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Much to sort out as biotech seed patents approach expiration
The patent on Round-Up Ready soybeans, a widely-used biotech seed that allows farmers to grow herbicide-resistant plants, is set to expire in 2014.
Currently, only the patent holder Monsanto and its licensees are allowed to produce soybean seeds with the Round-Up Ready trait. Similar patents exist on other biotech seeds that will also expire in the coming years.
Because Round-Up Ready soybeans will be the first biotech seed patent to expire, it has raised questions about possible pitfalls as farmers see the market open up to generic seeds.
For example, if farmers hope to sell grain from generic biotech seeds in the future, they will need regulatory approval from international export markets. Those regulatory approvals currently exist for the patented seeds; however, there is no process to ensure a transition from the regulated patented products to the generics.
Complicating the matter is that individual countries have their own approval processes, and different crops could face their own unique challenges.
American Farm Bureau joined other national farm organizations in outlining its concerns about these and other challenges in a letter to biotech companies earlier this year.
The farm groups also said they support an exemption that would allow private and public sector researchers to work with a seed trait before its patent expires. The idea is that giving researchers access to data ahead of time would allow them to advance breeding programs. Otherwise, it could take several years after the patent expires before new seed products can be introduced.
While researchers should not be allowed to market seeds with traits that are still under patent, “they should be allowed to develop products under proper stewardship restrictions and seek export market approvals so that products can be brought to market as soon as patents expire,” the letter stated.
The farm groups added that it is important to have a system in place that will provide fair access to the patent holder’s data as well as a process to resolve disputes.
“Our organizations and our producers understand that these are major challenges to overcome, but given the profoundly negative implications for farmers of delaying a resolution, we must urge your companies to work to resolve them in a timely manner,” their letter stated.