EU confirms: no patents on conventional plant breeding

Plant breeders  must have free access to biological material in order to be able to breed new crop species. Patent law thus does not apply to conventional plant breeding. This was unanimously confirmed by the European Member States at the Competitiveness Council in Brussels. The Member States indicated that it was never the intention when drawing up the Biotech Directive – which regulates patent protection of biotechnological inventions – to grant patents to products that are the result of an essentially biological process.

Minister for Agriculture Van Dam: 'This breakthrough in the discussion about patent law is extremely important to plant breeders, and as a consequence also to food supply. Breeders play a crucial role in food production by continually developing new and better  crops. If they have free access to biological material, this stimulates innovation in the plant breeding sector, which is good for competitiveness and ultimately also for global food security.'

The problem posed by patent law was that plant breeders were prohibited from using protected material for developing and exploiting a new plant variety without the permission of the patent holder. The patents  give them less access to genetic diversity, thus restricting innovation in the plant breeding sector. This is undesirable, as plant breeders play an important role in the global food supply. They develop new plant varieties capable of withstanding a wide variety of conditions, which, for example, includes resistance to drought and plant diseases.

The discussion about patenting natural traits began in 2012, and intensified when in 2015 the Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office ruled that products that are the result of crossbreeding or other conventional breeding techniques are eligible for patenting. During the Netherlands' EU Presidency, Minister for Agriculture Van Dam attempted to organise a solution at EU level. The fact that the European Commission has finally brought clarity to this enduring discussion is the direct result of an EU symposium organised by the Netherlands during that time. Now that the EU Member States have agreed on the interpretation of the legislation, the practice of granting patents by the European Patent Office will have to be adjusted. Patents may then no longer be granted to products of conventional plant breeding.