Animal products: Companies claim patents from feed to fork
European patent laws prohibit patents on animals derived from conventional breeding. However, companies are increasingly trying to circumvent these prohibitions by filing patent applications for food products such as meat and milk derived from such animals, claiming them as “inventions”. New research by No Patents on Seeds! now shows that patents on animals and food products, such as a patent on salmon granted by the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich, are not just isolated cases but part of a broader strategy of companies. In October 2018, the EPO granted patent EP1965658 on salmon fed with a feedstuff comprising “stearidonic acid feedstuffs”. The patent claims the fish as well as the fish oil. Food derived from these fish supposedly has a higher content of Omega 3 fatty acids, which are considered beneficial to human health. According to the patent, the fish can be fed both with genetically modified feedstuff or plants derived from conventional breeding as long as the content of fatty acids is enhanced in the muscle tissue.
The coalition of non-governmental organisations now fears that the patent on salmon could become a precedent for many other patent applications. They looked at European patent applications filed at the World Patent Institute (WIPO) in 2018 and 2019. Their research reveals that several other patents had been filed recently which all follow a similar strategy: starting with seed and feed, all further food products derived from farm animals are claimed as an invention. For example, Syngenta not only claims genetically engineered maize as its ‘invention’ but also the production of milk and meat which involves the use these maize plants as animal feed. In patent WO2018204245, “a harvested cattle carcass” is part of the invention; whereas patent WO2019075028 claims a “method of increasing the amount of milk produced by a dairy animal”. While these patents rely on transgenic maize, others such as the patent on salmon are based on the use of conventionally-bred plants.
“This is an attempt to make ethically unacceptable profit by abusing patents. The consequences can be serious for animal welfare, farmers and consumers,” said Christoph Then, spokesperson for No Patents on Seeds!. “If such ‘seed to meat’ patents are granted, the patent holders are in a position to control animal food production to a great extent.” He fears that companies will increasingly claim such food monopolies if the strategy works. Therefore, the member organisations of No Patents on Seeds! are demanding changes in the rules for interpreting the current patent law in order to close those loopholes and to make sure that the existing ban is enforced effectively. “However, if a change in the interpretation of current law does not provide sufficient legal certainty and clarity, the European patent law itself needs to be changed accordingly,” the organisations urge. No Patents on Seeds! warns that big companies such as Bayer, DowDupont and Syngenta could increasingly take control of agriculture, breeding and food production if such patents on plants and animals are not refused.