Barley Battle Brews

Goldgelbes Weizenfeld
Barley patents are leaving a bad taste in German brewers' mouths. Source: Arno Burgi/DPA

Gottfried Härle is a fourth-generation brewer at a mid-sized family business in a picturesque region near the German Alps. And he is furious. “What’s happening is an outrage,” he fumes.

Mr. Härle is referring to two giant brewers, Denmark’s Carlsberg and the Netherlands’ Heineken, which appear to have filed successful patents for two mutations of barley. Plants and seeds can be patented if scientists genetically change them.

Barley is one of the key ingredients in beer, and if some strains of it become patented, Härle fears, small brewers will become dependent on the giants. “Either my farmers stop getting some kinds of barley or I end up paying royalties to patent owners.”

The issue concerns others as well. “When patents on barley and the beer derived from it become possible, then the privatization of wheat and rye is not far behind,” warns Harald Ebner, a Green Party member of the German Bundestag who is an agriculture expert. The Munich-based European Patent Office (EPO) already has around 230 patents on plants. Monsanto, an American agrochemical giant that Germany’s Bayer plans to buy, has a patent on an especially nutritious type of broccoli. Syngenta, a Swiss giant, owns the rights to a superior kind of tomato.

But not everyone perceives a threat to Germany’s brewers. This is, after all, a country that has prided itself on its brewing tradition for more than 500 years, since its famous Reinheitsgebot (“purity law”) was introduced in 1516. It said that beer must only be made from water, hops and barley – later, yeast was allowed as a fourth ingredient. Today, 1,400 breweries in Germany, many of them family-owned, create a wide variety of beers. One differentiator between breweries is the strain of barley they use.

This is where genetic engineering becomes relevant. Patents on genomes that have been deliberately altered in a lab are nothing new. But so far, the German government and the European Commission have said that genetic mutations that occur naturally cannot be patented. Sometimes these natural mutations can be created with technology, and that’s what Carlsberg, Heineken, Monsanto and Bayer are now using as a backdoor to patent naturally occurring plant variants.

“Patents on seeds mean an end to the variety of German beers.”

Franz Ehrnsperger, Brewer

The EPO has received 830 such applications in recent years, and approved 80. “In effect, the EPO is fulfilling demands from industry by declaring that plants and animals are patentable if genetic characteristics are described in detail in the patents, no matter how these were achieved,” says Christoph Then, spokesperson for No Patents on Seeds, an initiative from European organizations including Greenpeace and Swissaid.

“Random mutations are no inventions,” concurs Lara Dovifat from the organization Campact, while demonstrating at a rally outside the patent office in June. “No one should be allowed to own patents on food plants, no matter if it is barley, rice or wheat.”

In reply to a question from Handelsblatt Global, Heineken explained that it would make patented barley traits such as the one it recently filed available to all interested breeders, maltsters and brewers “against a small fee customary in the trade, in range of €1-2 per tonne of commodity barley.” There are arguments for allowing these kinds of patents. After all, they are improvements that companies have invested capital to create, and firms need a return on their investment to keep innovating.

But that won’t convince Germany’s many small brewers, who like to point to neighboring France as a warning. There, huge brewers dominate the market, with only two basic kinds of barley and little diversity in taste. This is a horrible thought to Franz Ehrnsperger, another brewer, whose family firm is in Bavaria. “Patents on seeds,” he says, “mean an end to the variety of German beers.”


This article originally appeared in Handelsblatt’s sister publication, business weekly WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the authors:

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