Why patent law must be changed in order to safeguard food safety

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security22 Dec 2010Ben Tax

Being the CEO of a leading vegetable breeding company, I would like to draw the attention to the importance of access to genetic resources, not only for a climate resilient agriculture but also for food security as a whole. This item is touched upon in #34 of the Road Map.

By means of plant breeding, new plant varieties are developed by taking existing varieties and adding new genetic traits. Without plant breeding, food supplies would be immediately endangered which, in practice, would have consequences for the world’s very poorest people in particular. Yields need to be increased in order to be able to feed the growing world population; and pests and diseases come in never-ending, new manifestations, for which plant breeding offers solutions in the form of resistant varieties. Plant breeding also contributes to guaranteed food supplies by, for instance, developing varieties that are tolerant to salt, drought and heat. Especially in developing countries, growers need such varieties in order to be able to build up a profitable business in times of climate change. This is how plant breeding does not only contribute to guaranteed food supplies but also to social sustainability.

This notion has prompted us to set up a plant-breeding nursery in Tanzania, in collaboration with a partner, as we are convinced that, without plant breeding and developing specific varieties for Africa, horticulture there cannot really come off the ground. Up until now, we are the only vegetable breeding company in the entire African continent to have at our disposal advanced breeding technology and to make this technology available. The economic prospects in Africa are, as yet, not sufficiently favourable. However, we let the social interest prevail over this economic consideration. Mr Kofi Annan visited our company in the Netherlands two years ago in order to express his appreciation for this and to encourage us to continue in our endeavours.

Developing a new vegetable variety takes, on average, 6 to 12 years and requires huge investments. In order to be able to earn back these investments, which contribute to more sustainable agriculture and horticulture, a special regime of intellectual property right was created, the so-called Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR). It temporarily affords the developer of a new variety the exclusive right to market that variety. At the same time, other breeders are allowed to use the same variety in order to develop new, further-improved varieties. This is called the breeders’ exemption and ensures that innovation does not grind to a halt, but that competing breeders continue to vie with each other to develop ever better varieties. PBR has struck the right balance: inventiveness is rewarded while the interests of growers, consumers and society as a whole are safeguarded.

However, in recent years, patent rights have appeared in our sector. Certain plant traits – such as disease resistances – and breeding methods are protected by patent rights and due to the liberal patent interpretations of patent law. The plants that contain patented traits or that were created through patented methods fall under the patent protection. Unlike PBR, patent law does not contain a breeders’ exemption. This has the effect that other breeders cannot use these plants any more for further breeding. For this a license is needed, which can be denied or only issued under stringent conditions. This slows down the speed of innovation – at a time when all available innovation power in agriculture is needed! – and may result in monopoly positions with regard to certain crops in the seed industry. It is obvious that this indirect patenting of plant varieties is at odds with the purpose and intent of Plant Breeders’ Rights. In my opinion it is also highly undesirable that the law allows or even encourages monopoly positions at such a strategic place in the food chain.

In my opinion each and every plant should remain freely available for further plant-breeding work. If it results in a new variety, it should be possible to market that new variety without hindrance. Only in this way will Plant Breeders’ Rights remain an intellectual propery right that has value. It is clear that a solution for this global industry must be sought at international level. I therefore urgently appeal to do everything in your power, through amending international legislation and rules and regulations, to ensure that Plant Breeders’ Rights retain their value. That way, sufficient competition will be kept alive to guarantee that you and all other people can continue to enjoy eating a healthy and varied diet of vegetables at a reasonable price.