In the quest for a more sustainable future, especially in response to the pressing issues of climate change and global population growth, innovative agri-tech and food technologies have never been more important.
In this environment, Australia is well placed to leverage its capacity for innovation and technology as well as its traditional advantages in the food production market, to lead the pack. The 2022 Protein Roadmap just unveiled by Australia’s National Science Agency, CSIRO, seeks to outline a plan for Australia to unlock technology-led growth to achieve this.
As the roadmap notes, by 2050 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 60% more food will be needed to feed the world’s population. Protein is a key part of the human diet. Australia’s total protein sector is already worth $56 billion a year, and CSIRO puts a conservative estimate of the sector’s value in 2030 at $79 billion. CSIRO’s goal is to add $13 billion in value to this estimate through science and technology-driven opportunities in ten key areas, which cover adding value in existing and mature protein industries such as red meat, the further development of plant-based protein ingredients and products, and the development of new opportunities such as insect protein sources for human and animal nutrition, the use of precision fermentation and cultured meats. The roadmap also notes other emerging opportunities for protein derived from a variety of other sources, including airborne protein, plastic, fungal protein, microalgae protein ingredients, and cell culture milk.
CSIRO’s call to action is timely, given the reported impact of the COVID pandemic on global food security and, in recent weeks, the fallout on fertilizer component exports from Russia. The diversification of food sources from the five animals and twelve plants that, according to CSIRO, currently provide 70% of the world’s food seems overdue.
One of the main drivers of innovation in this sector will be patent protection. For example, in a meat substitute patent analysis report published by IP Australia in 2020, 30 patent families had been filed in Australia in this area, but none were identified as originating from here. If Australia is to become a leader in “protein technology”, Australian innovators should also lead the pack in terms of patented innovation.
One issue that may raise concern in the field of food technology is the extent to which natural products or materials of natural origin can be patented. Much publicity accompanied the High Court’s decision in D’Arcy against Myriad Genetics inc  HCA 35 (Myriad) that an isolated nucleic acid sequence encoding the BRCA1 mutant polypeptide was not patentable. However, the Myriad decision was subsequently interpreted narrowly and limited to isolated nucleic acid sequences. In Meat & Livestock Australia Ltd v Cargill, Inc  CIF 51 (Meat & Livestock), the Federal Court reviewed the patentability of a claimed invention of a method of identifying bovine traits from a nucleic acid sample. The method effectively correlated a genetic marker with a particular trait, to facilitate breeding activities. The Federal Court rejected the argument, analogous to Myriad, that the claim simply discerned the existence of a trait from the information contained in the nucleic acid sample. The claims did not cover the markers present in the nucleic acid samples or their association with certain traits in itself. Rather, it was a convenient method of collecting a sample to be used for practical purposes. In the end, the judge concluded that the invention fell within the “basic concept” of patentability. Interestingly, this finding also extended to a claim for a cloned cow resulting from an associated cloning method.
To the extent that genetic science is involved in protein technology, there are likely ways to patent new inventions. More generally, Meat & Livestock indicates that methods which lead to economically useful products or results may have a good chance of being patentable. Of course, the development of new foods, through methods involving human intervention such as genetic engineering, cell culture, or fermentation, will likely be on even safer patent ground.
Given the prospects for successful patenting of innovative new technologies in food technology, it is to be hoped that innovators will seize this opportunity to protect their research and development investments, and that this will drive growth and innovation in the sector. With this in mind, one measure of the success of the CSIRO roadmap could be the changing patent landscape in food technology and the extent to which patents in Australia and around the world reflect greater Australian activity. in the field.