Recently we wrote about how pharmaceutical companies use "evergreening
" to extend their control over drugs as the patents expire. But this is also an issue for the world of agribusiness: a number of key patents, particularly for traits of genetically-engineered (GE) organisms, will be entering the public domain soon, and leading companies like Bayer, BASF, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta are naturally coming up with their own "evergreening" methods.
A new report from the ETC Group, which describes itself as working "to address the socioeconomic and ecological issues surrounding new technologies that could have an impact on the world's poorest and most vulnerable people", offers an interesting view of how the big agribusiness companies are trying to do that (pdf).
Making its position quite clear, ETC calls the approach "philanthrogopoly" -- a "charity" cartel that is designed to assuage fears that they represent an anticompetitive oligopoly, while simultaneously ensuring that real control remains with the agribusiness companies even after key patents have expired:
The Gene Giants know their market dominance looks conspicuously like an anticompetitive oligopoly, so they’re launching a series of initiatives -- including the false promise of cheap, post-patent GE seeds -- to mollify antitrust regulators and soften opposition to transgenics while advancing their collective market control.
Here's the problem that "philanthrogopoly" claims to address:
The looming crisis, according to the Gene Giants, is that when patents on biotech traits expire, the breeders who want to use these generic traits must have biosafety approval from the government authorities where they plan to export the GE commodity or cultivate the GE seeds. If biosafety authorizations are not kept up-to-date -- even for tiny traces of expired traits -- entire barges of transgenic beans, containers of biotech cotton or maize risk being rejected in Rotterdam, Dalian, or Yokohama. For US and other farmers who depend on exports of GE commodity crops, the presence of unauthorized generic traits could be devastating, according to industry. For example, one quarter of all US soybeans are
exported to China, and 95% of those beans are genetically engineered. An estimated 93% of GE soybeans in the United States contain a Monsanto trait that goes off-patent in 2014.
So what do the top players here propose in order to address this issue? They have come up with what they call, rather dramatically, "the Accord", which includes an option for patent holders to continue to oversee biosafety approval for their GE seeds, either alone, or working with other companies. As ETC points out, this is likely to lead to even closer cooperation among the leading agribusiness giants, which already have extensive cross-licensing agreements with each other.
The complexity, however, is not just the biosafety review process; it's also the fact that re-registration requires legal access to the proprietary safety testing data initially submitted by one of the Gene Giants to government regulators. (For the Gene Giants, safety data are considered "confidential business information" and a protected trade secret -- it's not something they're accustomed to sharing, especially with competitors.) Without access to the proprietary information, the cost of bringing generic biotech crops to market would be prohibitive.
One thing that the Accord will not lead to is a flood of low-cost seeds produced by generics companies, as has already happened in the world of pharma, with huge knock-on benefits for the world's poor. For that to happen, the key safety testing data held by the agribusiness giants would need to be available. And despite the reasonableness of requiring companies to do that -- after all, if they want people to eat their products, they should be prepared to release the scientific evidence it is safe to do so -- that's not likely to happen unless they are forced to by governments.
Another factor making it extremely unlikely that we will see many seed generics is the dense web of patents that now envelope GE varieties, as ETC explains:
In the words of Randy Schlatter, DuPont Pioneer's senior manager of intellectual property: "What growers may not realize is that even though the trait patent expires, there are a host of other intellectual property patents on those varieties that are just as strong." In an interview with DTN/Progressive Farmer, Schlatter observed: "If there is a [first generation genetically engineered] soybean in the market today that is truly generic and not protected by a patent of some sort, I've not been able to find it." DuPont Pioneer, the world's second biggest seed company, has more than 225 patents covering its portfolio of soybean seeds -- not just on transgenic traits -- but on breeding technologies, germplasm and conventional ("native") traits. Even if a single transgenic trait goes off patent, the maize or soybean variety that contains the trait is likely the subject of a complex web of intellectual property. The two dozen patents on biotech seed traits that will expire over the next decade are dwarfed by the thousands of existing patents on traits, seeds and varieties
This is similar to some of the approaches to evergreening in the pharma industry -- adding extra, patented features to older technologies as the latter enter the public domain. The net result is the same for both drugs and crops: the patent "bargain" with society, that a time-limited, government-backed monopoly is granted in return for allowing anyone to use the invention freely at the end of the patent term, is not being kept fully. Once more, the public is shortchanged.
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