Why Are Plants Patented?

From falling poverty levels to increasing life expectancy, many of the positive developments in human life over the past decades are thanks to technical and medical advances. In this process, patents play an important role.

Innovations are hugely significant not only for society, but also for science-based companies. They are frequently one of the most important competitive factors.

In many cases, it takes many years and the investment of many millions of euros to achieve a breakthrough development. Developing an innovative drug product and breeding a new plant are extremely complex and expensive processes. For companies to be able to afford the enormous, sustained investment in research and development in the first place, they need the security of knowing that they will be able to market their newly developed products exclusively for a defined period of time. This has always been done with patents, which protect the intellectual property of the respective inventor.

Plants are primarily patented if they have been specifically modified to contain a new trait that makes them, for example, resistant to pests or drought, or able to produce enhanced yields. Breeders generally achieve these inventions by means of genetic engineering, but they are also possible with other techniques.

Innovations have over the past decades led to huge efficiency increases in agriculture. While in 1960, one farmer in Germany could feed 17 people, by 2015 that figure had risen to 156. In the late 1950s, Germany produced 3.2 tons of wheat per hectare; in 2016, this figure was 8 tons. The yield for potatoes increased from 23 to 45 tons per hectare and for sugar beet from 36 to 75 tons per hectare. Source Without these yield increases it would not be possible today to feed all of the people on the planet; in the same time period, the world’s population has grown from 3 billion to 7.4 billion.

DOES PATENTED SEED LEAD TO FARMERS BECOMING DEPENDENT ON LARGE COMPANIES?

All farmers decide for themselves where they get their seeds from. They can use their own seed or buy it from regional, national or international suppliers. The fact that many farmers nowadays choose the latter option is testimony to the attractive price-performance ratio of these kinds of seeds. This development is primarily thanks to the many decades of research and resulting ground-breaking innovations.

If a farmer purchases officially registered seeds, a protective fee is included in the price. If he retains part of his harvest and uses this seed for renewed sowing, he must also pay a fee for this. This is increasingly rare in Europe because farmers today usually deliberately use hybrid varieties; these varieties, introduced for the first time more than half a century ago, are more robust and higher-yielding than conventional varieties. As these seeds naturally lose these advantages in the following generation, a farmer has to purchase new hybrid seeds each year. The same applies for varieties that have been patented by the inventor due to the complex and cost-intensive research involved.

However, farmers are not forced to buy hybrid varieties or varieties that are covered by patent protection. They can switch seeds at any time and use seeds that were bred independently of seed companies. The choice is an individual one, up to each farmer.

Incidentally, the commercial market for seeds represents only a small part of the overall offering worldwide. In many developing countries, seed breeding is the domain of public institutions or the farmers themselves. For example, 90-98 percent of farmers in West Africa produce their own seeds; including East and Southern Africa, the figure is 70 to 95 percent. Source

In summary, the patenting of new plant varieties has not led to a limitation of available seeds and thus farmers have not become dependent on only a few big companies.

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