By Laurence Peter
German pig breeders want to limit the scope of biotech patents
Pig farmers and green campaigners in southern Germany have urged the withdrawal of a patent for a genetic technique used to breed meatier pigs.
The pig breeders fear they might have to pay royalties to a US biotech firm in future if the patent is upheld.
They demonstrated outside the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich on Wednesday, on the eve of a deadline for objections to the patent.
The EPO granted the patent nine months ago, but will now study the objections.
The patent application was filed in 2005 by Monsanto, which sold its pig-breeding technology to another US biotech firm, Newsham Genetics, in 2007.
In a statement, Monsanto said the sale "included any and all swine-related patents, patent applications, and all other intellectual property [relating to pigs]".
A spokesman for the EPO, Rainer Osterwalder, said the existing patent "is in force until there is a decision to revoke it".
The patent covers a breeding process that relies on a genetic marker for selecting pigs that fatten quickly and produce juicier meat. The particular gene is found only in certain pigs.
National rules apply
Mr Osterwalder said the EPO had narrowed the scope of the patent, so that it related only to the firm's scientific method, but not the pig itself, the gene sequence or the kit used for selection.
Biotech firms' activities are a major political issue in Bavaria
"It's normal to pay royalties for using a test," he told BBC News. "The question is - how far does the breeder's right go in using the test?"
The EPO grants patents in line with EU rules, but all the consequences fall under national law, he said. So the rules for pig breeders in the UK may well differ from those in Germany or other EU states.
Mr Osterwalder stressed that a breeder would not have to pay royalties if his pigs had the same genetic trait as that described in the patent, because the gene itself was not patented.
There are about 20 objections to the patent, he said, and an expert panel will assess them.
Bavaria's Environment Minister Markus Soeder has called for a ban on genetic patents for animals and plants.
On Tuesday, German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner - like Mr Soeder a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) - said Germany would ban Monsanto's genetically modified (GM) maize, called MON 810.
Since the EPO was created in 1977 it has received almost 200 patent applications for marker-assisted breeding of animals, Mr Osterwalder said. It has granted about 30 of them, but many are still pending. About half are American applications and half European.
The spokesman said that in Europe a firm can patent an animal only if it is transgenic - that is, an animal with an artificially modified gene.
Gene sequences can be patented only if they have an industrial application and only if they have not been made public before.