Key Monsanto patent rejected (4/3/2007)

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Key Monsanto patent rejected
Analyst questions whether it's legal to protect plant technology
By Jane Roberts CommercialAppeal, March 4 2007,1426,MCA_440_5393043,00.html

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has rejected a key patent in Monsanto's Roundup Ready arsenal, possibly stripping the agribusiness giant of its power to license the technology to farmers.

St. Louis-based Monsanto has the right to appeal the decision or try to reach a compromise by reducing the breadth of the patent. It has 60 days to respond.

"We believe the patent is still valid, and at the end of the process, we believe the patent will still be enforced," said Lee Quarles, company spokesman.

If the patent is revoked, he said Monsanto holds additional patents to protect its intellectual investment.

The patent is one of four Monsanto patents the nonprofit Public Patent Foundation asked the patent office to review last fall, alleging they were granted without merit.

"We think there are several problems. One is the patents don't deserve to exist because Monsanto didn't come up with something new or unobvious," said Dan Ravicher, executive director.

The other issue, he said, is that Monsanto has used the patents to "aggressively try to bankrupt farmers or put them out of business."

The rejection -- while not a revocation -- "casts a substantial cloud of doubt on Monsanto. They will be less successful in their efforts to sue," Ravicher said.

The patents protect seed traits that make cotton and soybean plants immune to glyphosate, the generic name for the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup.

With the modified seed, farmers can spray glyphosate over the crop, killing the weeds but not the crop.

The practice has revolutionized row crop agriculture because it requires farmers to make fewer passes over their fields, saving time, energy and soil compaction.

Monsanto has had a monopoly on the trait since it introduced it in cotton in 1997. The company requires farmers to sign a licensing agreement saying they will not save the seed for future planting.

It has sued a number of producers in high-profile cases, including several in the Mid-South, for licensing breaches.

"The whole notion that a company can get a utility patent on a plant is new and very controversial," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that focuses on ag biotechnology and supporting organic standards.

"A utility patent is for a mechanical invention. For decades, it didn't apply to plants because they are not inventions."

Seed germplasm contains advancements that have happened through evolution and breeding programs, some conducted in family-farm breeding programs.

Patenting the entire germplasm gives the patent holder control over enhancements that occurred in the public domain, Freese said.

Lisa Dry, spokeswoman for the American Seed Trade Association, said Monsanto is not alone in actively protecting its innovations.

"I know that it may sound odd to refer to a plant as an 'invention,' but patents are granted for all sorts of innovations where 'the hand of man' is involved in making a plant different in some manner.

"By preserving their intellectual property, seed companies and breeders can invest in research and development for new seeds to help farmers produce better yields or to provide solutions to farmers to reduce the impact of factors they cannot control -- temperature, moisture, weather and soil conditions -- to name a few."

--Jane Roberts: 529-2512


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