The leading cases concerning the interpretation of the exclusion from patentability of essentially biological processes for the production of plants are the consolidated cases G 2/07 (OJ 2012, 130) and G 1/08 (OJ 2012, 206) ruling on the referral in T 83/05 of 22 May 2007 (OJ 2007, 644) relating to a method of obtaining particular broccoli lines and on that in T 1242/06 of 4 April 2008 (OJ 2008, 523) relating to a method of breeding tomato plants which produce tomatoes with reduced fruit water content.
The Enlarged Board of Appeal found, first of all, that the exception applying to "essentially biological processes for the production of plants" could not be read as limited to processes for the production of plant varieties, because such an interpretation would be contrary to the wording.
After rejecting a series of possible approaches to the interpretation of the exclusion, the Enlarged Board concluded that a non‑microbiological process for the production of plants which contains or consists of the steps of sexually crossing the whole genomes and of subsequently selecting plants is "essentially biological" within the meaning of Art. 53(b) EPC. Such a process does not escape the exception to patentability merely because it contains, as a further step or as part of any of the steps of crossing and selection, a step of a technical nature which serves to enable or assist performance of the steps of sexually crossing the whole genomes of plants or of subsequently selecting plants.
This outcome was largely based on the Enlarged Board's findings with regard to the legislative history of the Strasbourg Patent Convention and the EPC 1973. The legislator's intention, it found, had been to exclude from patentability those plant breeding processes which were the conventional methods of plant-variety breeding at the time. These conventional methods included, in particular, those based on the sexual crossing of plants (i.e. of their whole genomes) deemed suitable for the purpose pursued and on the subsequent selection of the plants having the desired trait(s). It could also be gathered from the legislative history that the mere use of a technical device in a breeding process was not to be considered sufficient to lend the process itself a technical character.
The Enlarged Board distinguished such processes from those which left the realm of plant breeding. It cited R. 27(c) EPC, which expressly provides that biotechnological inventions are also patentable if they concern a microbiological or other technical process, so that the excluded essentially biological processes are juxtaposed with the patentable technical processes. The exception to patentability under Art. 53(b) EPC does not exclude a process of sexual crossing and selection which includes within it an additional step of a technical nature, which step by itself introduces a trait into the genome or modifies a trait in the genome of the plant produced, so that the introduction or modification of that trait is not the result of the mixing of the genes of the plants chosen for sexual crossing. In the context of examining whether such a process is excluded from patentability as being "essentially biological" within the meaning of Art. 53(b) EPC, it is not relevant whether a step of a technical nature is a new or known measure, whether it is trivial or a fundamental alteration of a known process, whether it does or could occur in nature or whether the essence of the invention lies in it.
Ultimately, this means that, while the presence in a claim of one feature which could be characterised as biological does not necessarily result in exclusion of the claimed process as a whole under Art. 53(b) EPC, the same does not apply where the process includes sexual crossing and selection.