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[BEIJING] Patent applications for agricultural innovations, particularly for genetically modified (GM) crops, have surged in China in the past decade, according to intellectual property experts.

Statistics from the China Center for Intellectual Property in Agriculture (CCIPA) show that applications doubled between 2002 and 2008, from 4,500 to 9,300.

The rise is against a backdrop of even greater increases in patent applications in general. China's State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) released a report in early February saying almost one million patent applications across all sectors were filed in 2009, an 18 per cent increase from 2008.

"These figures indicate clearly that China's innovation bodies have maintained originality despite the unfavourable financial crisis and that China has improved substantially its capacity for protecting intellectual property rights," Tian Lipu, SIPO commissioner, told a press conference.

The trend is echoed in a World Intellectual Property Organization report, also released last month (8 February), which puts China fifth among countries signed up to the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) — an agreement by which patents can be simultaneously lodged in different countries. Chinese applications under the PCT increased by a third between 2008 and 2009, representing almost 7,800 extra international applications. 

Agricultural innovations in areas such as GM crops have rapidly increased in number over the past decade, said CCIPA researcher Liu Lijun. GM crop applications stood at 342 last year, compared with 119 in 2002.

And these innovations have been applied across the country. In 2008, around four million hectares of transgenic cotton were planted in the country, accounting for 70 per cent of China's cotton land.

Other examples of agricultural technologies for which patents are being requested include herbicides, synthetic plant hormones and new planting technologies such as hydroponics.

But there is concern among Chinese researchers that the country's agricultural patenting is largely restricted to within China.

In 2008, China applied for no more than 20 plant variety rights in Japan, the European Union and the United States. In contrast, international biotechnology companies have stepped up their applications in China.

For example, German-based chemical company BASF submitted more than 500 applications to the country between 1985 and 2009.

"Intellectual property rights have not played a sufficient role in the development of agriculture in China," Song Min, a researcher with CCIPA, told SciDev.Net, adding that IPR awareness in the agricultural sector is still weak and guiding policies should be improved.

Song suggested that China accelerate its development of core agricultural technologies and lodge more applications on an international level to compete with major international companies like Monsanto and Syngenta