Plant breeding sector split over potential of patenting to spur innovation

Stakeholders were quick to point out that intellectual property rights are not yet properly tailored to reflect the complexities of the agricultural sector. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

The European Commission adopted its intellectual property plan in November, hailed as a driver of future growth, but the plant breeding sector remains divided over the potential of intellectual property rights for spurring on much-needed agricultural innovation.

The IP plan is designed to help businesses, especially small and medium-sized companies (SMEs), to make the most of their inventions and creations.

“Intellectual property (IP) is a key driver for economic growth as it helps companies to valourise their intangible assets,” the Commission said in a statement marking the publication of the plan. It added that this is especially important in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, which it said has highlighted certain dependencies on critical innovation and technologies.

“IP rights are the currency of the knowledge economy,” Denis Dambois, policy expert of the intellectual property rights (IPR) unit at the European Commission’s DG Grow, stressed during a recent EURACTIV event.

He emphasised that the plan is designed to promote the protection and enforcement of intellectual property in a “balanced way it tries to emphasise and to facilitate access to IP protected knowledge and technologies”.

IPR is also a “new important component” of supporting the implementation of the EU Green Deal, he added, which includes the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy.

Seed sector organisations call for review of regulation on plant variety rights

Key players in the European seed sector have joined forces to urge the EU Commission to improve the bloc’s intellectual property laws and mechanisms and enable an effective plant breeding sector. But there are fears that this may negatively impact small and medium-sized farmers.

Innovator creator

However, stakeholders were quick to point out that IPR are not yet properly tailored to reflect the complexities of the agricultural sector.

“The IP system is not focused enough on issues in certain sectors, including agriculture,” Heli Pihlajamaa, director of patent law at the European Patent Office (EPO), pointed out during the event. 

He added that this is despite the fact that patent law is becoming “more and more important” with the advancements in biotech developments.

However, while panellists in the plant breeding sector were united in stressing the need to innovate, they were split as to the role of patenting in achieving this.  

“All innovators need a stable and predictable framework of IP protection that ensures legal clarity for both the innovator and the user of that innovation, and this particularly holds true in the field of agriculture and plant breeding, which has become very technical over time,” said Jürgen Eckhardt, senior vice president and head of innovation programme ‘Leaps by Bayer’.

He added this is crucial as new plant varieties are urgently needed to respond, for example, to the challenges of climate change

“Speed is absolutely of the essence here, and this requires innovation in this field which relies on significant investments, which are only possible with a predictable pattern system providing legal protection,” he said.

Eckhardt added that he feared that, without strong IPR,  investments in the sector will go down.

EU bets on research to put Farm to Fork ambition into action

Stakeholders, researchers, and policymakers are seeking to find the right place for innovation in the EU’s new flagship food policy with a view to empower consumers to make the best choices for themselves and the planet.

Open source seeds

However, Johannes Kotschi, agricultural scientist and founding member of agricultural company Agrecol, argued that, following in the footsteps of open source technology, open source seeds in which genetic resources can be shared freely are needed to diversify the plant breeding sector.

“We expect that seeds as commons can revive a small and medium plant breeding enterprise sector that during the past decades have increasingly disappeared,” he said, impressing the need for a great variety of plant breeders creating diversity of crop species, needed to tackle future challenges.

But instead of encouraging diversity, IPR-based economies “strive for uniformity in production,” leading to “market concentration and monopolies”, he warned.

“Monopolies stifle competition, reduce necessary innovation, raise the costs for seed and make society increasingly dependent on a few corporations,” he said, stressing that “intellectual property rights and biodiversity are mutually exclusive”. 

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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