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Bell pepper patent upheld

The European Patent Office (EPO) has decided, nine years after the objection procedure began, to uphold seed and chemical company Syngenta's patent on classically bred bell peppers with natural resistance to whitefly (EP2140023). On February 16, the case was heard once again.

That decision comes despite that office's 2017 ruling - under significant political and social pressure - that naturally occurring properties in plants and products of essentially biological processes may not be patented. This ruling did not apply retroactively.

'Invented nothing'
The latest ruling is a major blow to a broad 24-organization (including the Dutch Bionext) coalition from 27 countries. This group objected to this patent in 2014. "We're very disappointed. This patent should never have been granted. Syngenta didn't invent anything. What they've done is part of standard breeding practice," says Maaike Raaijmakers, Bionext's biological propagation and breeding project leader.

That disappointment is even greater because current legislation no longer allows patents on natural traits. Also, the trait the company is claiming as its invention comes from a wild bell pepper from the Wageningen gene bank. These days, seed companies taking genetic material from a gene bank to use in their breeding program must sign a statement promising not to patent it.

This ruling, says Bionext, is nightmarish for the hundreds of other patent applications relating to fruit and vegetables' natural properties filed before July 1, 2017. The EPO could still approve these too, with dire consequences. Other seed companies would no longer be able to use the patented traits to develop new varieties freely. According to Bionext, that would ultimately lead to a less varied range, higher prices, and greater dependence for growers and horticulturalists.

"It's absolutely vital that patents allowing companies to appropriate pieces of nature end as soon as possible. We'll now discuss the next steps with our international partners. Appealing this ruling, thanks partly to the lengthy procedure, unfortunately, makes little sense. The patent expires in 2027 anyway," Maaike concludes.

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