Science - November 10, 2016

‘Curb on patents is good news’

Albert Sikkema

The European Commission wants to set limits to patents on plants and animals. The legislative body will not be granting patents for plants and animals which are the product of conventional biological processes such as cross-breeding and selection, wrote the Commission last week in a clarification of the European Biotechnology Directive of 1998. That is good news, says Bert Visser of the Centre for Genetic Resources Netherlands (CGN) in Wageningen.

Has it been a heated debate?

‘It certainly has, because there are huge interests at stake. Major breeders such as Syngenta and Monsanto want extensive patent rights on plants. Small breeding companies cannot afford to apply for and defend patents so they are hampered by the patenting legislation. This is really a conflict between the haves and the have-nots. And it is important that we keep enough breeding companies. The CGN is pleased with this announcement.’

Why are you pleased?

‘Because the patenting legislation imposes limitations on the use of our collection too. The European Patent Office gave Syngenta a patent on bell pepper plants which are resistant to whitefly, for example. That natural characteristic comes from our bell pepper collection, which was developed with public funding. We are appealing against the granting of that patent.'

For which plants is it still possible to get a patent?

‘For all plants and animals which are the product of non-biological processes, such as genetic modification. And I suspect also for new breeding techniques such as Crispr-Cas, because with that you laser changes in the genome. That is a technical process.’

What are the implications of this announcement?

‘It is up to the independent European Patent Office what they do with the European Commission’s ruling. But they will certainly have to take it seriously. The appeal against Syngenta is a nice test case in that regard. And I think the patent holders, especially the big breeding companies, are considering taking this to court because of their investments in patents. What is not clear yet is whether this ruling applies only to new patents or has retroactive effect. If that is the case we can expect more court cases.'