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article imageMonsanto 'slammed' for violating European patent law on GMO melon

By Karen Graham     Jan 27, 2016 in Environment
The European Patent Office has revoked a patent on genetically modified melons held by Agro-Giant Monsanto after a January 20, 2016 hearing held in Munich, Germany.
No Patents on Seeds, a European-based coalition and the vegetable seed-producing subsidiary of Bayer CropScience, were the two groups in opposition to the melon patent, based on notices received by the European Patent Office (EPO) in February 2012.
According to a press release issued by No Patent on Seeds on Jan.20, Monsanto's melon patent, (EP1962578), was revoked on technical grounds. Monsanto claimed the melon with a natural resistance to plant viruses was its own invention, derived from breeding without genetic engineering, even though the resistance had been previously detected in indigenous melons from India.
As The Hindu explains, "Melons have a natural resistance to certain plant viruses. In the case of Cucurbit Yellow Stunting Disorder virus (CYSDV)—which has been spreading through North America, Europe and North Africa for several years—certain melons are known to be naturally resistant to it. Using conventional breeding methods, this type of resistance was introduced from an Indian melon to other melons and has now been patented as a Monsanto “invention.”
Greenhouse whitefly adults and pupae.
Greenhouse whitefly adults and pupae.
UC Davis
The vector responsible for CYSDV is the adult whitefly (Bemisia whitefly adults). There are several spcies of whitefly that infest cucurbits, or melons, with two, the Greenhouse whitefly, Trialeurodes vaporariorum, and the Silverleaf whitefly, Bemisia tabaci the major vectors in the U.S. melon crops.
The biggest fear of the opposition was that the St. Louis-based agribusiness could arm itself with the melon patent, ”closterovirus-resistant melon plants,” or EP1962578, and try to "block access to all breeding material inheriting the virus resistance derived from the Indian melon,” The Hindu reported.
As far as the technical issue, opposition argued that Monsanto was awarded the patent on May 4, 2011, even though European patent law does not allow patents on plant varieties and processes for conventional breeding. “The patent was based on essentially biological processes for breeding and claimed plant varieties. This was a clear violation of European patent law,” reads No Patent on Seeds; statement.
According to the EPO's Melon Patent Case, The gene which is responsible for the viral-resistance was first found in a melon plant in India catalogued in 1961. The plant has been publicly available since 1966. The patent covers the modified plant, parts of the plant and its fruits and seeds, but not the breeding process for obtaining the plant.
The landmark Broccoli and Tomato II Case
The reason why the Melon case took so long in coming before the EPO court was because of another, rather important case, The Broccoli and Tomato II Case, involving the patentability of plants.
The question before the EPO's Enlarged Board of Appeal was whether a "process for the production of plants comprising the steps of crossing and selection is excluded from patentability even if it contains an additional step of a technical nature, such as the use of molecular genetic markers."
The board ruled that the products of such processes (i.e. plants or fruits) could still be patented — if the conditions of patentability are fulfilled — even if they are obtained from such a non-patentable method. And there-in lies Monsanto's opening for appealing the patent revocation.
Monsanto's far-reaching grab for the biodiversity of other countries at stake
Monsanto has piqued the ire of a number of environmental and farming advocacy groups. They claim that Monsanto's act of claiming a patent on a naturally occurring virus-resistant melon is an act of "biopiracy" in violation of Indian law and international treaties.
Biopiracy is considered highly unethical. In a statement, the Berne Declaration campaign coordinator Francois Meienberg, said, "Monsanto’s melon Patent is biopiracy at its most devious. First of all, the patented resistance was not invented by Monsanto—just discovered in an Indian melon. Monsanto is now pretending to be the first to have bred it into other melons—but to copy something is not an invention."
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