‘Second-hand GE’ plants claimed as inventions

How CRISPR/Cas & Co are being used to create new seed monopolies

4 July 2023 / A new Testbiotech report published today shows that an increasing number of patents are being filed for New GE (New Genetic Engineering, new genomic techniques, NGTs). The effects of these patents may also impact conventional plant breeding. If this development is not stopped, plant genomes will become a ‘minefield’ of patent monopolies.

Corteva (previously DowDuPont) and Bayer (together with Monsanto) own the overall highest number of patents granted to companies in this context - they have also filed the highest number of patent applications: Corteva had filed nearly100 patent applications and Bayer more than 60 by the end of 2022. At that time, the European Patent Office had already granted around 30 of these patents to Corteva. This US company is assumed to have held a predominant market position in the field of New GE plants for several years.

Within last two years, there were also some smaller US companies filing patents, such as Pairwise (also cooperating with Monsanto) and Inari. Testbiotech took a closer look at the patent applications filed by Inari and found that most of the patents were for ‘second hand’ GE plants, i. e. CRISPR/Cas technology was used to target the transgenes that had been inserted using ‘Old GE’, and thus either remove, modify or combine them with new traits.

The scope of these patent applications is not confined to the technical processes, but extends to all plants obtained from these processes. Even if the transgenes are removed from the plants, or slightly modified, or combined with new traits, the resulting plants are claimed as new inventions. Inari has publicly stated that it wants to challenge the monopolies of the larger companies. The company, nevertheless, appears to be using CRISPR/Cas technology to create new monopolies on existing plant material, and thereby also prolonging the usage of transgenic plants obtained from ‘Old GE’.

There are other examples of patent applications and also granted patents that may severely impact traditional breeders. Indeed, there are at least ‘two faces’ to the use of tools such as CRISPR/Cas: New GE is applied in plants to generate specific traits. However, as far as patents are concerned, the technology is often used simply as a ‘technical topping’ to claim patent monopolies on randomly occurring genetic variants. In this context, the companies seem to be aiming to control access to the biological resources needed for future breeding, even if no genetic engineering is applied.

Since this development is likely to run counter to the goals of the EU in regard to sustainable agriculture goals, a technology assessment should be performed to identify potential negative impacts. It should be ensured that at least traditional, non-targeted conventional processes in plant breeding are not affected.

Technology assessment will also be necessary to distinguish between potential solutions to problems and applications of proprietary technologies that are primarily driven by expectations of making a profit. In light of the commercial interests behind New GE, the institutions of the EU are, in Testbiotech’s opinion, obliged to defend the interests of the broader public and not surrender the field to ‘Big Biotech’.

Christoph Then, info@testbiotech.org, Tel + 49 151 54638040