Basel’s agrochemical giant Syngenta has released a new tool to promote its vegetable seed enhancing technologies. It is a move highly criticised by a Swiss watchdog group fighting to put a stop to patents on seeds.
Syngenta on Friday launched TraitAbility, an e-licensing platform offering access to the company’s patented vegetable characteristics and enabling technologies via the internet.
While the multinational company says that it will be a boon for innovation, critics call it a strategy to protect misappropriated intellectual property (IP).
From a longer shelf life and protection from temperature extremes to improved resistance from pests and disease, seed breeders can purchase traits and technologies for better yields in just a few clicks.
Launched on 17 January, TraitAbility is being described by Syngenta as the iTunes of plant technologies.
“Breeders do face a challenge and we definitely recognize that,” said Christine Gould, senior manager of Global Public Policy at Syngenta, during the launch event in Geneva. “Currently, obtaining licences from patent owners can be extremely cumbersome, expensive, and timely.”
“This is where TraitAbility comes in,” Gould explained. “If you’re interested in one of our patented technologies, you can access a licence via the internet quickly, easily, and under transparent standard terms for all.”
All academic and non-profit organisations can use the traits and technology free-of-charge for research and development (R&D) purposes and can distribute any resulting products at no cost in developing countries.
Fight against seed patents
François Meinberg, head of the agriculture and IP programme at The Berne Declaration, a Swiss-based corporate watchdog group, considers the initiative a part of a PR strategy.
“Syngenta is trying to solve a problem, which they created themselves by lobbying for patents on plants,” Meienberg told swissinfo.ch.
“It would be much better to prevent the problem in the first place by not allowing patents on native traits or any conventional plants – something a lot of breeders, farmers, nongovernmental organisations, and governments are calling for,” Meienberg said.
Additionally, he said that the timing of the launch is significant as there are legal and political processes on-going in Europe, which could undermine the patentability of some of the technologies available on the platform.
The European Patent Convention was amended by the Biotech Directive to protect biotechnological inventions, including plant varieties, in 1998. Switzerland amended its national law to conform to the directive in 2006.
Under the directive, essential biological processes for the production of plants are excluded. The patentability of some of these processes is widely debated today in Europe.
Last June, the European Patent Office (EPO) referred the so-called “Tomato Case” (Procedure G2/12) to its Enlarged Board of Appeals, which may affect if plants resulting from conventional breeding are excluded.
“We are all waiting for the outcome of this case,” said Meienberg. “A ruling of non-validity would define a new jurisprudence which would leave a lot of patents on plants invalid.”
There is also a move in the political arena to review aspects of the Directive. Last May, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to stop granting patents on the conventional breeding of plants and animals by a large majority.
But for Syngenta, the role of IP as a driver of agricultural innovation is essential. The company spends over $1.1 billion (SFr1 billion) in R&D every year. More than 13 per cent of annual turnover goes toward R&D in seed breeding.
“New plants today are a high-tech product made with high-tech technology. The development of these technologies is very expensive, very time consuming, and very risky. A single product may need eight to ten years to develop and may cost millions,” said Michael Kock, global head of IP at Syngenta.
Kock said that this is the kind of investment needed to develop solutions fit to face future food production challenges. And the list of challenges is long.
With a projected population of nine billion people by 2050, food growers will need to increase production exponentially in the coming years. An endeavour made more difficult by limited resources and an increasingly hostile environment.
Beyond food security issues, a recent report found that as much as half of the world’s food production is binned every year. The group behind the research, the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), blames the waste in part on poor engineering, agricultural practices, and the demand for unblemished foods.
“New plant varieties need to have innovation from many areas. We need to have resistance against diseases, drought resistance, better nutritional value, and higher performance,” Koch said.
“IP doesn’t feed the world,” Koch said. “But without it, the incentive to invest and take risks would be diminished.