August 11, 2005
Crop king Monsanto seeks pig-breeding patent clout
By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (Reuters) - Monsanto Co., already a world
powerhouse in biotech crops, is shaking up the swine industry
with plans to patent pig-breeding techniques and lay claim to
the animals born as a result.
patents might affect the market, while consumer activists warn
that if the company is granted pig-related patents, on top of
its tight rein on key feed and food crops, its control over
agriculture could be unprecedented.
"We're afraid that Monsanto and other big companies are
getting control of the world's genetic resources," said
Christoph Then, a patent expert with Greenpeace in Germany.
The patent applications, filed with the World Intellectual
Property Organization, are broad in scope, and are expected to
take several years and numerous rewrites before approval.
"We applied for a patent ... for some specific reproductive
processes in swine," said Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner. "Any
pigs that would be produced using this reproductive technique
would be covered by these patents."
The practices Monsanto wants to patent basically involve
identifying genes that result in desirable traits in swine,
breeding animals to achieve those traits and using a
specialized device to inseminate sows deeply in a way that uses
less sperm than is typically required.
"We've come up with a protocol that wraps a lot of these
techniques together," said Monsanto swine molecular breeding
expert Mike Lohuis.
St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto says any fears about its
work are overblown and the patents are simply a "defensive
move" as many players around the world race to find technology
to breed bigger and better pigs to meet consumer demands for
healthy, tasty and inexpensive pork. Officials say they are not
trying to patent pigs per se. They only want the ability to
track which pigs come from the Monsanto system.
Still, Greenpeace sees a more sinister motive and last week
launched an Internet campaign to quash the patents, spurring
hundreds of people to bombard Monsanto executives with e-mailed
MONSANTO 'HAS INVENTED NOTHING NEW' - CRITICS
More than 110 million hogs are marketed each year in North
America, and there are roughly 6 million breeding sows that
support that industry.
Currently, the dominant U.S. player in the swine breeding
industry is the Pig Improvement Co. unit of British pig breeder
Sygen International, which holds an estimated 40 percent U.S.
market share. Monsanto has an estimated 10-12 percent, obtained
when it acquired Dekalb Genetics six years ago.
"We'd like to build a business like theirs," Ron Schinnour,
general manager of Monsanto Choice Genetics, said of PIC. "It
is an area we have a lot of focus on."
The concerns over Monsanto's patents are two-pronged. One
relates to how the patent claims involving the animals
themselves would be used. There have been hundreds of animal
patents granted over the last several years, including claims
on salmon, chimps and mice. But the majority are genetically
modified animals used in laboratory research, not common farm
Some fear that Monsanto one day could be filing patent
infringement lawsuits against pig farmers. Monsanto already has
a track record of suing farmers whose crops contain some of the
company's patented genetic plant technology.
"The claims are very unique. It's another incident of
Monsanto trying to really push the boundaries," said
agricultural patent attorney Heidi Nebel.
Critics also say it is not apparent that Monsanto has
actually invented anything new in swine reproduction. They say
the company is simply trying to lay claim to a combination of
practices already used along with genetic selection that
occurs in nature.
"The claims are very broadly sculpted; the question is
whether there is anything new here," said Max Rothschild, U.S.
pig genome coordinator from Iowa State University, who holds
several patents in this area.
Monsanto is best known for its herbicide products and its
development and marketing of genetically modified soybeans and
corn and other crops that resist insects and make it easier for
farmers to fight weeds. Swine industry players say Monsanto has
the resources to become a significant force in pork as well.
"They are making a big push," said animal scientist Dan
Pomp, co-founder of Gene Seek, a DNA-based service company that
contracts with Monsanto and other players for genetic swine
testing. "They've built this extensive and strong program to
grow that side of their business."