Questions raised over future of GM patents

Generic GM crops coming | Industry must prepare to manage GM traits once patent protections are removed

The first GM crops were grown commercially in 1995. That is nearly 20 years ago, which is the usual life cycle of a patent.

It means a lot of traits are going to be coming off patent over the next few years, and companies will be entering the market with generic traits, much like what has happened in the agriculture chemical business.

“This is an important thing to begin thinking about,” said David Morgan, North American regional director for Syngenta Seeds Inc.

He told the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference 2013 that there are issues that need to be resolved that have implications for the companies bringing generic traits to market and the farmers who grow the crops.

“How do we maintain the rigorous stewardship protocols that we’ve established in recent years when there are companies that will come in that really don’t have quite the same degree of belief that they need to be involved in this type of regime?” said Morgan.

The big seed technology companies have worked with government regulators to develop protocols to guard against resistance problems and the out-crossing of GM crops.

For instance, refuge strips have been established for B.t. corn crops to prevent insect resistance to the trait.

“We’re not suggesting that (stewardship) is going to crash as soon as there’s new entrants to the market, but they have to have the same obligations on the one hand and the willingness and wherewithal to do it,” said Morgan.

That’s a concern for Martin Meinert, president of the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate.

“The less stringent controls are, the more issues there’s going to be,” he said.

A Washington state farmer recently had a load of non-GM alfalfa rejected for export because it contained trace amounts of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM alfalfa.

“We don’t think the controls are that great as it is, but when it goes generic and there is less controls, there’s even more issues,” said Meinert. “It’s very much a concern for organics.”

Morgan said another challenge for the agriculture industry in the post-patent era is what will happen with regulatory approvals of traits when the originator abandons them in the face of competition from generic firms.

Many governments around the world require regular renewal of registrations, but if the originator is no longer marketing the trait, there is no vested interest in maintaining global registration.

Registration lapsing in an important import market could cause export problems for growers producing generic GM crops.

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