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Europe To Review Patent Case For Broccoli, Tomatoes

July 21, 2010

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the European Patent Office (EPO) in Germany on Tuesday as officials reviewed a groundbreaking case involving a patent awarded to a British firm for a technique to boost levels of a substance in broccoli that could help prevent cancer.

The method involves identifying the relevant genes on the broccoli genome and mapping them to genetic markers, then selecting the broccoli lines with these markers for use in plant breeding.

However, competitors to the British firm challenged the patent, along with another for a method of breeding tomatoes with low water content for producing ketchup, claiming both methods are natural processes and not subject to patents.

An EPO review board kicked off a preliminary two-day meeting at the organization’s Munich headquarters on Tuesday, and will likely issue a decision on both cases by the end of the year, the AFP news agency reported.

The EPO said the board aims to determine whether marker-assisted selection constitutes a “biological breeding process” or a technical method.  The latter is patentable.

Calling the matter a “landmark case”, environmental group Greenpeace said it has collected 100,000 signatures supporting a ban on patents on animals, seeds and plants.

“If patents on broccoli and tomatoes are not denied, then the flood gates will open,” the AFP quoted Greenpeace’s patents advisor, Christoph Then, as saying.

“A small number of agriculture and food companies could in future control all food production, meaning increased dependence and prices for farmers and consumers.”

The EPO said it was not able or authorized to assess a patent application’s social, economic or ecological implications.  That task, they said, belongs to legislators and other relevant European and national regulatory authorities.

Rather, the EPO can only “examine whether a patent application concerns a technical development that is new and industrially applicable and involves an inventive step,” the organization said.

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