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.

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