It was quite a shock for plant breeders when the European Patent Office decided this spring to allow the patenting of natural plant properties. Since then, multinationals such as Syngenta and Monsanto have bought so many patents that we are on the brink of a dangerous monopoly of plant patents.
Together with my colleagues from the Group of the European People‘s Party (EPP Group) in the European Parliament, I will table a Resolution in which we will call on the European Commission to finally tackle this problem.
The biggest problem created by the patenting of plant characteristics is that further innovation is blocked in the breeding sector. The development of new plant varieties stops. After all, the holder of a patent has the exclusive right to a certain plant characteristic, so other breeders cannot use that property without permission and financial compensation. This is a serious matter because by doing so, big companies are now pushing small businesses out of the market.
Of course, the large breeders argue that they need a patent to recoup huge investments. These investments are on average 15% to 25% of their turnover. This is indeed high, but the investments do not necessarily have to be recouped through patent law. Plant Breeders‘ Rights (PBRs) have been offering plenty of alternatives for already more than 60 years.
PBRs give a breeder 25 years to exploit the exclusive right to a new breed. Simultaneously, other breeders are allowed to develop already-existing plant varieties. PBRs have ensured at the same time that The Netherlands, which counts many small breeders, could become a major player on the international market for plant breeding. Moreover, the sector has made a major contribution to an increase in the productivity of the agricultural and horticultural sector.
In view of a growing world population, driving innovation in the breeding industry is more important than ever. Only through the development of new plant varieties, can food security for the estimated 9 billion people of 2050, be guaranteed, especially since varieties have to be resistant against new diseases and pests and also must adapt to the changing climate.
A monopoly of plant breeding certainly affects jobs and growth in Europe. The plant breeding industry now represents a large economic value, mostly in France, Germany and The Netherlands.
It is high time to deal with the plant patent problem. The European Parliament, led by the EPP Group, tabled a Resolution back in 2012 in which the European Commission and Member States were urged to give priority to the issue. So far, little has been done to this end. With the recent ruling of the European Patent Office, the urgency is increasing.
Member States concerned are proposing different solutions. France would prefer to limit patentability. To achieve this, an adaptation of the European patent law would be required. The Netherlands on the other hand wants to extend the breeders‘ exemption. Based on a limited breeding exemption, patented material can be used without the permission of the patent holder, but commercial operation of the new varieties obtained is just not possible.
As long as the Ministers in the Member States do not agree, a solution seems unfortunately far away.
It is therefore important that the European Parliament calls, in the strongest terms, on the European Commission to take action. We urgently need a European approach to give a future to the hundreds of family-owned farms in the breeding sector and to maintain the high level of know-how in the EU breeding business.
I therefore call on the Commission, as well as the Dutch 2016 EU Presidency, to align the Ministers in the Council. This will be of crucial importance for the future of fruit, vegetable and other plant breeders.
Without political intervention, the further dangerous monopolisation of the breeding industry will become a fact.