Agricultural research is increasingly in the hands of private companies, and patent restrictions are blocking the free exchange of seed and technology. Research in public institutions is being delayed or abandoned, raising fears that crop development for poor countries will be neglected. Angela Ryan reports.
In the United States, about 45% of plant breeders at universities said they had trouble getting seeds from private companies needed for their research. Dr Samuel H Smith, the former president of Washington State University said "the things that give us a safe and healthy food supply are slowly being eroding - it's a slow death!"
Companies are focussing on genetic engineering because it is easier to protect engineered crops with patents. But it is uncertain if biotechnology will improve crop output the way classical breeding has. "I am worried we are getting off the proven thoroughbred too quickly to get on a highly decorated donkey," said Dr Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Concern heightened in January when two companies announced they had determined the genetic code of rice, years ahead of the government effort (see "Syngenta Takes Over Rice Genome", ISIS News 7/8). Dr Rod Wing of Clemson University asked, "how can a company own the most important food crop in the world? In Asia rice is like a religion. To own a religion? Can you do that? I don't think so!"
According to the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, growth in public spending on farm research has slowed significantly. In industrial countries, public spending has been growing 1.8% per year whilst private spending is growing 5% annually. The US dept of Agriculture's research budget has barely moved in real terms for two decades. In the US, private research spending surpassed public in the early 80s and the gap has since continued to widen. By 1994, two thirds of American plant breeding was in private hands. Britain has privatized some government agricultural research centers and some developing countries have cut spending.
"Plant breeders in the pubic sector have essentially vanished", says Dr William F Tracy, professor of agronomy at University of Wisconsin. The biggest worry is that improving crops for the developing world will falter due to low profit potential, as with drugs.
In some cases, companies allow academic scientists to use their technology in return for commercial rights to all results. Companies are "capturing the output of public sector research" said Dr Gary Toenniessen, director of food security at Rockerfeller Foundation.
One major university in the US has just completed an internal audit, which recommends it runs a check of the US Patents and Trademarks Office (PTO) databases to identify whether any employee has filed patents independently of the University. It is looking for a company that would be able to carry out such analysis.
As companies and universities patent improved varieties, developing nations are becoming increasingly reluctant to share seeds. Barley from Ethiopia imparted virus resistance to California's crop in the 1950s without compensation. Such free gifts are set to become a thing of the past.
Meanwhile at the biotechnology building of the USPTO, new patent applications are falling off shelves, piled into corners and crowding every desk. Companies are going mad to win patents, seen as the new American gold rush. The government has no control over whether patents are hoarded or shared. Arthur Caplan, who serves on the ethical advisory board of Celera, says "we have this space shuttle biotech but its navigation system is Santa Maria level in terms of ethics".
For instance, some governments and civil society groups mistakenly assume that the threat of "Terminator" is gone. But Syngenta, the world's largest agribusiness controls at least six terminator patents and a host of new patents on GM plants with defective immune systems, which may force chemical dependencies in agriculture and farmers into bio-serfdom. Products developed under these patents are moving closer to commercialization.
Relationships between the PTO and industry are becoming increasingly incestuous. According to Peter DiMauro, a former patent examiner, many people who work at the PTO "use it as a way station, until snatched up by industry". In addition, the PTO hosts quarterly talks inside its headquarters with industry to discuss patenting policy. These sessions are described in the PTO's corporate plan as "focus sessions with customers to determine their needs and expectations".
The PTO collects its budget solely through application fees. It was recently designated as one of the only two "performance-based" government organizations. "Like any other business that wants to be competitive in the 21st century marketplace, we recognize the importance of quality and customer satisfaction."
The US PTO has no stake in serving the pubic interest and the law needs to change. But congress takes a hands-off approach to patents on life, arguing 'what is good for biotech is good for America'.
Sources: The Green Revolution Yields to the Bottom Line, By Andrew Pollack, The New York Times, May 15th 2001. Intellectual Property Enforcers on the March, by Freida Morris, forwarded by the Edmonds Institute 20th April 2001. Gene Blues - Is the Patent office prepared to deal with the genomic revolution? By Nicholas Thompson, Washington Monthly, April 2001. New terminator patent goes to Syngenta -wake up call for CBD's scientific body meeting in Montreal, News Release RAFI March 12th 2001.