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The battle to protect Australia’s cattle genetic identity

Most Australians would probably not expect an issue about patents to be a BBQ stopper. Well things could soon change.

Yesterday Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) announced it had lodged an appeal in the Federal Court of Australia against the decision of IP Australia to grant a broad patent – Australian Patent Application No: 2010202253 – to Cargill USA and gene-tech investment firm Branhaven.  The patent covers standard cattle genetic selection techniques.

So what is a patent and why all the fuss?

IP Australia’s website says that a patent is “a right granted for any advice, substance, method or process that is new, innovative and useful.” It means that the owner of the patent has the right to exploit the invention for commercial gain. It also gives them the right to stop other people from using it. It places the owner in a monopoly position on when the invention can be used and by who.

Patents can be and have been good things. Thomas Edison patented the light bulb and went on to found General Electric, employing 100,000s of people around the world. The cochlear implant and the bionic eye are world famous Australian inventions patented and commercialised here.  Other Australian inventions such as the refrigerator, the electric drill, the electronic pacemaker, the ultrasound, the black box flight recorder and Wi-Fi were at least commercialised although sadly the benefits realised overseas.

The decision  by IP Australia to grant the patent to Cargill USA and Branhaven does not bode well for the Australian cattle industry. It essentially means that if any Australian commercial cattle breeders want to use the patent they would have to pay Cargill and Branhaven a royalty or license fee.  The size and nature of this fee is unknown but could be significant and a barrier to investment and research.

MLA’s beef is that the patent covers “general discoveries of nature” in cattle research.  Jed Matz, Chief Executive Officer of Cattle Council of Australia, the peak body representing cattle producers says his members are worried that the patent is so broad in nature that it will affect pretty much all production traits like disease resistance, improved fertility, and marbling. “Snip” the DNA and cattle producers may face paying big fees to an overseas multinational.

If the patent is allowed to stand the Managing Director of MLA, Richard Norton says that it will “discourage or hamper industry research into understanding the natural genetic makeup of cattle and the continued progress of Australia’s national genetic improvement programs.” Jed Matz says that Cattle Council is backing the appeal “because we want to make sure that our cattle industry continues to have as much control over research and development into Australian beef genetics and genomics as possible.”

The application could be viewed as an effective IP takeover bid for Australian cattle genetics – genetics that make the Australian cattle sector a world leader in herd and genetic improvement. It would not be a good outcome for farmers if the patent could potentially apply to the entire Australian bovine genome. It ultimately could mean Australia losing competitive advantages, market share and quality control of its own cattle herd.

We here at Australian Farmers stand 100% behind MLA in its battle to protect Australia’s cattle genetic identity. We intend to follow the legal process closely and report back here regularly.

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