The European Parliament has repeated its opposition to patenting plants obtained through natural processes. But what makes it an issue in the first place?
On 19 September, MEPs voted in favour of a resolution stating that plants obtained through conventional breeding processes, such as crossing and selection, must not become patentable.
They fear that allowing natural plant varieties to be patented would concentrate plant breeding material in the hands of a few powerful multinational companies. The resulting loss of genetic variety could in turn endanger food security and raise food prices.
Behind the controversy are two cases where the European Patent Office (EPO) granted patents to a reduced water content wrinkly tomato and a broccoli variety, which could reduce the risk of getting cancer. These plants were created through crossing and selection with no genetic manipulation.
After a Parliament resolution in 2015 and Commission intervention in 2016, the cases are being discussed in EPO’s final appellate instance. The deadline for submitting written statements is 1 October.
- Patents are a form of intellectual property that gives its owner the right to to prevent others from making, using or selling their invention. They are a tool to encourage investment in innovation.
- Patentable inventions must be new, inventive and applicable industrially.
- The European Patent Convention grants exception to patentability to “plant or animal varieties or essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals”.
- However, the exception excludes microbiological processes and their end products. The controversy around the patentability of naturally obtained plant varieties stems from the different interpretations of this exception.
The breeder’s exemption
The aim of plant breeding is to create new, more resistant, more productive and better quality varieties of plants. Innovation in the field is essential to guarantee sufficient food production at reasonable prices, especially with the changing environmental conditions caused by climate change.
Traditionally breeders have been able to protect their plant varieties through plant variety rights (PVR). The main difference with patenting is that PVR would not stop other farmers from using protected varieties for further breeding and developing new varieties.