemicals confirm the warnings of Tippe, Schaettle, and Then. In Monsanto’s patent application WO2008021413 on maize and soy, methods are claimed that are widely used in conventional breeding.

“On more than 1,000 pages and in 175 claims Monsanto apply for patents on various gene sequences and genetic variations, especially in soy and maize,” Schaettle said. “Monsanto even goes as far as explicitly claiming all relevant maize and soy plants, inheriting those genetic elements. Furthermore, all uses in food, feed and biomass are listed.”

By filing specific regional applications Monsanto shows especial interest in applying for this patent in Europe, Argentina and Canada.

By the same token, in patent application WO 2009011847, on meat and milk, Monsanto broadly claims methods for cattle breeding, the animals, as well as “milk, cheese, butter and meat.” Other companies have also filed patents on genetic resources needed for feed and food production.

“All these patents are the backbone of a strategy for taking over global control on all levels of food production, “Schaettle said. “The patents do not stifle research and innovation; they are simply meant to block access to genetic resources and technology and to establish new dependencies for farmers, breeders and food producers.”

This is particularly the case in developing countries, especially in Africa and Latin America. In such regions, in contrast to Europe, small farmers and consumer organisations do not have legal or financial resources to fight unfair patents. Under such circumstances, the likes of Monsanto can claim they have actually invented natural diversity.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service, and IFEJ — the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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