The Presence of Patents in the Agriculture Sector
The agriculture sector and the importance of patents
The agriculture sector, undoubtedly, is one of the largest industries worldwide. The agriculture sector generates over $2.4 trillion for the global economy. Moreover, the global market size of smart agriculture is expected to hit $23.14 billion by 2022. Today, the agriculture sector employs more than one billion people. The demand for agricultural products is rising at an expedited rate and is likely to grow as the world’s population grows. The need to meet this global demand has fueled innovation in the sector. In other words, agricultural innovation is pivotal to feeding a growing global population of over 7.9 billion. Considering the fact that the global population is expected to rise by 50 percent in the coming century, innovative and novel methods to provide adequate food without damaging our ecological systems must be developed. Over the years, an increasing global population has led to the innovation of advanced tools to cultivate and harvest crops, genetically modified seeds that would resist plant diseases while providing improved nutrition, and other biotechnological systems that would ensure the safe cultivation of crops. Patents play an imperative role in protecting the intellectual inventions of scientists and inventors by providing them with an exclusive right. This exclusive right restricts unauthorized entities from copying, manufacturing, or selling an invention. Patents also boost the commercialization of a particular invention. Moreover, licensing the invention to third parties can also lead to financial benefits. Lastly, patents incentivize the creators behind an invention. Such incentives could include recognition as well as monetary benefits. Incentivizing inventors is pivotal since it encourages further innovation, research, and development. Patents have played an important role in the agriculture sector by protecting inventions such as genetically modified seeds, plant varieties, biocides, and biotechnological inventions. Typically, patents that are prevalent in the agriculture sector are referred to as ‘agro patents’.
Advantages and disadvantages of patenting agricultural innovations
The patenting of agricultural inventions comes with both advantages as well as disadvantages. For one, the patenting of agricultural inventions can significantly impact the research and development stage of the technology life cycle. Through monetary incentives and recognition, scientists and innovators would be encouraged to further research on agricultural innovations that would help solve global issues related to food security. On the other hand, exclusive patent licensing of agricultural innovations has been severely criticized by many. This is essentially due to the fact that food security and other issues in the agriculture sector impact the global population and hence, restricting other countries from obtaining technologies that would facilitate and improve food security is considered to be unfair. Several studies have also highlighted that an exclusive patent licensing approach would result in certain producers having a “stronger incentive and grant them more market power”. This can have dire consequences. For one, it may restrict farmers across the world from obtaining such patented technologies. The inability to obtain advanced agricultural technologies would result in reducing benefits to the farmers as well as the consumers. Pertaining to this, Mr. Willem Ruster, who manages the program of sustainability management in agriculture and food at the Wageningen Economic Research Centre notes that “an exclusive patent licensing approach would act as a stronger magnet for private-sector investment and increase the probability of innovation taking place,”
Agriculture and patents in the Indian context
Ensuring food security, improving agricultural research, and fuelling the development of new plant varieties has been an area of concern for the Indian government since time immemorial. Article 27.3 (b) of the TRIPS Agreement elucidates that plant varieties can be protected through patents or a sui generis system, or by a combination of both. Legislations such as the Protections of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act have laid down frameworks to protect plant varieties without violating the rights of breeders, farmers, scientists, and workers in the agriculture sector. A study by the National Institute of Science Communication and Information resources notes that over “250 patents were granted in the area of biocides, pest repellents and plant growth regulators, while rest of the areas accounted for 165 patents. Under this, 59 patents belonged to plant reproduction, new plants or processes for obtaining them, 25 patents in horticulture, cultivation, and forestry, 16 patents in animal husbandry, silk rearing or breeding animals, 14 patents in harvesting and moving followed by medicinal preparation containing materials from plants. 12 patents were awarded to soil works in agriculture or forestry, including agriculture machines or implements. 10 patents in planting, sowing fertilizing; 7 patents in catching, trapping, apparatus for destruction of noxious animals and 4 patents in the processing of harvested produce, devices for storing followed by the manufacture of dairy product patents were granted”. Most agriculture patents in India are owned by organizations such as the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
Agricultural products and methods that are commonly patented
On a global level, several types of methods and products that would increase efficiency in the agriculture sector have been patented. Inventions pertaining to planting, sowing, and fertilization are often granted with patents due to their novelty and industrial applicability. Inventions such as machines for washing and grading seeds, methods used for fertilization, preparation of in-situ compost, animal-driven agricultural apparatus, and sowing devices have been patented in the past. Moreover, inventions that improve and test the quality of the soil have also been patented. Such inventions include digital soil salinity testers, the process for manufacturing a slow-release urea fertilizer by nitrification inhibition, and the preparation of synergistic fertilizers from agricultural waste. Biotechnology plays a pivotal role in the development of seeds and plant varieties that are immune to climatic changes and pests. Often, genetically modified crops can also enhance food security in a particular country. Genetically modified crops are patentable. The biotechnology sector is largely research-driven. Hence, the patenting of genetically modified crops would also help fuel research and development. Research and development in the field of biotechnology are crucial for the creation of new plant varieties and seeds that are resistant to issues that negatively impact food security.