US Supreme Court Confirms Legality Of Plant Patents

20 December 2001

US Supreme Court Confirms Legality Of Plant Patents

The US Supreme Court on 10 December decided that plants developed through genetic engineering or other breeding techniques could be patented under Federal patent law (see BRIDGES Trade BioRes, 6 December 2001).

The Court rejected the argument put forward by the US-based company J.E.M. Ag Supply in its case against Pioneer Hi-Breed that plant patents were invalid and that Congress had never intended the scope of patentable subject matter to be extended to seeds and plant varieties.Instead, the Court argued that "Congress has not only failed to pass legislation" to support this assertion, but "it has even recognized the availability of utility patents for plants."

The ruling will be greatly welcomed by the agriculture industry, which has for the past 20 years based its investment decisions on the assumption that the plant varieties resulting from their research will be protected by patents. Plant breeders and seed companies generally argue that patent protection is a necessary incentive for research and development (R&D) as it enables investors to recover their R&D expenditure.

Farmers, however, are concerned that patents will prevent them from saving and re-planting seeds. Researchers, in turn, point out that patents restrict experiments to find improved varieties. Anti-biotech campaigners are also likely to be disappointed with the ruling, which they had hoped would reverse part of the patent law.

The Supreme Court's decision now paves the way for Pioneer Hi-Breed to continue its lawsuit against J.E.M. which it had brought against the company in 1998 for selling bags of corn seeds patented by Pioneer.

China worried about soy patent application

In related news, China has expressed concern regarding a proposed patent by the agro-chemical company Monsanto on DNA of a variety of high-yield soy. While the patent application was only filed in the US and would (for now) not affect use of the variety in China, some are expecting widespread consequences if the patent were granted. "This could affect genetic research throughout the word," said Chang Ruzhen, chair of the China Soybean Society. "This is not good news for anyone". Others have pointed out possible trade impacts if Chinese' farmers unwittingly ignored the patent, which they say could impede export of their products and might even lead to international trade sanctions. Several Chinese researchers and media reports have also questioned the source of the wild variety of soy used in Monsanto's research despite the company's assurances that the variety was obtained from a publicly accessible US Department of Agriculture germ plasma bank and was not cultivated anywhere in the world.

Additional Resources

The US Supreme Court ruling is available online.

"Plant breeders win patent protection," FT, 11 December 2001; "High court says seeds can be patented, in ruling beneficial to biotech industry," THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, 11 December 2001; "Patent application raises worries," AP, 12 December 2001.

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