Student - October 12, 2006

‘Biotech companies are making plant breeding impossible’

‘Biotech companies are misusing patent laws,’ says Niels Louwaars. ‘They are not satisfied with just patenting a gene that they have introduced into a plant, instead they want to control the use of the entire plant. This is a dangerous development, especially now that the American government is putting pressure on the EU and developing countries to introduce stricter patent laws.’

Louwaars, who works at the Centre for Genetic Resources, The Netherlands, fears what might happen if a strong block like the US gets its way. ‘Imagine: A biotech company introduces a Bt-gene, that provides resistance against moths, into a maize plant,’ says Louwaars. ‘And imagine that the same company then applies for a patent on the new plant. Depending on the legislation, the patent is valid not only for the new gene, but also for the entire organism. That means the whole plant. One of the consequences is that the plant breeders are not able to use the plant for further cross breeding, not even if they breed the new gene out.’

Louwaars recently published an article on the Intellectual Property Watch website, in which he warns of the consequences of this trend. ‘The plant in which the new gene is placed is the product of years of selective breeding,’ explains Louwaars. ‘It is excellent material for breeding an improved generation of plants. Throughout the history of plant breeding the key has been that breeders build upon the work of their predecessors, and also on that of their competitors. But if the biotech companies patent a plant with a new gene, they are taking the material away from the breeders. If this trend continues, breeders will soon have to turn to seed banks for old genetic materials, and start again from scratch to breed new varieties. That can take as long as fifteen years.’

This is why Louwaars is arguing for the inclusion of exemption clauses for breeders. ‘My suggestion is that breeders should be allowed to do cross-breeding with patented plants. As long as the new gene belonging to the patent-holder is still in the plant, the plant should not be allowed on the market. But once the gene is bred out, commercialisation should be permitted.’

Louwaars was invited to explain his ideas to the WTO in Geneva recently. ‘There were representatives from the private sector there as well,’ he adds. ‘My remarks did not pass unnoticed.’