Corporations want to safeguard claims to entire animal breeds with patents. The seed sector has for years faced pressure from international corporations in a process of amalgamation. Now there are increasingly signs of a parallel development in animal breeding, as can be seen in the steady growth in company takeovers and cooperation agreements and the increasing number of applications for patents. Breeders and farmers are getting caught in a hitherto undreamt-of dependency on patent owners and licence fees. In the seed sector this has already led to the sentencing of numerous US farmers unable to keep up their payments. Similar developments could occur in animal breeding. Patenting and monopolising breeds of farm animals may at the same time lead to a loss in biodiversity and accelerate the development of genetically modified breeds.
Industrialised agriculture is based on fewer and fewer breeds of farm animal, with especially highly-bred, high-performance breeds being used. More and more breeds of farm animal are becoming lost or are just deep-frozen in the freezers of gene banks. In losing these animals we are also losing the option of having long-life breeds which can be productive while being less of a burden on the environment. Whereas old breeds are robust and adapted to their specific habitats, highly-bred animals often suffer from disease and stress. If multinational corporations now spread out into animal breeding, there is a threat that the situation will get worse, and regional breeds which are finely adapted and undemanding will be lost.
But farmers who are becoming more and more dependent on big corporations are losing out too. The latter may be able to control the use of their animals in the future as well. How rapidly this development might become really acute for consumers and farmers can be seen from the current patent applications for breeding pigs being made by the US agrochemical corporation, Monsanto (see below).
It is not only genetically manipulated farm animals that are in the foreground now. Processes like cloning or 'marker-assisted selection' (a kind of genetic diagnosis on an animal) are being increasingly used in order to make monopolistic claims on animals' genes, the animals themselves and their offspring. Discussions on the marketing and consumption of cloned animals in the US and Europe show that commercial interests behind the patents do in fact aim to be active on the market.
Corporations like PIC and Genus, who are among the biggest international players in the animal breeding sector, are especially active in buying up other firms and patent applications filed. Monsanto is on the other hand entering this business as a relative outsider, having been basically active in a different area. This company has not only bought its way into pig breeding and filed patents having a broad coverage, it has also concluded extensive licensing agreements with the genome company, MetaMorphix, which has for its part filed numerous patent applications in this sphere.
The patenting of forms of life is supported by patent agencies and political bodies. The ban on patenting animal varieties laid down in European patent law (Art. 53b of the European Patent Convention) has for years been systematically eroded by the European Patent Office in Munich – which finances itself from granting patents. Starting with the patent on the so-called 'onco-mouse' in 1992, the European Patent Office has gone on to grant over 200 patents to animals (indeed, 538 according to the EPO's own classification), and another 5,000 have already been filed for. Most of the patents cover animals in experiments – but many too are for cloned farm animals and normal breeding processes. Even patents on genetically manipulated cattle, fowl and fish have already been issued.
Patents can also be granted on normal animals which have merely been subjected to certain techniques like a gene diagnosis, or a process for determining the animal's sex, for example - European patent law may prohibit patents on "essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals" (Art. 53b, EPC), but this ban is defined in such a way that it can easily be got around.
Patents in which only certain processes are claimed are also controversial. According to the EU patents directive (98/44, Art. 8, 2) even the offspring of the animals ("any biological material") can in such cases be covered by the patent.
The European Patent Office granted the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh patent application EP 849 990 in 2001. A process of cloning mammals in which cell cores and oocytes are re-combined was patented. Originally intended mainly for medical research, processes for cloning farm animals are becoming increasingly important in agriculture. There are now discussions in the US and Europe on marketing cloned animals as food.
The Canadian company, Seabright, also obtained a patent in 2001, when the patent with the number EP 578 653 being granted for salmon and other fish which have been manipulated with growth hormone genes. The patent specification shows that the fish grow eight times as fast as normal salmon. If such super-salmon escape into the environment there is a substantial risk they will displace natural salmon of the same species.
The US company XY Inc. was in 2005 granted patent EP 1257168, which covers a method for selecting sperma by sex for the artificial insemination of mammals – including people. Cattle, pigs and horses, in particular, are singled out in this patent. The deep-frozen sperm itself is also claimed as an invention. Greenpeace has filed an objection to the patent on ethical grounds. A second objection was made by Monsanto – the company claims similar processes to be its invention.
The first European patent on genetically manipulated dairy cows was granted in 2007. Under patent number EP 1330552 "inventors" from Belgium and New Zealand claim processes for breeding cows which give more milk or milk with altered constituents. The cows are produced either by genetic diagnosis ("marker assisted breeding“) and bred normally, or by having more milk genes additionally incorporated into their genome.
Monsanto in 2005 filed two applications for extensive patents on breeding swine with the . world intellectual property organisation in Geneva. One patent, WO 2005/015989 (EP1651030), is concerned with business ideas for combining breeding methods already commonly practised. The processes specified are claimed, but the animals bred are themselves to be patented too. In patent WO 2005/017204 (EP 1651777) processes for genetic diagnoses on swine are described which are based on genetic information which is very broadly distributed—processes which are supposed to achieve improved growth. Here too the animals and "a pig herd" are themselves claimed. The applications were the subject of controversial discussion in Europe and the US after Greenpeace had made them public. The public criticism led to the European patent application, EP 1651777, being considerably watered down. The claims on swine were removed from the application. But in the meantime a dozen other pig-breeding patent applications by the US company have become known. Monsanto's EP 1673382 application is in addition partly about breeding cattle.
MetaMorphix in 2002 bought the Celera genome company's section dealing with genome analyses on animals. Celera was originally founded by the US researcher, Craig Venter, to analyse the human genome using high-performance computers. MetaMorphix thus received data on the genomes of cattle, swine and fowl. Monsanto and MetaMorphix announced they were cooperating in 2004. Monsanto will by a licensing agreement have exclusive access to the company's data, which include some 600,000 genetic sequences for pigs. Metamorphix has entered into similar cooperative agreements with the US agricultural multinational, Cargill, in the cattle-breeding sphere, and with the Wilmar company in the sphere of breeding fowl. Metamorphix has also registered patents itself.
Some examples are:
WO 0043781: growth factors and hence manipulated farm animals
WO 2005052133: cattle genes for horn formation, analytic procedures for giraffes, cattle, sheep, buffalo and deer US 2003065137: genes to increase weight, muscle mass and milk yield in farm animals
WO 9956771: inoculation against formation of sex hormones (partly to increase meat yields).
WO 9950406: egg cells manipulated with growth genes
PIC has transformed itself from a breeding company to an international monopoly, with pig breeders becoming "inventors of pigs". The company, which maintains a global network of collaborations and national branches (like PIC Deutschland), often works with the university of Iowa in the USA in making patent applications. The applications cover genes, whole animals and even meat products, which are of commercial interest. PIC was bought up in 2005, and Genus is now regarded as the biggest cattle-breeding corporation in the world. In 2005 Genus bought Sygen International, one of the leading companies in agricultural farm animal biotechnology, to which PIC also belongs. Genus thus controls large parts of cattle and pig-breeding, and aquaculture, worldwide. Genus' patent portfolio is accordingly diverse.
Examples of Genus/PIC group patents are:
EP 0879296 (issued in 2002): genes to influence the size of litters in pigs and analyses of breeding animals with these genes
WO 2006099055: genes for increased growth
WO 2004 081194: processes for analysing farm animals for desired genes like muscle growth
EP 1425414: genes for resistance to disease
WO 0220850: genese for meat quality, reproduction rates and larger litters (EP 1354061)
EP 0739412: clones of pigs, horses, cows, antelopes, goats and sheep and resultant embryos (issued on 27 Feb 2002)