It's already common in tech-industry that some company claims a perfectly ordinary computer routine (like clicking your mouse on an icon) as one of their inventions. Patented here and there in various parts of the world. Patenting itself is not so difficult. In the US it happens without a thought. The difficulty comes when you start sending letters to other companies demanding money for your invention. Then you are immediately facing a court battle. The outcome of that determines whether you can make actually money out of your invention or not. It goes without saying that you need deep pockets to make your claim stick. As a small inventor you need the backing of bigger brother and you are probably happy to sell it for thousands even when big brother will make millions.
Enter the patent trolls! These are companies that skim the market for inventions. They usually have some hollow technical names, but patent trolls don't produce anything substantial. You might not think highly of either google, apple or microsoft, but those companies at least produce something (tablet, phone, game console, software) that makes us happy. The trolls don't. Nothing ever left their offices but legal mumbo jumbo with the smell of a hold-up.
Now that I have described to you what a patent troll is, it is easier to explain why it is so serious that their kind is spreading to other areas of technology. In this case agriculture! Agriculture, you say? I don't blame when you start rolling your eyes. Agriculture is quite basic isn't it? Something we know how to do for millenia. How can that be patented?
The truth is that innovations are still made. We breed varieties, we test varieties under different conditions. We try to modify the genes so that the vegetables become more resistant to certain diseases etc. In other words, we try to invent something new all the time. It is perfectly normal that the inventors want money for their inventions, so we submit those inventions to the European Patent Office (EPO). This is not problem. The problem comes when patent trolls enter the market. They are claiming that some normal properties of plants are their inventions!
According to a Dutch MOT-like program called Zembla large companies file more and more patents on natural properties of ordinary vegetables, like broccoli. The 10 largest vegetable seed companies in the world have at the moment 19 patents on natural properties of vegetables. 132 patents are waiting for approval from the European Patent Office, reports Zembla.
The patents can be used to monopolize a vegetable market and to block free access to vegetable materials (like seeds). This will put a strangle hold on ordinary farmers. Zembla notes that the US multinational Monsanto, a leader in genetically modified crops, currently holds 5 patents on vegetables. Furthermore they have 60 pending patents (nearly half of all filed). The Swiss company Syngenta currently holds 4 patents on vegetables, and has 26 applications pending. The largest Dutch vegetable seed company "Rijk Zwaan" has 3 patents and 25 applications pending.
Their response is the hallmark of a true patent troll. Fortunately, we consumers have also some power. For one to stay informed. To buy or not to buy, and last but not least to push our politicians to do something about it. After all they make the laws and determine what is legal.