No Patents on Seeds

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By means of patents, agrochemical companies like Syngenta or Monsanto are attempting to assert their interests worldwide. In the process there is a risk that human rights such as the right to food and the right to health may fall by the wayside. In order to end this abuse, Public Eye together with an international coalition of NGOs has committed to “No patents on seeds”.

In May 2015 the “No patents on seeds” coalition launched the petition “No patents on plants and animals”: the coalition demanded an immediate modification of the Implementing Regulations to the European Patent Convention, and a change to European patent law to exclude all breeding processes, plant and animal genetic material, native characteristics, genetic sequencing as well food produced from them, from patenting.

Over 800,000 signatures were collected by the coalition and other partner organisations in a single year, including 30,000 in Switzerland. This huge success proves that there is significant resistance to the European Patent Office. The strength of this support sends a strong signal to political representatives: important measures are urgently required to stop the patenting of plants and animals.

A worrisome trend

The increased patenting of seeds, conventional plant varieties and breeds of farm animals means a far-reaching dispossession of farmers and breeders: farmers are no longer allowed to save seeds from their harvest, and breeders can only continue to work with patented seeds in a very restricted way.

One important actor in this area is the European Patent Office (EPO), that examines and grants European patents. The EPO was founded in 1977 on the basis of the European Patent Convention, and is the executive body of the European Patent Organisation, an intergovernmental institution. In addition to the EU Member States, Switzerland and a few other non-EU countries are members of the European Patent Organisation.

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The EPO has increasingly expanded patentability in the interests of the multinational groups in recent years, and has increasingly undermined the existing prohibitions on patents on plant varieties and biological processes. Our food security is increasingly in the hands of a few transnational chemical and biotechnology groups.

The report “Patents on plants and animals – time to act for European politicians” that was published by the coalition in 2016, shows the worrisome evolution of the political and legal context when we examine the list of patents granted in recent years. Several case studies highlight the inherent dangers of the EPO granting patents impacting peasants and breeders as well as consumers of these products.

The Legal Situation in Switzerland

Decisions concerning infringements or invalidity of European patents fall under national jurisdiction. In 2007 the Swiss Parliament approved a new patent law which is based to a large extent on the European Biotechnology Directive. After five years of negotiations the pharmaceuticals industry was able to carry through the most important points. This was also the case regarding the especially controversial question of whether it is authorised to patent gene sequences, and patent holders therefore have absolute protection that also includes other and even unknown applications.

A decisive new phase

Civil society resistance to patents on plants obtained through conventional means is growing and our demands are now widely supported. In Europe, in addition to the farmer’s unions and NGOs, the main breeders’ organisations as well as several countries, (the Netherlands, Germany and France) have taken a stance against the EPO position. Our long-term struggle is now entering a decisive phase. Our objective: change European regulations so that in future no patents may be taken out on conventional plants.