Decision relieves biotech industry

If Percy Schmeiser had won his court case, the country’s agricultural biotechnology sector would have been annihilated, say industry proponents.

They breathed a sigh of relief on May 21 when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the Bruno, Sask., farmer had violated Monsanto’s patent by growing canola containing the Roundup Ready gene.

If the judges had ruled against Monsanto, it would have ended agricultural biotechnology research in Canada, said Ashley O’Sullivan, president of Ag-West Bio Inc., a firm that promotes Saskatchewan’s biotech industry.

“What can you do with a gene for Roundup resistance if you can only express it in a petri dish?”

By siding with Monsanto, the highest court in the land has cleared the way for the 25-30 agricultural biotech firms operating in Canada to continue generating a return on their investments.

It also extends a lifeline to researchers in the public sector who have spent resources developing new technologies for farmers.

“None of those technologies would have been exploitable in Canada if the decision had gone the other way,” said O’Sullivan.

That would have been a good thing, according to National Farmers Union vice-president Terry Boehm.

“I think the decision really extends intellectual property protection far beyond what it should be.”

The NFU is one of many groups calling on Parliament to change the Patent Act so that plants and their genes can no longer become a company’s intellectual property.

Boehm said the biotech industry has absorbed large amounts of public money, offering growers little in return for that investment.

O’Sullivan argued farmers, especially canola growers, have greatly benefited from the technology.

Two-thirds of the 11.6 million acres of canola grown in 2003 were genetically modified, with 45 percent of the crop seeded to Roundup Ready canola and 23 percent to Liberty Link. The farmgate value of last year’s canola crop was close to $2 billion.

Boehm said canola would have been grown whether or not GM crops had been invented. But the advent of GM canola has locked Canada out of the European market and pushed organic canola growers out of business, he said.

He added that GM canola has added costs for segregation efforts, litigation fees and technology-use agreements. Those costs exceed what it takes to grow conventional canola.

Company spokesperson Trish Jordan said the Supreme Court decision reaffirms the ability of biotech firms to capitalize on their innovations.

“Had they come up with a different ruling it would have created an unfriendly investment environment for everybody.”

Jordan said research companies require a predictable business setting because they are investing millions of dollars in products that won’t be commercialized for five to 15 years.

“Having an environment that gives you some sort of assurance that intellectual property will be respected and that you will have the right and the ability to recoup some of that investment is critically important.”

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