In a move which has shocked cattle researchers and breeders, two American companies are trying to patent the bovine genome in Australia.
Meat and Livestock Australia has lodged action in the Federal Court against the Australian Patent office for granting the patent to Cargill and Branhaven.
Researchers fear it could spread to other livestock research.
Livestock Professor Rob Banks, said he was appalled that a private company could be granted rights over genes that had been publicly available since the 1980s.
“It’s completely and utterly indefensible,” he said
“People all over the world, and here in Australia who work on sheep, cattle and other livestock, are using a method published in about 2001, using DNA information to help the existing genetic improvement systems, like BreedPlan and LambPlan.
“Yet we’ve got this piece of Intellectual Property that was sitting on the shelf, and a claim from some company, coming in after the event,” Professor Banks said.
“It’s really hard to fathom how it could be granted (by the Australian Patent Office).”
Professor Banks is director of the Animal Genetics Breeding Unit, AGBU at the University of New England, with funding from cattle and sheep producers through Meat and Livestock Australia.
Cargill and Branhaven’s bid to patent the cattle genome is reminiscent of the bid to patent the human genome, in particular the BRCA ovarian and breast cancer genes.
In 2013 the Supreme Court in the USA ruled against the patent stating the “DNA were a product of nature.”
He said this patent bid was extraordinarily broad, and would add tens of thousands of dollars in licencing costs to all research each year.
“The patent is so broad you could drive a fleet of trucks through it, it’s astonishing.
“It’s so general, it’s almost like saying ‘Oh we’ll use something about DNA to work out which animals are the best,’ but we’ve been doing that for decades.”
MLA and CSIRO have also been fighting another genomic patent, by a Victorian Government subsidiary company Agriculture Victoria Services Pty Ltd.
MLA is concerned that “Cargill USA and Branhaven have licensed only a handful of commercial operators to provide those services on the payment of royalties.”
Australia’s cattle research has produced far reaching results, using both conventional and hi-tech genomic selection.
“AGBU and others have helped increase the growth rate of cattle really significantly, so animals are about 50 per cent heavier at the same age than 25 or 30 years ago,” Professor Banks said.
“We’re seeing really significant advancements in marbling and eating quality of beef.
“Cattle are getting more fertile, and exciting things are coming on stream for Northern Australian cattle.”
He said a patent would affect future improvements in productivity, efficiency and increasingly in animal health.
Stud breeder uses genomics testing
Angus stud owner at Holbrook NSW Lucinda Corrigan uses the expensive genomic testing .
“We’ve been heading to America for the last couple of years to an international conference to understand what genomics is offering, and we decided to push the go button!” Ms Corrigan said.
“We’re testing all our calves, about 1,200 tests a year, and that’s expensive, about $65 a test, for the i50K test; 50,000 pieces of data.
“We feel the test should be getting cheaper not more expensive.”
The Corrigan’s Rennylea stud is keen to get a picture of the hard to measure traits when it is just a calf like feed efficiency on grass and grain, carcass traits of tenderness, marbling and muscle, plus the fertility.
“Can we select animals more efficiently in the first 6 months of life, by taking a hair sample versus waiting until they’re 3,4 or 5 years of age?
“The danger is the test may be restricted,we mightn’t have access to the full scale of DNA tests and we may have to pay a licence to a global company when it’s been in the public domain for the last 20 years.
“It’s a very wide claim, the way of calculating the genetic parameters from the genomics technology, and Australian scientists have been contributing to that just as much as elsewhere, we have some world leading research here.
National interest test for patents
Queensland Senator Barry O’Sullivan is angered by the patent and plans to move for a Senate inquiry to investigate patents of naturally occurring genes.
“We have a multi-national corporation Cargill USA, every benefit that flows from this will go back to the US, so there’s nothing in this for Australia, they’ll just come to our patent office and patent a naturally occurring gene.”
“We export 70 per cent of our beef products, and we have to produce the highest quality beef in the world,
“It has the potential to affect about half a million research projects into the future.
“There has to be a national interest test and ask ourselves, why the Australian patent office would issue a patent would give a complete advantage to a non-Australian company that would affect one of our biggest industries.”