Monsanto, the biotech giant, has elicited public protest across the world.
In early May, however, a drawn-out battle against Monsanto’s entrenched
corporate monopoly came to a head—not in the streets or the fields—but
in an arcane technical hearing at the European Patent Office. ETC Group
(Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), an international
civil society organization, and the environmental group Greenpeace (supported
by 19 other civil society organizations worldwide) won a 13-year legal
battle against Monsanto over the soybean.
Patents, exclusive legal monopolies granted by governments, are a favorite
tool of big business to exercise power. Giant pharmaceutical firms have
most notoriously used patents to price anti-HIV drugs out of the reach
of poor people in the global South. Less familiar are biotech battles in
the agricultural sector, where multinational seed companies are using patents
to deny farmers—or entire nations—the right to use and sell seeds from
Patents, we are told, are designed to promote innovation. Instead, they
are allowing giant seed companies to secure exclusive monopolies that undermine
the economic security of farming communities and jeopardize access to seeds.
And whoever controls the seeds controls the food supply.
Instead of fostering agricultural research, breathtakingly broad patents
are shutting down competition and stifling research. Perhaps no patent
symbolized the brokenness of the patent system more than Monsanto’s European
patent on all genetically engineered soybean varieties and seeds—European
Patent No. 301,749. Critics called it a “species-wide” patent because its
claims extend to all biotech soybean seeds—irrespective of the genes used
or the genetic engineering technique employed—and was unprecedented in
its broad scope.
The livelihoods of Argentina’s soybean farmers have been directly affected
by this patent because Monsanto, the world’s largest seed corporation,
used its exclusive monopoly to deny Argentine soybeans from entering European
markets. Why? Because Monsanto alleges that Argentine farmers aren’t paying
royalties to Monsanto for using the company’s patented soybean seeds.
Over the course of a single decade, Monsanto devoured dozens of seed companies
(and their patents) to become the largest seed corporation in the world
and the only soybean seed superpower. In 1996, Monsanto’s name didn’t even
appear on ETC Group’s list of the world’s top 10 seed companies. Today,
Monsanto tops the list and accounts for one-fifth of the global proprietary
According to industry sources, Monsanto’s soybean seeds and traits accounted
for about 90 percent of the GM soybeans planted worldwide in 2005. What’s
more, genetically engineered soybeans reportedly account for almost 60
percent of the global soybean area, an increasingly dominant share of one
of the world’s most important food and commodity crops.
Civil Society Fights Back
On May 3, 2007 at an appeals hearing at the European Patent Office (EPO)
in Munich, ETC Group and Greenpeace argued that Monsanto’s patent must
be revoked because it is technically flawed and morally unacceptable.
Monsanto’s legal defense of its patent may not be surprising, but it was
hugely hypocritical. Before Monsanto acquired the patent in 1996, the company
vigorously opposed the patent, which was then owned by U.S.-based biotech
company Agracetus. In 1994 Monsanto submitted an exhaustive, 292-page opposition
statement to the EPO that shredded the technical merits of Agracetus’s
soybean patent. Mon- santo’s lawyers wrote that the soybean patent should
be “revoked in its entirety,” is “not…novel,” “lacks an inventive step,”
and the “sufficient disclosure [of scientific method] is woefully lacking.”
But after Monsanto acquired Agracetus in April 1996, Monsanto withdrew
its challenge, reversed its position, and announced that it would defend
its newly acquired patent.
In 2003—more than nine years after the patent was first awarded and legally
challenged—an EPO patent tribunal heard legal arguments against the notorious
patent. Opponents were shocked when the EPO upheld Monsanto’s monopoly.
Today, nearly two-thirds of the patent’s 20-year term has expired. On
May 3, 2007 EPO’s appeals tribunal finally revoked Monsanto’s monopoly
on one of the world’s major food crops, a huge victory in the worldwide
struggle for food sovereignty.
Hope Shand is a member of the ETC group, headquartered in Canada, which
monitors the impact of new technologies on the environment.