Plants and animals that are produced only by “essentially biological processes” are not patentable, the European Patent Office has ruled, in a decision hailed as a victory against agribusiness giants.
The decision represents a fundamental change in the position of the European Patent Office (EPO) on the patentability of plants and animals.
It was published this week by the Enlarged Board of Appeal, which is the highest legal body of the EPO, and applies to patent applications filed since July, 2017.
The No Patents on Seeds organisation welcomed the verdict, but also demanded further political decisions to close continuing loopholes.
The civil society member organisations of No Patents on Seeds are concerned about the increasing number of patents on plants, seeds and farm animals, and their impact on farmers, breeders, innovation and biodiversity.
Access to biological diversity needed for further breeding must not be controlled, hampered or blocked by any patents, said the organisation.
“However, there is still a huge risk that big corporations will try to abuse patent law to take control of our daily food,” said Katherine Dolan of the Arche Noah local seed networks in Austria.
“The problem is not yet solved.
“Further political decisions still have to be taken to close the existing loopholes.”
According to No Patents on Seeds, clear definitions are still needed to distinguish patentable technical inventions from the random processes used in conventional breeding.
Such definitions can prevent companies getting around current prohibitions, which has resulted in some European patents on barley and beer, melons, and lettuce.
No Patents on Seeds said hundreds of patents on conventional breeding are pending.
Just recently, around 100 new patent applications were identified, for basil, pepper, manioc, and barley, as well as cattle, sheep and pigs.
If conventionally bred plants and animals are patented as “inventions”, they cannot be used for further breeding without the permission of the patent holder.
“For more than 10 years, we have been fighting against patents such as those on broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, melons and cereals,” said Martha Mertens of Friends of the Earth Germany. “Therefore, we welcome this verdict in the name of the European public, gardeners, farmers and consumers. Knowledge of methods of breeding plants and animals continues to evolve as a common good from the activities of farmers and breeders over centuries, it is not invented by industry.
“In future, conventionally bred plants and animals have to be kept available for further breeding.
“We hope the new verdict will help to put an end to a decade of complete legal absurdity and chaotic decision-making at the EPO.”
The EPO decision stemmed from the “Pepper case”, so called because it arose from a European patent application for “New pepper plants and fruits with improved nutritional value ” by Syngenta Participations AG of Switzerland, a corporate family of 1,054 companies which generates annual sales of €12.37bn.