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
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.
For opponents, rights to living organisms are also unethical and go against the
fundamental principles of most religions and cultures. They say that patents
were created for machines and chemicals but not for life, and demand that
humans, animals, plants, microorganisms and parts thereof should not be
“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.
“Patents particularly discriminate against farmers in developing countries where
a large part of the biological diversity is found.”
For its part, Syngenta says it does not pursue patent protection for any plant
biotechnology or seeds invention in any least developed country, nor do
subsistence farmers have to pay licence fees.
Swissaid says that companies should not be given any incentive to take varieties
from countries in the southern hemisphere as a basis for the patenting or to
screen entire seed banks without reimbursing the countries for their genetic
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.
Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta together control more than half of the seeds
traded worldwide, according to the European Civic Forum. While crop companies
say that their products are addressing food security, protesters argue that the
increasing dominance of a handful of companies endangers the lives of farmers in
emerging economies because it poses a threat to their seed sovereignty and
therefore to global food security.
Although Syngenta as an owner of intellectual property lets subsistence farmers
use its seeds on their fields, non-subsistence farmers like Osorio must pay
annual fees for registered seeds. They can’t afford them and want to freely use
and exchange seeds. To illustrate that point, the event Osorio attended at
Zurich’s alternative arts centre Rote Fabrik also hosted an informal “seed
Seed regulations demand that seeds may only be registered if they are distinct,
uniform and stable, and in countries like Colombia farmers may only use these
certified seeds. Indigenous crops never meet the criteria for registration,
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
“The largest number of rice varieties for example are found in Asia, where
farmers have been improving their properties and yields for centuries,” said
François Meienberg from the non-governmental organisation Berne Declaration.
“But it is not those countries claiming the rights on this work, but companies
like Syngenta who have patented hundreds of genomes.”
The coalition’s appeals against several patents mean, however, that opponents
have a foot in the door, so companies can enforce them until the EPO has made a
decision on the legal interpretation of what is patentable, which is expected by
the end of the year, Meienberg explained.
“If the enlarged board of appeal decides in our favour, it will become very
difficult for Syngenta, and if Syngenta wins, then the political process will
start,” Meienberg said. “But even if it should come to that, we expect
politicians [to move in our direction] because many small and medium-sized plant
breeders also oppose some patents claimed by multinationals.