If we want to look at how IP is shaping agriculture, we first need to understand what IP is, and what it stands for. Intellectual Property is a term that is used to describe the creation of something new, innovative or creative. IP is protected by law in the form of patents, trade marks, designs, copyright and plant breeders’ rights. These forms of protection enable people to benefit from what they have created.
So how does IP fit into the world of agriculture?
Agriculture is all about providing food on the table, but IP is shaping agriculture by promoting the development of healthier, safer and more nutritious foods, and by making the farming process easier, faster and more affordable. Because of IP, farmers can benefit from innovations such as;
- Genetically modified organisms
- Breeding techniques
- Planting techniques
- Improved agricultural and Industrial technologies
- Improved Fertilisers
- Mechanical advancements
- Irrigation advancements
The more our population expands, the more our farmers need to secure global food supply. This can only be done if innovation is promoted in the areas of agricultural practices, biotechnology, crop protection, storage, harvesting and transportation. Innovation drives productivity levels in the agricultural sector. IP will therefore, undoubtedly play an important role in this challenge.
A look into Genetically Modified Organisms
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially altered through genetic engineering. This process creates combinations of plant and animal genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional methods. Genetically modified crops originally provided resistance to pests, diseases, environmental conditions, spoilage and chemical treatments, but eventually improvements were aimed at quality and nutrients. Ultimately, GMOs could be used for the production of pharmaceutical agents, biofuels and bioremediation. Genetically modified crops reduce the use of pesticides which makes them more common to use now than conventionally bred resistant varieties. We need innovation to ensure that there is the right balance between producing more food and sustaining the planet.
Patents: Genetic Engineering
Isolated DNA sequences, proteins to which functions have been ascribed, and other metabolites are usually viewed in patent terms as chemical compounds, much like a new organic drug molecule. The unique sequence of the nucleotides or amino acids may constitute a novel biological molecule (much like a novel chemical molecule) and may thus be patentable.
Patents: Microbiological Processes
South African patent law provides specifically for the patenting of microbiological processes (such as fermentation or brewing) and the products derived therefrom. This would include genetically modified organisms used in such processes, which may also be eligible for patent protection. In addition, the use of a new microbe that one has isolated, purified and cultured is generally considered patentable, provided it can fulfil the patentability requirements.
Plant breeders’ rights : New Varieties
Plant breeders’ rights (PBRs) apply to new plant varieties and protect the propagating material of a plant variety, e.g. seeds, cuttings, graftings etc. A new plant variety must be new, distinct, uniform, stable and have an acceptable denomination (variety name). Once you have registered a plant variety, it becomes your intellectual property. Any individual breeder or breeding institution may apply for a plant breeder’s rights, but foreign breeders can only apply through an agent residing in South Africa.
Regulations in South Africa
GMOs are regulated under the following acts:
- Genetically Modified Organisms Act
- Plant Breeders’ Rights Act
- Plant Improvement Act
- Agricultural Pests Act
Maize, soya bean and cotton are the only GM crops currently grown in South Africa. Strict risk assessments and quality assurances are done at every stage of GMO development and foods containing GMO are labelled in the ingredient list as stipulated by consumer protection regulations. You need a permit if you want to participate in activities relating to genetically modified organisms in South Africa.
Protecting Your IP in Agriculture
Smit & Van Wyk is able to offer advice on patents, trade marks, designs and plant breeders’ rights in the agricultural sector. Please contact us for more information.