Anger over European decision to grant patent on melon seeds

IRISH food interest groups have voiced their opposition to the European Patent Office’s (EPO) decision to grant food corporation Monsanto a patent on melon seeds which it has genetically modified.

Monsanto’s patent relates to the introduction of a virus resistant strain of melon seed into a regular melon seed.

The melon disease, Cucurbit yellow stunting disorder virus, has been spreading through North America, Europe and North Africa in recent years.

A type of melon seed readily available in India is more resistant to this virus, and this is the strain injected into the more common seed and detailed in the patent.

DeRuiter, a seed company in the Netherlands, originally developed the melons. DeRuiter used plants titled PI 313970 — a non-sweet melon from India. Monsanto acquired DeRuiter in 2008, and now owns the patent.

Anita Hayes of the Irish Seed Savers Association said: “The whole gold rush towards the patenting of seeds is giving GM food companies like Monsanto a very restrictive control over plant production. Restrictions of this type make it difficult for other people to grow food. It is narrowing control over the market and endangering food security.”

However, Monsanto business manager for Ireland, Dr Patrick O’Reilly, said that more than 300 million acres of GM crops globally were planted by farmers last year, with zero incidents relating to health and safety.

While the firm’s Irish operation doesn’t deal with the melon patent, he says that there are benefits to be gained from using biotechnology in plant breeding.

Dr O’Reilly said: “A lot of the products coming onto the market are tackling virus resistance and other problems that cannot currently be solved by any other means.

“Biotechnology has proven to be safe and very useful for the last 15 years or more. Next year there will be some new soya crops with high levels of Omega3, of which people are currently only getting about 25% of what they need.

“I understand why some people have concerns, but biotechnology is just a way of accelerating the transfer of genes from one plant or species to another. It is widely used and will continue to be of huge benefit throughout the world.”

Global anti-GM group No Patents on Seeds! is calling for a revision of European Patent Law to exclude breeding material, plants and animals and food derived thereof from patentability. Around 15,000 individuals have signed up to this organisation’s petition.

In a precedent decision, the EPO decided in December 2010 that conventional breeding could not be patented. However, in the case of Monsanto’s new melon patent, the EPO has judged that individual plant parts such as the seeds and the melon fruit can be patented.

Grace Maher of the Irish Organic Food Growers Association said: “I am fundamentally opposed to the genetic modification of food and to the patenting of seeds because these actions are completely unnecessary.

“Why can multinational companies be allowed patent seeds? It’s like they’re patenting life. I don’t agree with that in the human world, nor in the plant world.”


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