May 06, 2003

Patently Wrong! Monsanto species patent on soy beans upheld in Munich

Europe's (and the World's) Big Soy Berger

After delays, denial, and double standards, Monsanto maintains unjust monopoly on major food crop. Time to talk to the cooks about a new recipe?

In a jaw-dropping affirmation of Monsanto's monopoly control over commodity crops, one of the world's most notorious patents for genetically engineered crops was yesterday upheld by the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich - this despite a nine year battle by civil society (and industry) to have it revoked. European Patent No. 301,749, granted in March 1994, is an exceptionally broad "species patent" which grants gene giant Monsanto exclusive monopoly over all forms of genetically engineered soybean varieties and seeds - irrespective of the genes used or the transformation technique employed. The patent, attacked as immoral and technically invalid by food security advocates worldwide, was vigorously opposed by Monsanto itself until they purchased the original patent holder (Agracetus) in 1996, and switched sides to make the soybean species patent a major ingredient in its global recipe for crop monopoly.

Backburner: The case simmered on the EPO's backburner for an astonishing nine years before reaching the patent tribunal in Munich yesterday. The EPO took only ten hours (including coffee and cake breaks) to hear oral arguments and uphold Monsanto's monopoly. Monsanto did surrender one unsustainable claim in the patent (claim no. 25), which sought control beyond soybeans to other plants as well.

ETC Group, who maintained its opposition to the patent since first uncovering it nearly a decade ago, were present in Munich yesterday with expert legal counsel, UK barrister Daniel Alexander and patent attorney Tim Roberts. Other opponents included Greenpeace, activist Stefan Geene, Syngenta and Pioneer Hi-Bred (a subsidiary of DuPont).

ETC Group and other opponents expressed bitter disappointment at the outcome.

Same old recipe: "Monsanto has made overtures in the media to reinvent themselves as a gentler, humbler company," said Hope Shand, ETC Group Research Director, "But their behavior in court showed that where it matters, Monsanto is still aggressively pursuing monopolistic control by any means available. Even more alarming is how readily the patent system rewards such behavior, ignoring basic morality, and failing to encourage socially beneficial innovation. When ETC Group first challenged this patent we were primarily concerned about the threat to food security from the Gene Giants - today, nine years later, we find ourselves equally shocked and concerned about the threat to democracy from such an unresponsive patent system. It portends much larger patent problems to come with nanotechnology and other emerging technologies."

"This is a thoroughly bad decision," said patent attorney Tim Roberts. "You would look far to find another patent in which such a small advance has justified such an enormous claim. It seems to have been reached by mechanically applying inappropriate precedent, while ignoring the fundamental principle of the patent system - the balance of rights between the innovator and society. If the Opposition Board's decision is correct in law, then the law needs to be changed," said Roberts.

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