On 5th May, an international group of civil society organisations in Munich, Germany challenged a patent granted to Agracetus (now a Monsanto company). The patent is for a particle bombardment (biolistic) method of transforming soybeans and importantly it was granted to cover all soybean varieties by the European Patent Office. This is a very broad spectrum patent awarded on all existing GM soybean varieties (and all other plants using the same GM technology used by the soyabean work). Greenpeace-Germany is coordinating this challenge.

Dr. Suman Sahai, president of the Delhi based non-government organization Gene Campaign was invited to Munich to depose as an expert to challenge the soybean patent before the Opposition Bench. The bench is a group of experts from the European Patent Office who sit to hear oppositions to a patent and decide on it. Others in the opposition coalition were Greenpeace Germany and civil society organizations from Canada, Germany as well as a scientific community member from China.

Interestingly, joining cause in opposition to this patent were the corporations Syngenta and De Kalb in Munich. Syngenta and De Kalb are in opposition because such a broad patent prevents them from entering the market with soyabean varieties of their own. They are obviously reluctant to accept that Monsanto will hold a monopoly on all GM soy varieties. Not surprisingly, before acquiring Agracetus Monsanto had opposed this patent. What is surprising though is the soy patent has been upheld in the EU which has so far had more liberal patent laws and greater reservations about plant patents. The grant seems to indicate an apparent shift in official EU policy. Ironically, a similar broad spectrum patent held by Agracetus on all GM cotton varieties, was struck down in the US.

A public meeting was organized by Greenpeace-Germany on May 6, to explain the negative consequences of such sweeping patents on the researchers and farmers of developing countries. Dr. Sahai said it is important to bring the attention of the west to the grave implications of such patent mediated monopolies on the food and livelihood security of developing countries since access to new technologies will be denied. In her deposition before the European Patent Office in Munich, Germany, Dr. Sahai argued for the canceling of the patent granted to Agracetus for transforming soybeans, covering all soybean varieties.

The philosophy and rationale of the patent system, which was to balance public and private interest. Now, with broad patents, monopolies are sought to be established in a way that private interest outstrips the public interest.
While some of the reasons cited for opposing the patent were technical, there were several arguments submitted that generic and question the very premise of granting any broad spectrum patent, soyabean included. According to those opposing this patent, if upheld it would effectively restrict access to this technology for anyone with new or novel ideas to further improve soybean. Any further research on soybean by any person or agency, without royalty payments to Agracetus would not be possible. This would create a situation that establishes monopoly, is anti-competitive and will stifle innovation and development in the field of agricultural research and crop development. In the present day of functional genomics, with its potential to discover new and novel genes that can be used for crop improvement, this broad spectrum patent will deter research to improve soybeans and other plants.

The impact of such a broad patent extending to all plants will become a grave impediment to the ability of developing country researchers to access new crop improvement technologies to breed new crops for their regions. Patents per se and such broad patents particularly have grave implications for farmers in developing countries. Restricting access to seed can strike at food and livelihood security by limiting the ability to access new seeds that can help to cope with biotic and abiotic stress situations that occur from time to time in agriculture. Patents of the kind being claimed and granted on biological materials and seeds are in essence faulty and cannot be defended since variability is a central feature of biology and the innovation is not reproducible. Every plant in a field of any crop variety will be different to the others.

Any patent on crop varieties and certainly one with such a broad scope is in essence inequitable and unjust since it appropriates the several innovative contributions made by other parties, specially farmers, who have created the land races and farmer varieties on the basis of which further breeding takes place. If it took a hundred steps to create a new crop variety, it would be safe to assume that farming communities have contributed at least the first 80 to 90 steps and the scientists such as the ones claiming this patent have contributed the last few steps. They cannot be allowed to appropriate the innovations and contributions of farming communities and other scientists by claiming a patent and that too one with such broad application.

In acknowledgement of the deeply critical nature of vital sectors like food and medicine for the survival and well being of communities in today’s developing countries, patent laws have granted a special status to these sectors. IPR regimes have been soft and flexible so that monopolies in the form of strong and exclusive patents do not become serious barriers to communities who have vulnerabilities with respect to food and health security. Broad spectrum patents go directly against the philosophy and rationale of the patent system, which was to balance public and private interest. The innovator was rewarded with a temporary monopoly on the invented product so that he/ she continued to benefit society by inventing new and useful products. This was the reason for ‘utility’ being such an important feature of a patent claim. Now, with broad patents, monopolies are sought to be established in a way that private interest outstrips the public interest. This attitude cannot be in the larger interest of most people and this patent must be opposed on that ground alone.

Later this month, the Opposition Bench ruled to uphold Monsanto's broad patent. While the official decision will come out later, the civil society coalition that opposed the patent will go into appeal.