Participants at the Fleuroselect Conference in Ratingen, Germany, agreed that properly protecting intellectual property rights is essential to sustain breeding, but that plant gene patents may endanger the available commercial varieties, resources for small breeders.
The unclear technical terms in laws relating to plant gene patents have made it difficult for breeders to know exactly where they stand, said Fleuroselct breeders' business unit vice-chair Marise Borja.
"Part of the problem is that laws, especially at a European level, are quite imprecise, which means they might be difficult to apply. Sometimes it is just an issue of misinterpretation. If you open a conference or you have a debate, a lot of the ideas get clarified," she added.
The conference was aimed at educating breeders in the face of widely divergent views presented in position papers submitted by the Dutch breeders' organisation defending breeders' rights and a federation of plant science companies that favours patent law that excludes the breeders' exemption concept.
The solution to these conflicts could be much more specific patents that, for example, cover a specific gene in a specific type of plant.
This would allow breeders to work on producing other varieties with the same gene without getting permission or paying royalties.
Another issue, said Borja, was the need for more technical knowledge of the plant breeding industry in the European patent office.
She said Fleuroselct was happy to provide help to patent offices but they would not be seeking changes to the law due to the long-term and costly nature of the process.
The cost of legal proceedings in the face of an increasing number of patents was another key issue.
The conference heard that most companies would be willing to grant licences and that gentlemen's agreements could help solve any disputes.
Breeders were told that the cost of lawyers fees need not be prohibitive because letters addressed to the relevant patent office could be an effective way of challenging generalised or unfair patents.
British breeder David Kerley, who attended the conference, said: "We were anxious not to breed plants where the genes were patented and we didn't know what the law said so didn't understand what we could and couldn't do. The conference helped give us a better understanding of where we stand."
The two-day event brought together 40 scientists, lawyers and members of the ornamental plant breeding industry.