Apr. 12, 2019
Patents in the fruit and vegetable sector are a recurring topic of discussion. The mixed signals sent out by the European Patent Office, who cannot seem to reach internal agreement regarding patenting of traditional breeding, doesn't help in this. Last December, the Dutch patent office issued a ruling that might make it possible to apply for a patent based on classical breeding. Arend Schot, regional director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at breeder Syngenta, follows these developments closely. He has worked in various European countries, Brazil, and China in recent years, and has now been back in the Netherlands for two and a half years.
Patents in the fruit and vegetable sector are a subject of discussion. What's your view on this?
“In my view, the concern that you see arising around patents is not only affecting the fruit and vegetable sector. In general, certainly in recent years, there has been worry about the use of technology in agriculture and horticulture, and technology in general is not undisputed either. Unfortunately, facts don't always dominate the technology debate. It's therefore often not a factual discussion, but more opinion-based.
The rise of the internet certainly plays a role in spreading the discussion, but I think social media are mostly to blame. People are often not fully aware of what technology and breeding entail. The internet can be very useful, because it's a democratic medium to which almost everyone has access. If you take the time, you can find a lot of information to understand what we as breeders do, for example. On social media, on the other hand, it's more about opinion sharing, and not always based on facts. Social media can undermine factual discussion.
I think people aren't so much against technology, as they are concerned about its use and the underlying objectives that companies have. This is partially because we in the past, as breeders, haven't explained enough what we do exactly. The entire breeding process is complex, so the question is what you want to talk about.
What we can do is to better demonstrate what we do in an even more accessible way for the widest possible audience. It would be very nice if breeding is as simple as it is sometimes put on the internet, namely that we 'cross a number of seeds that we ourselves have obtained for free somewhere', after which 'magically' a new product is created for which a patent can be applied for.
That's not how it works, of course. Especially Dutch breeders have built up a unique position in the breeding of vegetable seeds. In recent years there has been a mix of experienced people with a great deal of knowledge of classical breeding and younger people from the next generation who introduce new technologies. It is a very knowledge-intensive sector, which is something people forget quickly.
And don't forget that fifteen to twenty percent of our turnover is used for the development of new varieties. That's a very high percentage compared to other industries, and comparable to the development of medicines.”
The development of new varieties isn't easy, but are patents the only way?
“Patents are definitely needed. Breeding involves thousands of crossings via selection and backcrossing to one breed, one gene set. The patent that you apply for is very important because your variety represents a long-term, expensive investment. A patent serves to protect that investment and the lead you built up. Certainly now that with ever-improving technologies, including the use of molecular markers, it is possible to reintroduce properties in new varieties without the expensive, run-up process being entirely completed.
New technologies such as CRISPR-Cas reduce the time investment required for breeders, but at the same time the costs for investing in people and the required technical materials are only increasing. For example, laboratories where they investigate exactly which enzymes are involved.
Patents are also urgently needed with CRISPR-Cas, for example. Patents were also invented for a reason. A patent is valid for twenty years, but effectively a patent only offers ten to fifteen years of protection because it takes years to select, position and introduce a new variety from the breeding process.
Without patents, the motivation to innovate would disappear. It would then be just as easy to wait for a discovery and copy it. Then the law of the inhibiting lead starts to come into play. Thinking ahead, exploring the market, that is what you are trying to distinguish yourself with as a breeder. It is important to know what's going on in the market in order to be able to invest in new relevant products for the future. This involves a large part of our investments.
In the meantime, don't forget that everyone has access to the entire gene pool. Scouting campaigns in search of new genes in wild nature are funded by the entire sector, for example. The entire innovation process that breeders want to protect is in the development of varieties. This involves a great many facets, including whether a variety can be cultivated and marketed. The unique trait on which a patent is subsequently applied for is subsequently only a very small part of the entire gene set that you market as a breeder.”
What about the International Licensing Platform? You hear relatively little about it, but could this platform not be (part of) the solution?
“The International Licensing Platform (ILP) will have been in existence for five years on November 13. It was established in 2014, and 11 breeders are affiliated. That doesn't sound like a lot, but the platform focuses primarily on vegetable growing and the affiliated breeders together make up a large part of the world market. All companies adhere to the same standards in the field of intellectual property.
A patent offers breeders protection, along with some transparency about where an innovation comes from. Other breeders can also benefit from this. In theory, companies could, if they don't apply for a patent, keep innovations completely quiet. Then the sector wouldn't advance at all. It is precisely in the ILP that innovations are shared between companies that apply technology in the same way. This makes it possible to quickly stack one innovation on another to implement improvements. Innovations within the platform are immediately made available for a small fee. So there is an exchange going on with patents. That way affiliated participants help each other to innovate, at least that's the objective."
The FAQ on the Syngenta website also contains the question of what the Chinese influences within Syngenta mean for the attitude towards patents. Can we assume that, because it is in the FAQ, it's a concern?
“In fact, as a breeder but also in the crop protection branch, we are working on intellectual property, with unique products that we naturally want to protect just like other technology companies. Now that we, as a Swiss company, have come into Chinese hands, nothing has changed. We will continue to take the same attitude with regard to patents and will also continue to protect innovations, within the possibilities offered by legislation.
Nevertheless, the question in our FAQs reveals that it has been a point of discussion. The question keeps people busy and also makes me think. In addition, it is also important for the other members of the ILP to know whether something has changed in our vision. China does not have such a good reputation in the field of intellectual property based on the past. In the eyes of some, 'made in China' stands for 'picking up' intellectual property to copy it and then make money with it. Money that the innovator himself subsequently misses out on.
However, China is now developing considerably and is also innovating itself. They therefore have every interest in protecting their own intellectual property. Along those lines, they chose us as a breeder because of our intellectual property. Intellectual property in which they have now invested themselves. China nowadays also wants to protect itself in an increasingly international way in the field of intellectual property. We are also in talks with the Chinese government to ensure even better protection of intellectual property."
How does Syngenta view patents and the access of developing countries to innovations? Does Syngenta handle the rules more flexibly in such cases?
“As a regional director, I am responsible for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, so I have to deal with three different development speeds every day, as each region is different. One of the five pillars in our Good Growth Plan is bringing prosperity to poorer growers and sharing technologies with third world countries. We invest a lot in this. However, growers in those countries are not interested in a super-tasty tomato for the time being, but rather in robust food products that they can safely grow.
The most important thing we bring to these countries is education, how to teach growers how to use new technologies and how to market their products. We have local teams for this at Syngenta and the Syngenta Foundation. We also work in this area with international organizations, with the Dutch government and with other breeders. Marketing patents in these gradually developing markets is still very far removed from that point. By the time growers there become interested in innovations, the patents have already expired a long time ago. So I'm not worried about that at all."
How do you see the future of patents in fresh produce? Could it go in the direction of only patents on fruit and vegetables when it comes to color, taste and appearance? And no more patents on aspects that deal with the global food problem such as resistance?
“I don't expect that, but it did make me think. Because what are the 'most important' breeding objectives? Resistances are indisputably established, and technologies to develop varieties that can be used with less water or with fewer crop protection products are immediately apparent.
But are colors, taste and an attractive appearance of fruit and vegetables less important? I don't think so. In the light of the worldwide debate about healthy food, it may even become much more important. Nowadays, many people in their daily diet have an excess of calories in larger parts of the world. Breeders can do something about it with innovations such as snack vegetables. As a result, vegetables have become more attractive for consumers in recent years. Breeders play an important role in further boosting worldwide fruit and vegetable consumption. And that includes patents to continue to motivate breeders to innovate.
There are also innovations in the field of sustainability and food waste. For example, we developed a seedless melon that can be kept for a week after cutting without it dehydrating. Even more robust fruit and vegetables are becoming increasingly important to prevent waste. It is therefore a real shame that technology is not always understood and large companies are seen as a threat. At Syngenta, we work with 28,000 people who, apart from being very critical consumers themselves, work with a great deal of knowledge and passion on solving real world problems. With the vegetable seeds we specifically work on sustainable production of healthy and tasty products.”