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German Pig Farmers Object To Genetic Patent

April 17, 2009

Pig farmers and environmentalists in Germany are calling on the EU to rescind the patent for a genetic technique used to breed heavier pigs.

The pig breeders, who worry they may have to pay royalties to a U.S.-based biotech firm if the patent is upheld, demonstrated outside the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich on Wednesday, a day ahead of a deadline for objections to the patent.

The EPO granted the patent last year, but will now review those objections.

Monsanto had filed the original patent application in 2005, but sold its pig-breeding technology to U.S.-based Newsham Genetics in 2007.

That sale, “included any and all swine-related patents, patent applications, and all other intellectual property [relating to pigs],” said Monsanto in a statement.

EPO spokesman Rainer Osterwalder said the patent, which involves a breeding process that uses a genetic marker for selecting pigs that fatten rapidly and produce juicier meat, “is in force until there is a decision to revoke it.”

Mr. Osterwalder said the EPO had restricted the scope of the patent to relate only to the company’s scientific method, not the gene sequence, the pig itself or the kit used in selection.

“It’s normal to pay royalties for using a test,” he told BBC News.

“The question is – how far does the breeder’s right go in using the test?”, he said, adding that the EPO grants patents under current EU rules, but all the consequences fall under national law.

Therefore, the rules for British pig breeders may differ from those in Germany or other EU member states.

Mr. Osterwalder emphasized that a breeder with pigs sharing the same genetic traits as that described in the patent would not have to pay royalties because the gene itself was not patented.

There are roughly 20 objections to the patent, Osterwalder said, and an expert panel will now review them.

Markus Soeder, Environment Minister of Bavaria, has called for a ban on all genetic patents involving plants and animals.

Separately, German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said on Tuesday that the country would prohibit Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) maize, known as MON 810.  Like Mr. Soeder, Aigner is a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU).

Since its establishment in 1977, the EPO has received nearly 200 patent applications for marker-assisted breeding of animals, according to Mr. Osterwalder.

It has granted about 30 of them, although many are still pending.  Roughly 50 percent American applications, and the rest European.

According to the spokesman, under EU rules a company can only patent an animal if it has an artificially modified gene.

Furthermore, gene sequences can only be patented if they are used for an industrial application and have not previously been made public.

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