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Report for “New GMOs, seed patents and peasants’ rights to seeds” conference

1 April 2020

Find here the report of the Conference organised by ECVC on the topic of new GMOs, seed patents and the Peasants' rights to seeds.

On 20 February 2020, ECVC organised a public conference at the EESC on the topic of new GMOs, seed patents and peasants' rights to seeds. In the context of a study carried out by the European Commission on the status of new genomic techniques in the course of 2020, ECVC considered it essential to recall the links that exist between GMO regulation, the socio-economic stakes linked to patents and the impacts that these have on farmers' rights to seeds, ratified in Article 19 of the UNDROP.  

3 representatives of the EC (DG SANTE and DG GROW) were present for the debate, and other staff from the EC, EP and national representations at EU level were present in the room, along with a number of representatives of different peasant organisatons, civil society and the wider agricultural sector.  

Panel of presentations: the aim was to show the negative socio-economic impacts of the deregulation of GMOs and the model of strong intellectual property rights (mainly patents), especially for SMEs and farmers.

  Presentation by Jean-Luc Gal, European Patent Office: general presentation of the EPO's mission, and deepening of the debate on the patentability of products resulting from essentially biological processes. The EPO's position is that processes are not patentable, but products are. However, an EC report said that this was not the intention of the legislator. The subject is still controversial within the EPO, awaiting an opinion from the Enlarged Board of Appeal.  

Presentation by Claire Robinson, GM Watch and Michael Antoniou, King’s College London on the regulation of genetic modification and SMEs : Michael Antoniou spoke about his experience as a biotechnology researcher, who has seen many of his innovations bought out by multinational companies. The aim of the presentation was to demonstrate that GMO regulation is not to the detriment of SMEs, and to challenge the idea, spread by proponents of genetic modification techniques, that the deregulation of GMO legislation would end the monopoly of large agrochemical companies. In reality, this is not true: first of all, many start-ups fail because of technical, scientific, management, etc. problems, not because of the regulation. Secondly, market access is difficult for SMEs because biotechnology research is extremely expensive + often licence fees have to be paid to companies that hold the basic patents for certain GM techniques.  

Secondly, if a start-up succeeds in patenting one of its innovations, the easiest way for it to make a return on investment in terms of venture capital is to resell its innovation to a larger company. For example, if an SME manages to patent an agricultural product, the chances of survival are very low, the most likely outcome is a takeover by a larger company. The direct consequence is that, even if there are a multitude of start-ups in the biotechnology sector, the market will eventually be dominated by large companies such as Bayer, BASF, Chemchina, etc.  

Presentation by Mohammad Torshizi, University of Alberta, on the impact of patents on the seed market (historical trends in North America): In the event of deregulation of new genetic editing techniques, as desired by the biotech industry, there will be a large number of products protected by patents on the European market. For seed prices in the USA and Canada, since the introduction of GM products subject to strong IPRs, prices have risen significantly. Why have prices risen significantly since the introduction of GM products subject to strong IPRs? As the market is dominated by a few firms (market consolidation), it is easy for them to raise prices: one firm can just signal its intention to raise prices, and the others will follow. There is also a strategy of "common ownership": that is, when the same investor owns shares in different firms competing in the same sector. The consequence is that there is then much less incentive for competition and seed prices go up.  

Thus, stronger IPRs result in more market power for a few firms, consolidation, less competition, but also a translation of this economic power into political power, with the possibility for these companies to raise the price of seeds at will and to dictate to farmers their methods of production through contracts.  

Presentation from Guy Kastler, member of the seeds working group of European Coordination Via Campesina, giving the farmer's perspective: The problem of patenting is not addressed in the 2 studies (marketing of seeds and new genomic techniques) conducted by the EC, nor the problem of patenting genetic information. These two points constitute a very aggressive offensive against farmers' rights, with two direct consequences for farmers: a shrinking seed supply (and agricultural diversity) resulting from the disappearance of small local companies that offered seeds adapted to the diversity of territories, and threats to ban peasant seeds by extending the scope of patents to their native traits.  

As peasants, we want diversity and seeds capable of adapting to different farming (and climate) conditions. If a seed is uniform and stable, it does not adapt. If it is heterogeneous material, it will be able to adapt, but it will not be covered by a Proprietary Variety Certificate (which provides an exception for farm-saved seed) and will therefore be protected by a patent (with no exception for farm-saved seed). Farmers cannot defend themselves against breeders who do not indicate which varieties or heterogeneous material are covered by their patents because they do not have access to techniques for recognizing the genetic context of the seed.  

The seed industry says that what it does with new genetic modification techniques is the same as what nature and traditional breeding techniques do. But if what is patented is the same as what nature does, then the scope of patents could extend to the seeds that are in farmers' fields. There is also a risk of accidental contamination on the fields by patented products. Hence the challenge of developing techniques as quickly as possible that make it possible to distinguish new patented GMOs from any other organism and to make it compulsory to disseminate information on these techniques. This is today the only way to distinguish native seeds in order to protect them from the extension of the scope of patents on seeds resulting from new genetic modification techniques. For ECVC, it is urgent to open this crucial debate for farmers' rights, so that it can be taken into account in the two EC reports.  

After the panel presentations, the EC was invited to react to the panel and take questions from the audience in order to deepen discussion.  

You can watch the whole conference here:  

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