What farmer wouldn’t want an insect-resistant pepper? Yet opposition is growing to a pepper patent granted to Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta. A coalition has stepped up the fight against patents and the threat they pose to farmers everywhere.
“If we don’t defend our indigenous seeds, we won’t have any left and end up only growing standardised crops of multinational companies,” warns Cynthia Osorio, an organic coffee producer.
She travelled from Colombia to Zurich for an event on seed sovereignty, not long after three dozen agriculture, development and environmental organisations filed a complaint with the European Patent Office (EPO) over Syngenta’s patent on a white-fly-resistant pepper.
Osorio explained how international trade pacts and variety rights exercised by companies like Syngenta or Monsanto impact food sovereignty, diversity and livelihoods 9,000 kilometres away.
The Colombian farmer, who also works for the Red de Guardianes de Semillas de Vida (guardians of the seeds of life), argued that seed regulations and free trade agreements disrespected indigenous people’s rights and paved the way for patented crops to drive out local varieties.
“Our idea to preserve and restore diversity is not to keep seeds in a bank, but to spread them out among the people.”
Crop companies like Syngenta are not only criticised for some of their patents, but also for breeders’ rights. Companies and organisations with a vested interest in crops and seeds represented by lobby group CropLife International want to protect the rights on the products and technologies they invent.
Patents and breeders’ rights grant them exclusive control over seeds and harvest and give them the option to sell exclusively the variety or licence to others. Syngenta argues that patents are an incentive for innovation. Inventions benefit growers and consumers, help farmers to increase productivity and may enable a lower use of chemical pesticides, it says. (See infobox)
What anti-patent campaigners – members of the coalition No Patents on Seeds – oppose are patents on processes that also cover the resulting products.
Monsanto claims patents on gene sequences or genetic variations in soy and maize, which cover plants inheriting the genetic elements, as well as their uses in food and feed. Syngenta, meanwhile, claims patents on crop yields, which cover the plants and their harvests.
They particularly reject patents based on conventional cross-breeding with wild varieties, which they consider discoveries and not proper inventions – as they say is the case with Syngenta’s patented resistance trait.
Although “essentially biological processes for the production of plants and animals” can’t be patented under the European Patent Convention, companies are accused of using a trick to claim rights on plants, seeds and food.
“One of the problems are so-called product-by-process patents, which allow the
products to be patented, even if the process is far from being technical and
innovative,” explains Eva Gelinsky, who works for ProSpecieRara, dedicated to
the conservation of heirloom varieties and rare species.
“We need other protective systems, which respect ethical and socio-political
boundaries and consider the interests of agriculture and research,” explained
Fabio Leippert, responsible for development politics and food sovereignty at
Swissaid, which is part of the No Patents on Seeds coalition.
The concern is not only about patents reducing diversity by blocking access
to genetic resources and technology; they create dependencies for farmers,
breeders and food producers.
Laws and international free trade agreements play directly into the hands of
large multinational companies, which mass-produce monoculture seed varieties at
the expense of diversity, explains Jürgen Holzapfel from the European Civic
Forum and co-founder of the agricultural cooperative Longo Maï, which organised
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