Syngenta Opens Doors To Its Patented Technologies, For Easier But Not Free Access

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A new innovation platform launched yesterday by Syngenta, the international agri-business company, means to broaden availability to some patented traits and technologies for vegetables, but also aims at opening new ways to use the intellectual property system.

The e-licensing platform, named TraitAbility, provides “quick and easy” access to patented native traits of Syngenta commercial vegetable varieties. It also provides access to patented enabling technologies, like plant transformation and protein targeting.

In the perspective of a growing world population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050, Alexander Tokarz, head of the vegetables section at Syngenta said at a press briefing in Geneva on 17 January: “We need a concerted effort and a lot of innovation.”

“We need more off the same land,” by increasing productivity through better agricultural inputs, in particular better seeds and better genetics, he said.

Taking an example from a developed country, Tokarz said “If you are a farmer needing to increase productivity, you are not likely to save your seeds from last year anymore like you may have done 20 years ago,”  because that would achieve the opposite. The farmer would instead look for the best variety fitting his specific needs.

But innovation goes beyond productivity, he said. For example, “[we need] vegetables that transport better, keep longer on the shelves, taste better, have different colours, different flavours, different textures than what we used to have 20 years ago,” he said. “We want our food to be more nutritional, more healthy and more readily available at low prices,” and all of this needs innovation, he said.

“We find there is still a somewhat romantic view in the public about how to achieve this,” Tokarz said. People picture the farmers selecting the best seeds from the field but it is not like that anymore, he added, as seed plant breeding is a high-tech industry today.

Farmer-saved seeds have long been a bone of contention between farmers and breeders, as the latter claim royalties on saved seeds from original protected varieties while farmers are fighting for the right to save, use and exchange their farm seeds. Seed exchange has also been praised by some as a key factor of agrobiodiversity conservation.

“Like Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs”

Michael Kock, head of intellectual property at Syngenta, said there is a lot of disagreement about the role of intellectual property in the context of agricultural innovation, with some seeing it as an innovation enabler while some others considered it as a disabler.

“One thing is clear,” he said, “IP as such does not feed the world,” but innovation and breeding progress would. However, new plants are not created “in an empty space,” he added. Each new plant is built upon an existing plant and access to genetic diversity and to innovation is key, he said.

“Abandoning IP to foster access to innovation is potentially a very short-sighted solution,” he said. “It is like killing the goose which lays the golden eggs,” with today’s innovations becoming accessible but jeopardising the incentive for future ones.

New plants are high-tech products and developing them is very expensive, time-consuming and risky, he said. However, those products are easy to copy and can be propagated by other breeders, by farmers and even home gardeners, and IP is necessary to protect the incentive to invest and take risk, he added.

Another benefit of the IP system is that it allows the disclosure of innovation, allowing further innovations. The negative perception of IP is based on its use, in particular its use to exclude others and to limit access to innovation, but Syngenta thinks that IP should not translate into an exclusion but rather foster innovation and technology dissemination, and at the same time ensure a fair return on risk-taking and investment, he said.

Open collaboration and open innovation are fundamental drivers for innovation because no single company, regardless of its size, has all the elements together to address the many areas the plant industry needs to address, such as resistance against diseases, drought, or better nutritional value and performance.

Innovation used to be largely driven by individuals and individual companies but today, innovation is driven more by collaboration and integration, and if the IP system is unable to adapt, it may become extinct, he said.

TraitAbility will help breeders obtain licences on a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) basis, said Christine Gould, senior manager for global public policy at Syngenta. The resource is free for academic and non-governmental organisation as long as it is for research purposes, she said.

The system will also help transparency in making public what varieties have patented traits and will alleviate concerns about the freedom to operate, she said. Syngenta is hoping that this initiative will be taken up by more companies and will represent a new way of doing business in the seed industry, she said. TraitAbility is a creative way to leverage the company’s innovations, not by blocking others but by making them more accessible than ever before, she added.

Open Innovation Inevitable but IP System Will Adapt

During a policy debate panel organised later in the day by Syngenta, several speakers commented on open innovation solutions.

Among those speakers, Shaifali Puri, executive director of Scientists without Borders, said the new generation of scientists are not necessarily motivated by IP protection. They were born “digital natives” and some believe that knowledge should not be kept behind closed doors. Young scientists are part of an emerging crystalizing ethos that values notion of democratic dissemination of knowledge and science evolves with the scientists, she said.

In this context of open innovation, Puri said, IP will not be driven by technology but more by a mindset shift. IP will not be viewed from its traditionally defensive posture but rather seen as a wealth of intellectual knowledge generated daily in labs of multilateral corporations and universities which is actually a source of potential untapped value. Institutions which will thrive will see themselves not only possessing the value of their IP but actually value global expertise to mix their own knowledge and resources with that existing value, she said. Some institutions already have opened up their IP to innovation outside of their traditional R&D network, such as patent pools, she added.

Geertrui Van Overwalle, professor at the Centre for Intellectual Property Rights at the University of Leuven, Belgium, said the current IP framework might not have to be changed to accommodate open innovation but actors and stakeholders should tailor and use IP to make it more lenient for open innovation.

Javad Mozafari Hashjin, chairperson of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, speaking through a recorded video message, said the crop production systems of the future should help farmers to achieve more with less.

Innovation and breeding new adapted varieties with high yield and nutritional value becomes key to achieving food security, he said, adding that appropriate policies providing incentive for investing in plant genetic research and breeding are needed. “This is where IP policy becomes a key requirement for food security,” Mozafari Hashjin said. Open innovation systems can contribute to globally accessible and affordable crop technologies.

The treaty recognises innovation made both by farmers, and innovation and research undertaken by breeders through modern science, said Shakeel Bhatti, secretary of the plant treaty.

Luigi Guiarino, senior scientist at the Global Crop Diversity Trust said innovation also needs well-functioning gene banks, which need to be part of innovation, and need support and nurturing. Focusing on the business end of the pipeline can obscure the need for support and innovation at the other end, he said. Gene banks, given the means and support, could do much better to make their content available for breeders, he said.

The concepts presented by the private sector, including the need for high-tech innovations as the unique solution to addressing the challenge of a growing population, has been challenged by a number of civil society groups. In particular they are opposing the use of arable land to produce biofuels, as this is competing with food production, and view patents as a potential risk for food security.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, has also been advocating [pdf] agroecology, in which there is a focus on famers’ knowledge and experimentation rather than techniques delivered “top-down,” and an agricultural system with less chemical inputs.

Catherine Saez may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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  1. […] some way paved the way, or helped create the space, for what Syngenta at any rate is heralding as something of an innovation. And second, because, whether or not there was in fact such a causal link with the ITPGRFA, the […]

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