Toespraak van staatssecretaris Van Dam bij de opening van het symposium over kwekers- en octrooirecht

Toespraak van staatssecretaris Van Dam (EZ) bij de opening van het symposium over kwekers- en octrooirecht ‘Finding the Balance. Exploring solutions in the debate surrounding patents and plant breeders’ rights’, op 18 mei 2016 in Brussel. De tekst is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to this symposium.

We may not always be aware of it, but every piece of fruit and every vegetable we eat is the work of plant breeders. In fact, we have generations of breeders to thank for the food on our plates today.

Take strawberries. The favourite fruit of Louis the Fourteenth back in the 18th century. 1 of his army officers noticed that the strawberries in Chile were far bigger than in France. So he brought some plants home for the king. At first they didn’t produce any fruit. But when crossed with the regular North American strawberry, they produced lots of big berries. That’s how we got the strawberries we know today.

Of course, science has moved on over the centuries. Breeders have used their knowledge of genetics, plant diseases and biotechnology to adapt the fruit to our tastes. They’ve improved the variety first bred in the 18th century. They’ve increased its vitamin and antioxidant content. They’ve made the fruits firmer and less prone to fungi. And they’ve managed to breed strawberries directly from seed instead of from cuttings.

European companies need incentives to keep improving plant varieties in the future, too. We can’t take this for granted. Breeders have been warning that their open innovation model is under pressure. There are more and more patents on plant traits. So they no longer have free access to all plant varieties – despite these being the basic ingredients for their work.

Patents are conflicting with plant breeders' rights. Traditionally, breeders' rights have protected breeders’ innovations. Yet still made it possible for other companies to further improve varieties. But some breeders and biotech companies are now seeking the same kind of patent protection that researchers in the pharmaceutical, technology and chemical industries have enjoyed for many centuries, because they believe patents provide maximum protection for the results of their long and expensive research. But we can't grant the same kind of intellectual property rights to plant breeders that we do to other innovators. We don't want companies to have a monopoly on the natural traits of a plant. Nature belongs to us all.

We need to strike a balance between patents and breeders’ rights. And unite commercial and public interests. After years of debate, the stakeholders have now come together: ministries of agriculture and innovation, businesses, scientists, NGOs, the European Patent Office and the Community Plant Variety Office. This symposium is an ideal opportunity to discuss whether we want more patents on plant traits in the years ahead, and the consequences this would have.

What we all need is clarity. Now is not the time for a deadlock. Farmers and growers around the world are facing massive challenges. The growing world population is demanding more, while the earth is pleading for less. To make sure future generations have enough healthy food, many countries will have to increase their agricultural output. But climate change is already taking its toll. Drought, salinisation and storms are preventing many farmers from keeping up their yields.

Plant breeders can help farmers and growers worldwide take on these challenges. Breeders are at the start of the supply chain − responsible for a varied supply of high-quality fruit and vegetables, flowers and plants. They constantly surprise consumers by giving familiar crops new looks and tastes. Good starting material improves both the product and the harvest. New, better varieties are stronger and more resistant to insects, fungi and diseases. So farmers don’t need to use as many herbicides and pesticides. And plants can even be adapted to climatic conditions like extreme drought. In other words, the breeders’ sector has a key role to play in feeding the world.

Just as the possibilities of plant breeding are beginning to seem endless – and just as we really need those possibilities – we stumble upon dilemmas. Should we allow patents on natural plant traits at the cost of open innovation? How can we protect the innovators of advanced breeding methods without triggering a patent rat-race? And how can we give growers, breeders and consumers freedom of choice while protecting new inventions? To safeguard the future of plant innovation in Europe, we need to find answers to these questions. And so build strong frameworks that protect the public interest and encourage the industry to grow and innovate.

We've already taken steps in the right direction. Today we’re discussing measures that can solve the problems without breaking open the biotech directive. First of all, we have to make European patent law easier to interpret. Some member states have already passed laws saying how they will deal with patents on the products of essentially biological processes. We need to remove the uncertainties surrounding patent law at European level too.

We can also improve patent quality by raising the bar so that only truly innovative inventions are patented, not discoveries in nature. By sharing their knowledge, the specialists from the European Patent Office and the CPVO can improve the quality of patents and make them more suited to the breeders’ sector. There’s still a lot to be done in this area.

Finally, the industry itself can take measures to restore the balance between breeders' rights and patents. We can build on existing initiatives that make it easier for companies to work with patents that have already been granted. Like the European Seed Association’s patent database, which we can use to look up the patent status of a plant variety. And the industry itself has arranged with the International Licensing Platform for vegetables to provide access to patents at a reasonable price.

All these solutions and their advocates will be heard today. This is a unique opportunity to share thoughts with each other about the right way to protect innovation in the plant breeding industry. Let's not forget how the industry became so big. Scientists were experimenting with exotic Chilean strawberries in their botanical gardens three hundred years ago. Later breeders carried on their work in greenhouses and laboratories. And sold their strawberry varieties to countries all over the world for a good profit.

Protecting innovations should mean ensuring gains made through innovation, not stopping other people from innovating better or faster than you do. Unfortunately, patents are often used to block innovation rather than protect it. As long as patents are used for real inventions, this is a pity and nothing more. But when patents are used to stop others from taking advantage of discoveries or innovations, or to claim property in natural characteristics or essential biological processes, this poses a danger to our food security and to agricultural innovation.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s cherish the scientific and commercial incentives that made previous generations of European breeders great, so that the next generation can provide us and our children with enough healthy food.

I wish you all a very fruitful symposium.

Thank you.