Pig farmers and green campaigners in southern Germany have urged the EU to withdraw the patent for a genetic technique used to breed meatier pigs, fearing that royalties may have to be paid to a US biotech firm if the patent is upheld.
The patent was granted nine months ago by the European Patent Office (EPO) who will now it is reported study objections that have been made. The application was filed in 2005 by Monsanto, which sold its pig-breeding technology to another US biotech firm, Newsham Genetics, in 2007. A spokesman for the EPO said that the existing patent is in force until there is a decision to revoke it.
The patent covers a breeding process that relies on a genetic marker for selecting pigs that fatten quickly and produce juicier meat. The particular gene is found only in certain pigs.
The EPO had narrowed the scope of the patent, so that it related only to the firm’s scientific method, but not the pig itself, the gene sequence or the kit used for selection. A spokesman said ‘It’s normal to pay royalties for using a test. The question is how far does the breeder’s right go in using the test?’.
Under EU rules the EPO grants patents, but all the consequences fall under national law, he said. So the rules for pig breeders in the UK may well differ from those in Germany or other EU states. The spokesman stressed that a breeder would not have to pay royalties if his pigs had the same genetic trait as that described in the patent, because the gene itself was not patented.
Since the EPO was created in 1977 it has received almost 200 patent applications for marker-assisted breeding of animals. It has granted about 30 of them, but many are still pending. About half are American applications and half European.
The spokesman said that under EU rules, a firm can patent an animal only if it is transgenic, that is, an animal with an artificially modified gene. Gene sequences can be patented only if they have an industrial application and only if they have not been made public before.