FEATURE - Crop king Monsanto seeks pig-breeding patent clout
Reuters , 10 August 2005
By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Mo., Aug 10 (Reuters) - Monsanto Co. (MON.N: Quote, Profile, Research), already a world powerhouse in biotech crops, is shaking up the swine industry with plans to patent pig-breeding techniques and lay claim to the animals born as a result.
Agricultural experts are scrambling to assess how these patents might affect the market, while consumer activists warn that if the company is granted pig-related patents, on top of its tight rein on key feed and food crops, its control over agriculture could be unprecedented.
"We're afraid that Monsanto and other big companies are getting control of the world's genetic resources," said Christoph Then, a patent expert with Greenpeace in Germany.
The patent applications, filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization, are broad in scope, and are expected to take several years and numerous rewrites before approval.
"We applied for a patent ... for some specific reproductive processes in swine," said Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner. "Any pigs that would be produced using this reproductive technique would be covered by these patents."
The practices Monsanto wants to patent basically involve identifying genes that result in desirable traits in swine, breeding animals to achieve those traits and using a specialized device to inseminate sows deeply in a way that uses less sperm than is typically required.
"We've come up with a protocol that wraps a lot of these techniques together," said Monsanto swine molecular breeding expert Mike Lohuis.
St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto says any fears about its work are overblown and the patents are simply a "defensive move" as many players around the world race to find technology to breed bigger and better pigs to meet consumer demands for healthy, tasty and inexpensive pork. Officials say they are not trying to patent pigs per se. They only want the ability to track which pigs come from the Monsanto system.
Still, Greenpeace sees a more sinister motive and last week launched an Internet campaign to quash the patents, spurring hundreds of people to bombard Monsanto executives with e-mailed concerns.
MONSANTO 'HAS INVENTED NOTHING NEW' - CRITICS
More than 110 million hogs are marketed each year in North America, and there are roughly 6 million breeding sows that support that industry.
Currently, the dominant U.S. player in the swine breeding industry is the Pig Improvement Co. unit of British pig breeder Sygen International (SNI.L: Quote, Profile, Research), which holds an estimated 40 percent U.S. market share. Monsanto has an estimated 10-12 percent, obtained when it acquired Dekalb Genetics six years ago.
"We'd like to build a business like theirs," Ron Schinnour, general manager of Monsanto Choice Genetics, said of PIC. "It is an area we have a lot of focus on."
The concerns over Monsanto's patents are two-pronged. One relates to how the patent claims involving the animals themselves would be used. There have been hundreds of animal patents granted over the last several years, including claims on salmon, chimps and mice. But the majority are genetically modified animals used in laboratory research, not common farm animals.
Some fear that Monsanto one day could be filing patent infringement lawsuits against pig farmers. Monsanto already has a track record of suing farmers whose crops contain some of the company's patented genetic plant technology.
"The claims are very unique. It's another incident of Monsanto trying to really push the boundaries," said agricultural patent attorney Heidi Nebel.
Critics also say it is not apparent that Monsanto has actually invented anything new in swine reproduction. They say the company is simply trying to lay claim to a combination of practices already used along with genetic selection that occurs in nature.
"The claims are very broadly sculpted; the question is whether there is anything new here," said Max Rothschild, U.S. Pig Genome Coordinator from Iowa State University, who holds several patents in this area.
Monsanto is best known for its herbicide products and its development and marketing of genetically modified soybeans and corn and other crops that resist insects and make it easier for farmers to fight weeds. Swine industry players say Monsanto has the resources to become a significant force in pork as well.
"They are making a big push," said animal scientist Dan Pomp, co-founder of Gene Seek, a DNA-based service company that contracts with Monsanto and other players for genetic swine testing. "They've built this extensive and strong program to grow that side of their business."