BEEF producers have launched high level legal proceedings to halt a brazen bid by North American giants Cargill USA and Branhaven LLC to patent established cattle genetic selection techniques.
The granting of a broad Australian patent covering cattle selection methods that include genomic information will add significant costs to both ongoing research in the field and industry uptake of the game-changing technology, according to producer and science leaders.
Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), on behalf of producer levy payers, will appeal the decision by the Australian Patent Office (APO) in the Federal Court of Australia, with a hearing date set for 2017.
MLA’s managing director Richard Norton reported on the legal battle at the organisations’ annual general meeting this month in South Australia, saying if allowed to proceed to grant, the Cargill/Branhaven patent would affect the use of most DNA-associated genetic tests in the industry.
Leading cattle genetics researcher Professor Heather Burrow, from the University of New England at Armidale, said Australia and the US had collaboratively led the way with genomics research in cattle.
Prof Burrow is the former chief executive officer of Beef CRC, where beef genomics research began more than 20 years ago using cattle measurements that today underpins Australia’s world-leading quality assurance program Meat Standards Australia.
She said in five to ten years, it should be cost effective to test every seedstock and commercial animal in Australia as early as possible in life and to match the animal’s genomic information with the requirements of the most lucrative, premium beef markets.
“If genomic information can be routinely linked with NLIS (National Livestock Identification System) tags, this would provide the mechanism for feedlotters, processors and retailers to target those animals early in life and to provide incentives for producers to manage production to meet high-end market requirements,” she said.
That adds up to the most professional, elite, efficient and profitable beef industry possible.
“Australia is the only country in the world capable, at the moment, of setting up a value chain like that - totally focused on profitably and efficiency,” Prof Burrow said.
“The reason for that is we have NLIS, we have MSA that enables our producers to guarantee beef eating quality for both domestic and international consumers and we also have the genomic results that have been, and continue to be, delivered in direct collaboration with the best researchers in the world.
“This represents the core of science underpinning value based marketing and Australia’s efforts to target premium beef markets.
“Researchers have been deliberately targeting meat eating quality for the past 20 to 30 years in recognition of the fact Australia is an export-orientated beef producer and does not have the cattle numbers to compete on volume.”
Prof Burrow said it currently costs on average around $50 for an animal to be DNA-tested, with high-density SNP (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism or DNA marker) panels and full genome sequence costing up to $1000.
However, research is ongoing to create lower density marker panels that will make it cost-effective for application in commercial as well as seedstock cattle.
What the patent will mean, if not revoked, is that Cargill USA and Branhaven can charge a licence fee for anybody using the 2500 odd SNPs included in its patent bid.
That will significantly increase the cost of testing for both industry application and research.
Prof Burrow said to achieve the full benefit of the technology, and provide through-chain incentives, as many animals as possible should be tested.
Where she sees an even larger impact of the patent, however, is in developing countries, where genomics has the ability to, in effect, skip a level of technology in livestock breeding and management.
“This has occurred, for example in many African countries where availability of mobile phones means there is no longer a need to establish land-line communication systems,” she said.
“At the moment, this patent application is only for Australia but its success here would encourage broader application – and it would definitely impact on the current research collaborations between Australia and several African countries.
“If applied in African countries, the patent would mean research is no longer feasible and application would probably need to be deferred until the patent expired. That would have a big effect on global food security.”
Researchers have expressed astonishment at the APO’s awarding of the patent in May on two grounds.
Firstly, the approval to patent DNA markers which, in the case of human breast cancer genes, Australia’s High Court deemed could not be patented because they are “naturally occurring variants” rather than inventive discoveries.
Secondly, because the horse has already bolted since the application of genomic SNPs in conjunction with trait information has been ongoing in beef and dairy cattle in Australia for the past 10 to 15 years.
“This would make it very difficult to retrospectively enforce the application of the patent through genomic selection in Australia or other countries,” Prof Burrow said.