The Saga of Agricultural Biotechnology Patents

Agricultural biotechnology research is characterised by developing genetically engineered plants that have huge impact on global food production and seed industry. Research in this sector consolidated since 1990s and attracted massive investments for R&D across several major private sector companies, public funded research laboratories and universities. Such a phenomenal technical change is not possible without path-breaking innovations at all levels evidenced by growing number of patents in agricultural biotechnology.

In fact, patent applications with USPTO increased exponentially, and their concentration in the hands of a few corporations was quickly observed as a major innovation policy challenge and dubbed “the problem of the anticommons”. Many scientists began to realize, at least in the initial phase of these developments that they could not commercialize products that relied on intellectual properties patented by private firms. Nonetheless, industry responded by aggressively consolidating, so that enabling intellectual properties were owned by the same company, which could then move forward with the commercialization of new agricultural technologies. A record number of mergers and acquisitions to integrate the biotechnology and seed industries eventually followed.

Patents have generally been recognized as a measure of innovative activity in different technological fields since by definition patents are related to inventiveness; the area of genetic modification of plants, however, poses a challenge to relate the raw patent data with commercial technology. Different aspects of research, for example, genetic constructs, transformation tools as well as utility patents of genetically modified plants all contribute to this field. It is important to segregate relevant patents in each segment discarding millions of other unrelated patents often appearing through key-word search. Additionally, a clear understanding of the underlying facts and inputs in the innovation process in this sector is necessary to gain appropriate insight into the relationship between patents and other inputs within the framework of economic policies and regulatory processes leading to commercialisation of new technologies.

Fortunately, this arduous task has already been simplified by a consortium of university and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers by filtering the USPTO database to create a database of agricultural biotechnology patents. The filtered database is publicly available at In this scheme, the consortium identified a total of 11,740 agricultural biotechnology patents out of a staggering number of 130,000 possible patents. These patents have been classified into seven main technology headings and 58 sub-technologies that are designed to be research friendly. The new database is searchable by entity (organization), entity type, technology heading, and technology subheading.

There are two other databases that could be examined in conjunction with the above mentioned refined patent database. These are:

i) APHIS field trail database and

ii) APHIS database of deregulated crops at (ISB, 2005a).

As with the field trial data, this database contains information on petitioning firm and crop characteristics (including genetic modification) and constitutes a complete census of all deregulated crops.

APHIS field trial data, available at is the outcome of mandatory permission obtained by the private sector firms from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The available field trial data can be disaggregated by firm, crop, gene (e.g., Cry1Ac or Cry2A) phenotype characteristics (e.g., insect resistance or herbicide tolerance), and several other variables.

APHIS database of deregulated crops at at is the outcome of the permission obtained by private sector firms from APHIS for deregulation at the end of field trial of GMOs immediately before large scale commercialization. As with the field trial data, this database is also searchable on petitioning firm, crop characteristics (including genetic modification) etc.

An excellent treatment to some of the issues described above along with a framework of innovation model has been provided in the paper mentioned at the end of this article that can be downloaded for detailed study. Some of the key findings reported in this paper are given here under.

       Figure 1 Figure 2

                                    Fig. 1                          Fig. 2

       Figure 3 Figure 4

                                    Fig. 3                          Fig. 4

Figure 1 and Figure 2 (above) show the number of firms who went for field trails and deregulation respectively during 1992 to 2004. These numbers reflect the number of companies reaching to the final stages of research immediately prior to putting the new technologies in market for public use. Figure 3 shows the corresponding growth in patents in this field since 1976 to the year 2000 which is a cumulative trend of patents on all related aspects together by all participating firms in this field.

Figure 4 that show the patent growth trends by different technological categories between 1975 till 2000 is quite instructive. It depicts clearly that two areas, ‘genetic transformation’ and ‘plant technologies’ received maximum attention within the range of different aspects of technological research during the period 1996-2000 which was also true for the period between 1991 and 1995 but to a lesser extent. The period between 1976 and 1980 saw maximum research on ‘metabolic pathways and biological processes in plants’ that continued to receive equal attention in subsequent five year period as well. During 1981 and 1985, other areas also grew in importance, viz., protect, nutrition and biological control of plants, genetic transformation, patented organisms, plant technologies, pharmaceuticals and genomics. All these areas grew further in importance during subsequent five years. However, the real turning point came in after 1996 when genetic transformation and plant technologies received maximum attention duly supported by the growth in patents, field trials and deregulation statistics and the picture was fully consolidated by 2000.

It is evident that as the technology developed, patenting become increasingly widespread in every major area of agricultural biotechnology. Every successive five-year period has seen more patented innovation than the last period-in every technology. This phase of heavy concentration of patents on different aspects of agricultural biotechnology research by different companies in a competitive seed and plant industry was accompanied by ‘mergers and acquisitions (M&A)’ events leading to control of a better portfolio of biotech patents in the hands of survivor companies. Interesting insight on policy aspects and data on the M&A events is presented in the paper quoted below on the basis of which this article has been prepared.

The original article may be downloaded here – a ‘must read’ article for scholars of ‘innovation’ and ‘policy research’.

Innovation and Dynamic Efficiency in Plant Biotechnology: An Introduction to the Researchable Issues; Carl Pray, James F. Oehmke & Anwar Naseem, The Journal of Agro Biotechnology Management & Economics, Vol. 8, No. 2&3, Article 1, 2005