Rot­ten tomato for Mon­santo

US biotech gi­ant's claim on a nat­u­ral tomato is its lat­est patent to be re­voked by Europe af­ter soy and wheat

Down to Earth - - COLUMN -

ENo.1812575 was ex­tra­or­di­nary URO­PEAN PATENT on a num­ber of counts. It was held by Mon­santo of the US. Ah, yes, Mon­santo, one of the top agribiotech com­pa­nies in the world,but this patent had noth­ing to do with ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion (GM).It cov­ered con­ven­tion­ally bred toma­toes with nat­u­ral re­sis­tance to a fun­gal dis­ease called botry­tis. Even more as­ton­ish­ing, the toma­toes used for this patent were ac­cessed from the in­ter­na­tional gene bank in Gater­sleben, Ger­many. And in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity ev­ery­one knew th­ese tomato va­ri­eties had the de­sired re­sis­tance.

Read­ers might well ask how such brazen biopiracy was al­lowed if it was well-known that toma­toes re­sis­tant to botry­tis were nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring plants and had been cat­a­logued in in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tions.Crit­ics put it down to the legal shrewd­ness of Mon­santo’s lawyers who had man­aged “a clev­erly worded patent” that cre­ated the im­pres­sion that GM had been used to pro­duce the toma­toes. In short, that it was a Mon­santo “in­ven­tion”.

For­tu­nately, the Euro­pean Patent Of­fice (epo) re­voked EP 1812575 last month af­ter Mon­santo pe­ti­tioned for re­vo­ca­tion in its en­tirety in Novem­ber 2014.The pullout by the biotech gi­ant came af­ter a high-pro­file legal chal­lenge from No Patents on Seeds! (npos!),an in­ter­na­tional coali­tion for pro­tec­tion of bio­di­ver­sity. In­ter­est­ingly, an­other op­po­si­tion was filed by cor­po­rate ri­val Nun­hems/ Bayer CropS­cience.The re­vok­ing of this patent is im­por­tant be­cause it tells Mon­santo and other biotech com­pa­nies that the world will not stand by while they ma­nip­u­late patent laws to ap­pro­pri­ate bio­di­ver­sity. It will also al­low plant breed­ers, farm­ers and home gar­den­ers ac­cess to a greater di­ver­sity of nat­u­rally re­sis­tant plants.

Christoph Then, a co­or­di­na­tor of npos!, has strong words to de­scribe the ploy by the seed gi­ant. He says it was “more or less based on a com­bi­na­tion of fraud, abuse of patent law and biopiracy”and such a patent could have been used to ex­er­cise a mo­nop­oly on im­por­tant ge­netic re­sources. So re­vok­ing the patent is im­por­tant be­cause farm­ers, breed­ers and con­sumers have a chance of ben­e­fit­ting from a greater di­ver­sity of toma­toes im­proved by fur­ther re­search, says Then who con­tends that the fun­gal re­sis­tance is based on com­plex ge­netic con­di­tions which are yet to be stud­ied in de­tail.

Toma­toes are the lat­est in a se­ries of nat­u­ral crop heists by multi­na­tion­als. In the case of Mon­santo three high­pro­file patent re­vo­ca­tions have been forced upon the com­pany in the past decade.That’s not many but the vic­to­ries have been sig­nif­i­cant.In 2007,etc Group,an in­ter­na­tional civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tion in Canada,won a long-fought case against Mon­santo’s patent on all GM soy­beans (EP 0301749), de­scribed as “un­prece­dented in its broad scope”since it cov­ered both seeds and plants.The cu­ri­ous part is that Mon­santo had vig­or­ously op­posed the patent when it was orig­i­nally taken by Agrace­tus in 1996, but changed its stance when it bought the com­pany. In this in­stance, too, there was a patent chal­lenge from a multi­na­tional ri­val, Syn­genta. How­ever, it was al­most a pyrrhic victory since the epo took 13 long years to over­turn the patent.

Three years ear­lier, epo was forced to re­voke con­tro­ver­sial patents on nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring soft milling wheat and, as­ton­ish­ingly, on prod­ucts made from its flour. But the moot point is whether one can blame a se­rial of­fender like Mon­santo alone. How were such patents granted in the first place when there was noth­ing novel in the process? One re­port says that epo has granted over a 100 patents on con­ven­tion­ally bred plants even though such pro­cesses are not patentable.The only safe­guard ap­pears to be alert or­gan­i­sa­tions like npos!—and ri­val firms.

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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