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Patenting Plants


5 October 2001

Patenting Plants

Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics welcome the US Supreme Court looking to find a balance between farmers’ traditional rights and those of researchers when awarding patents on plants.

PSRG urge the New Zealand government to establish appropriate legislation.

The question asked is should certain plants receive patents which give protection to the patent holder for up to 20 years. Patents were not intended to cover living organisms and opponents say that a patent on a living organism is theft from nature.

Through patents, companies spending millions on research are compensated. They claim they should be rewarded for innovation and encouraged to pursue research.
Farm suppliers claim companies can secure the genes of plant varieties and control planting and research.

Farmers say patents force seed costs up and farmers to dispose of seed from a previous harvest, and the patent holder can even control seed created in farmers' fields through natural reproduction.

North American growers have first-hand experience of the cost in royalties and proprietary chemicals on patented transgenic crops, and some - if found saving seed, or knowingly or unknowingly growing such proprietary seed - know the cost in court fines. Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser, not only lost his case, he also had his crop confiscated. Schmeiser did not buy seed. His crop was the result of seed selection and crop improvement over a lifetime. (See .)

In the current hearing, Justices did not discuss genetically engineered crops or any other agricultural technology, but simply looked at the impact of patents on farmers.

The last such patent case was heard in 1980. Justices then ruled patents can be given to bacteria. Following that decision, patents have been granted to new varieties of plants produced from seeds. The US Congress established a system for registering products. The US Patent and Trademark Office has granted patents for sexually reproduced plants for 15 years.

The Supreme Court will decide if Congress intended to allow plant breeders to get both certificates and patents. PSRG urge government to pre-empt problems with patent applications in New Zealand by establishing appropriate NZ legislation early.

(351 words)

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5 October 2001

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