Patents, globalization and social injustice are the stuff of public protest across the world. This week, however, a drawn-out battle against corporate monopoly will come to a head — not in the streets — but in an arcane technical hearing at the European Patent Office. ETC Group, an international civil society organization, and environmental group Greenpeace (supported by 19 other civil society organizations worldwide) will be in Munich pursuing a13-year legal battle against Monsanto over the humble soybean.
Patents, exclusive legal monopolies granted by governments, are a
favorite tool of big business to exercise power over the little guy.
Giant pharmaceutical firms have most notoriously used patents to
price anti-HIV drugs out of the reach of poor people in the global
South. Less familiar are biotech battles in the agricultural sector,
where multinational seed companies are using patents to deny farmers
— or entire nations — the right to use and sell seeds from patent-
protected crops."Patents, we are told, are designed to promote innovation. Instead,
they are allowing giant seed companies to secure exclusive monopolies
that undermine the economic security of farming communities and
jeopardize access to seeds — the first link in the food chain. And
lest we forget: Whoever controls the seeds controls the food supply.
Instead of fostering agricultural research, breathtakingly broad
patents are shutting down competition and stifling research. Perhaps
no patent symbolizes the brokenness of the patent system more than
Monsanto's European patent on all genetically engineered soybean
varieties and seeds — European Patent No. 301,749. Critics call it a
"species-wide" patent because its claims extend to all biotech
soybean seeds—— irrespective of the genes used or the genetic
engineering technique employed — unprecedented in its broad scope.
The livelihoods of Argentina's soybean farmers are directly affected
by this patent because Monsanto — the world's largest seed
corporation — is using its exclusive monopoly to deny Argentine
soybeans from entering European markets. Why? Because Monsanto
alleges that Argentine farmers aren't paying royalties to Monsanto
for using the company's patented soybean seeds.
Over the course of a single decade, Monsanto devoured dozens of seed
companies (and their patents) to become the largest seed corporation
in the world and the only soybean seed superpower. Back in 1996,
Monsanto's name didn't even appear on ETC Group's list of the world's
top 10 seed companies. Today, Monsanto tops the list and accounts for
one-fifth of the global proprietary seed market. (See top 10 seed
company list below.)
According to industry sources, Monsanto's soybean seeds and traits
accounted for about 90% of the GM soybeans planted worldwide in 2005.
[i] What's more, genetically engineered soybeans reportedly account
for almost 60% of the global soybean area — an increasingly dominant
share of one of the world's most important food and commodity crops.
Civil Society Fights Back: On 3 May 2007 at an appeal hearing at the
European Patent Office in Munich, ETC Group and Greenpeace will argue
that Monsanto's patent must be revoked because it is technically
flawed and morally unacceptable.
Monsanto's legal defense of its patent may not be surprising, but it
is hugely hypocritical. Before Monsanto acquired the patent in 1996 —
the company vigorously opposed the patent — which was then owned by
US-based biotech company, Agracetus. In 1994 Monsanto submitted an
exhaustive, 292-page opposition statement to the EPO that shredded
the technical merits of Agracetus's soybean patent. Monsanto's
lawyers wrote that the soybean patent should be "revoked in its
entirety," is "not novel," "lacks an inventive step," and "sufficient
disclosure [of scientific method] is woefully lacking." But after
Monsanto acquired Agracetus in April 1996, Monsanto withdrew its
challenge, reversed its position and announced that it would defend
its newly acquired patent!
In 2003 — more than nine years after the patent was first awarded and
legally challenged — an EPO patent tribunal heard legal arguments
against the notorious patent. Opponents were shocked when EPO upheld
Monsanto's monopoly in 2003. Today, nearly two-thirds of the patent's
20-year term has expired. On 3 May 2007 EPO's appeal tribunal will
have one last chance to revoke Monsanto's unjust monopoly on one of
the world's major food crops. Failure to do so, after 13 years of
bureaucratic delays, will simply confirm that corporations can use
unjust patents to monopolize markets, destroy competition and
jeopardize worldwide struggles for food sovereignty.
Monsanto's GM soybeans occupied 48.1 million hectares of the 54.4
million hectares of GM soybeans planted worldwide — primarily in the
USA, Argentina and Brazil. Statistics calculated from Monsanto's
website, "Monsanto's Biotechnology Trait Acreage: Fiscal Years 1996
to 2006," and from ISAAA Brief No. 34-2005: Executive Summary: Global
Status of Biotech/GM Crops in 2005.