Greenpeace and Misereor, the German Catholic Church development agency, yesterday filed a joint legal objection at the European Patent Office (Epo), based in Munich, against a far-reaching patent obtained by DuPont, the international chemicals corporation and world’s biggest seller of crop seeds.

The organisations are accusing DuPont of biopiracy and challenge the companies’ claim for exclusive rights on all maize with especially high oil and oleic acid content.

Patent EP 744888 (2), issued by the EPO on 30 August 2000, covers all “corn grain having a total of oil content of at least 6 percent wherein the oleic acid content is not less than 55 percent”.

High oil content of maize varieties with a high fraction of antioxidant oleic acid are sought by maize breeders around the world, because of their improved stability and nutritional value.

By presenting one specific method of hybridisation to this end the company claims private intellectual property rights over any varieties expressing the desired properties. Such varieties may exist naturally and have been developed by maize breeders for a long time.

“DuPont simply claims property over certain traits in plants, which they neither invented nor even fully understand,” said Christoph Then of Greenpeace Germany. “What DuPont is really trying to achieve is a monopoly on some natural traits of a plant and to deter any other breeder from research and development in this area”. (3)

Under the patent DuPont claims total control over any use of maize varieties with such high oil and oleic acid content throughout the entire production chain, from seeds to harvest and products and even to their use as animal feed and oil preparations. According to Greenpeace and Misereor, similar varieties have been cultivated and used in Central and South America, where maize plays a major role in the economy and the population’s food supply. DuPont’s patent is thus based on deliberate exploitation of these countries’ biodiversity and their cultural achievements.

“If the patent is upheld in this form,” says Misereor’s executive director, Dr Martin Bröckelmann-Simon, “it will be a clear case of biopiracy. Farmers across the world could suffer in the form of trade restrictions, licence fees, and the loss of marketing rights. A patent like this also disregards the cultural significance of maize in Latin American peoples traditions.”

The European Patent Convention, on which the EPO’s decisions must be based, clearly prohibits any patents of plant varieties. But the EPO claims that its internal adoption of the EU Directive 98/44 on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions would now allow for such patents. This is not true. While this contentious EU Directive – which allows patents on life – has not been implemented by the majority of the EU member states and has also been challenged at the European Court of Justice by the Netherlands, Italy and Norway, it also excludes patents on plant varieties. (4)

“This case shows why we must stop any patents on life before it is too late and a handful of companies and their lawyers can rule what farmers may plant and breeders may develop in the future”, concluded Christoph Then.








FOR FURTHER INFORMATION PLEASE CONTACT:
Bernd Nilles, Misereor, Mobile (Germany): ++49 160 7413733
Christoph Then, Greenpeace Germany, Mobile: ++49 171
8780832
Lorenzo Consoli, Greenpeace EU Unit, Brussels, Mobile: ++32 496
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  1. The challenge inter alia refers to lack of novelty (Art. 54 European Patent Convention) and the fact that it concerns plant varieties and main biological processes for the breeding of plants, which are not patentable (Art. 53 b, EPC) as well as other considerations. Full text of legal challenge available upon request.

  2. The full text of the patent can be downloaded at: www.greenpeace.de

  3. In a letter to Misereor Dr. Sukenshi Faba at the worlds leading International Centre for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat, CIMMYT, Mexico City, states: “I am sure that the patent application that you are concerned with can seriously discourage further research on maize oil content if it is not challenged on the basis of the natural distribution that have not been known yet… If the patent is granted, the research could be affected”.

  4. “The following shall not be patentable: (a) plant and animal varieties; (b) essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals” (Directive 98/44/EC, art. 4.1).