by Steve Wagner
“The world’s most widely adopted biotech trait, Roundup Ready® soybeans, is set to go off patent soon in the U.S. — the last applicable Monsanto-owned patent is expected to expire in 2014.” In cutting-to-the-chase fashion, the Monsanto press release’s first line explains it very clearly. Other things Monsanto wants you to know are bullet-pointed below:
• Monsanto is amending all Roundup Ready soybean trait licenses to extend through the final patent expiration. As a result, the last crop year for which Monsanto will collect royalties on the technology is 2014.
• Licensees have no obligation to destroy or return seed due to expiration of the Roundup Ready soybean trait licenses.
• Monsanto will not use variety patents against U.S. farmers who save varieties containing the Roundup Ready trait for planting on their own farms after expiration of the trait patent. Farmers should check with seed suppliers regarding the policy for seed varieties developed by other companies and contain the Roundup Ready trait.
• Monsanto will maintain full global regulatory support for this first-generation technology through 2021. This will allow grain from the 2014 crop to be sold and processed. We will continue to monitor and assess the planned use of this first-generation technology beyond 2021 and work with appropriate stakeholders on any extension of regulatory support that may be needed.
• Seed company licensees who choose to work with Genuity™ Roundup Ready 2 Yield technology will be able to continue to sell varieties with Roundup Ready after the patent expires. There is no need for them to stop selling Roundup Ready technology in order to sell the new trait.
• Universities will also be able to offer soybean varieties containing the Roundup Ready trait. A number of universities have been breeding with the Roundup Ready soybean trait for a number of years and they will be able to continue this both now and following expiration of the patent.
A sidebar to the last bullet point of the expiration process is that the end of Roundup Ready 1 could lead to new university-based crop-breeding programs that might make seed technology more freely available even though it might cost them corporate financial support. Is this the case at Penn State? “Not in the short term,” according to Penn State Agronomist Greg Roth, PhD. “Part of the problem of the erosion of the breeding programs has been the difficulty in capturing some of the value from the species that they’ve developed. When farmers replant the seed, then there’s no economic incentive for the universities or other people to develop breeding programs; somehow maintaining that value connection is critical. In some way, universities have to figure out how to capture some of that economic value to support even traditional breeding programs let alone molecular-based breeding programs that are engineered by industry. We are not in a position to develop a soybean breeding program because of the Roundup seed going off patent.”
Patent Protection, Innovation and Choice
The fact that Monsanto and other biotech companies continue to invest in the development of new soybean traits that will benefit farmers shows the U.S. patent system provides incentive for innovation. The transition of Roundup Ready soybean technology into the public domain represents another benefit — patent expiration provides a means for public access to this technology. This system motivates individuals as well as companies, to invest in all types of new technologies that make U.S. farmers and our economy more competitive.
Roundup Ready Trait and Soybean Variety Patents
Despite the advantage of the Genuity™ Roundup Ready 2 Yield trait, some farmers may want to use Roundup Ready soybean technology following the end of the trait patent. Many Roundup Ready varieties are also covered by variety patents and plant variety protection certificates. Monsanto will continue to enforce its intellectual property, including variety patents, with respect to commercial and developmental use of patented Roundup Ready varieties after the patent expiry. However, as stated above, Monsanto will not use variety patents against U.S. farmers who save soybean varieties containing the Roundup Ready trait for planting on their own farms after patent expiration.
One school of thought maintains that wider availability of inexpensive Roundup Ready seed could worsen the problem of weeds that are resistant to glyphosate. Is that too much speculation? “I would say so,” says Roth. “The marketplace is pretty well saturated with Roundup Ready and many farmers are moving towards alternative herbicides to supplement their Roundup applications.” The real question is what happens when the patent actually expires? What choices will farmers have? “It’s complicated,” Roth says. “A lot of Roundup Ready soybeans now are Roundup Ready 2, the second patented event that is not expiring. Many seed companies are rapidly moving toward those genetics.” Another issue Roth foresees is that some of the Roundup Ready 1 genetics contain other patented technologies that prohibit the replanting of the seed grown from those varieties. To be clear, this does not reference seed-saving. “What they’re talking about,” says Roth, “is you growing the seed and using it in the second year. In that case, the farmer is violating the agreement they signed with the seed company,” which is, basically, that they would not do that.
Another potential question in the minds of farmers is whether the Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield seeds will afford advantages other than those inherent in Roundup Ready 1. Roth says, “The second one, not in all cases, is reported to have better placement of the gene, and better backgrounds of genetics for superior performance. Having said that, there are some Roundup Ready 1 varieties that have done exceptionally well. So it is not crystal clear.
“Biotech regulations are varied across the world. A major issue in the development of biotech products in the future is the streamlining of the registration in Europe, Japan, China, especially those countries.” Roth notes that checking the websites of companies which deal with transgenic soybeans that they involve pest resistance, multiple herbicides, disease resistance, nutritional qualities, and they have a 10-year release plan of maybe 15 things besides just the Roundup Ready. “The issue,” says Roth, “is they’ve got to figure out how to get all those materials through the registration process in other countries. In some cases there could be trade barrier issues related to the soil registration, along with possible differences in philosophy about GMOs in Europe versus the United States. It’s unsure how much each of those things contributes to that complexity of the process.”
What happens when Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean patent expires?
by Steve Wagner