Patents on Seeds: Europe misses the boat

Yesterday in The Hague, the 38 Member States of the European Patent Convention (EPC), including Switzerland, adopted stricter rules on granting of patents on plants and animals. The scope of the decision is however limited by many flaws.

In recent years, the European Patent Office (EPO) has granted over 120 patents on conventionally bred (non-GMO) plants and animals. Many other applicationsare still pending. These patents restrict access to seeds for breeding, and strengthen the stranglehold of a handful of multinational corporations on our food. NGOs and many farmers’ organisations and breeders have taken position to ban these patents. In June 2016, the coalition “No patents on seeds” handed in a petition with over 800,000 signatures to demand that the EPO change its practice. The European Parliament and the European Commission also requested that granting of patents on plants and animals be restricted to the sole field of genetic engineering.

ProSpecieRara, SWISSAID and Public Eye welcome the decision by the Member States of the EPO to ban patents on plants and animals obtained by means of an “essentially biological processes”. Controversial patents such as those of Syngenta on peppers and Monsanto on melons that were contested by a large coalition of NGOs, should now no longer be granted. The decision that was adopted does however include many oversights. The ban effectively only concerns plants and animals that are the result of crossing and selection. This narrow definition excludes many techniques that are now used in conventional breeding. The recent patents granted to Carlsberg and Heineken on malt barley and beer will thus not be undermined. Furthermore, plants that can be bred using conventional techniques as well as biotechnologies remain patentable.

SWISSAID, Public eye and ProSpeciaRara had jointly developed an alternative proposal with the Swiss Authorities and industry representatives. It was presented by the Swiss delegation at the EPC meeting, but it was not taken on board. And whereas the NGOs were not granted the possibility to participate, the industrial lobby has strongly influenced the process, as shown in leaked confidential documents. In Switzerland some 9,000 people signed an open letter that requested Simonetta Sommaruga, the Federal Councillor, to take position that the EPO commit in favour of an efficient ban on patents on plants and animals resulting from conventional breeding techniques. The signatures were handed over on 23rd June 2017 at the Federal Institute of Intellectual Property (IPI).

For further information, please contact:

Laurent Gaberell, Public Eye: +41 76 379 39 21

Fabian Molina, SWISSAID: +41 79 781 12 28