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Patents and Plants

May 23, 2008


The current global food crisis — created by the confluence of climate change, high oil prices, and more people able to afford more food — has both corporations and academia scrambling to find strains of popular food sources that will yield larger harvests, resist the vagaries of climate change, and repel damaging insects. The differences are the motivations that drive each group. The corporations are looking to lock up profits, while many researchers are motivated by the science and the good it can accomplish. Washington Post staff writer Rick Weiss reports that large agricultural firms are scurrying to file patents for gene lines that could lead to breakthroughs (and secure themselves a lucrative long-term future) [“Firms Seek Patents on ‘Climate Ready’ Altered Crops,” 13 May 2008].

“A handful of the world’s largest agricultural biotechnology companies are seeking hundreds of patents on gene-altered crops designed to withstand drought and other environmental stresses, part of a race for dominance in the potentially lucrative market for crops that can handle global warming, according to a report being released today. Three companies — BASF of Germany, Syngenta of Switzerland and Monsanto of St. Louis — have filed applications to control nearly two-thirds of the climate-related gene families submitted to patent offices worldwide, according to the report by the Ottawa-based ETC Group, an activist organization that advocates for subsistence farmers. The applications say that the new ‘climate ready’ genes will help crops survive drought, flooding, saltwater incursions, high temperatures and increased ultraviolet radiation — all of which are predicted to undermine food security in coming decades. Company officials dismissed the report’s contention that the applications amount to an intellectual-property ‘grab,’ countering that gene-altered plants will be crucial to solving world hunger but will never be developed without patent protections.”

While pockets of resistance to genetically-altered plants remain, most analysts agree that genetically-altered plants will play a crucial role in helping feed the world in the decades ahead. A bigger question is whether companies should be able to patent entire gene lines as opposed to specific hybrid plants. Corporate justifications for seeking broad patents that claim hybrid plants would “never be developed without patent protections” ring hollow.

“Many of the world’s poorest countries, destined to be hit hardest by climate change, have rejected biotech crops, citing environmental and economic concerns. Importantly, gene patents generally preclude the age-old practice of saving seeds from a harvest for replanting, requiring instead that farmers purchase the high-tech seeds each year. The ETC report concludes that biotech giants are hoping to leverage climate change as a way to get into resistant markets, and it warns that the move could undermine public-sector plant-breeding institutions such as those coordinated by the United Nations and the World Bank, which have long made their improved varieties freely available. ‘When a market is dominated by a handful of large multinational companies, the research agenda gets biased toward proprietary products,’ said Hope Shand, ETC’s research director. ‘Monopoly control of plant genes is a bad idea under any circumstance. During a global food crisis, it is unacceptable and has to be challenged.'”

The same arguments are being made in the medical field where companies are patenting human genes. It’s an emotional and moral issue as well as an economic one. The companies are well aware that their public images are likely to suffer as a result of their actions; however, the potential profits are so large they’re willing to risk it. Some companies are making token efforts to mitigate the public relations risk.

“Ranjana Smetacek, a spokeswoman for Monsanto, said companies deserve praise for developing crop varieties that will survive climate change. ‘I think everyone recognizes that the old traditional ways just aren’t able to address these new challenges. The problems in Africa are pretty severe,’ she said, noting that Monsanto and BASF are participating in a project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop drought-resistant corn that would be made available to farmers in four southern African countries royalty-free. ‘We aim to be at once generous and also cognizant of our obligation to shareholders who have paid for our research,’ Smetacek said.”

The time is quickly coming when all of the gene lines for food plants and animals as well as humans will be patented. The likely result will be less research not more.

“Gene patents allow companies to limit others from marketing those genes. The 35-page ETC report, ‘Patenting the “Climate Genes” … and Capturing the Climate Agenda,’ documents about 530 applications for climate-related plant genes filed at patent offices in the past five years. A few dozen patents have been issued; hundreds of others are pending. Of the 55 major gene families at the heart of those applications, BASF filed 21, the report says. Other major players include Syngenta, seven; Monsanto, six; and Bayer of Germany, five. Among the report’s concerns is the breadth of many applications. Protective genes are usually discovered in one variety of plant, and after minimal testing they are presumed to be useful in others, Shand said. In one typical case, a BASF patent claim for a gene to tolerate ‘environmental stress’ seeks to preclude competitors from using that gene in ‘maize, wheat, rye, oat, triticale, rice, barley, soybean, peanut, cotton, rapeseed, canola, manihot, pepper, sunflower, tagetes, solanaceous plants, potato, tobacco, eggplant, tomato, Vicia species, pea, alfalfa, coffee, cacao, tea, Salix species, oil palm, coconut, perennial grass and a forage crop plant.’ Publicly funded developers of freely accessible plant varieties could succumb to biotech’s market dominance, the report warns.”

The fact that there is publicly funded crop research ongoing undermines corporate arguments that climate resistance plants would “never be developed without patent protections.” Unfortunately, some of these publicly funded developers are already conceding defeat.

“One of the biggest is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which runs 15 research centers worldwide and is funded by several international aid organizations. CGIAR has long emphasized non-biotech breeding to develop varieties ideal for subsistence farmers and their local conditions. Facing big budget cuts from its traditional funders, CGIAR is now a central player in the Gates-funded collaboration with Monsanto and BASF — a project that a CGIAR spokesman defended as a ‘global public good.'”

One thing is for sure, crops that emerge from the use of a patented gene are not going to help reduce food prices — there’s no profit in that.

“Experts said that both sides have oversimplified the pros and cons of biotech crop patents. ‘I don’t mind Monsanto developing these tools. I mind that we don’t have an economic ecology that lets other companies compete with them,’ said Richard Jefferson, founder and chief executive of Cambia, a nonprofit institute based in Australia that helps companies worldwide sort through patent holdings so they can build on one another’s work instead of stymieing one another. Under the current system for patenting genes, he said, ‘the little guys shake out and the big guys end up in a place a lot like a cartel.’ Jefferson characterized the ETC report as extreme in its anti-corporate v
iews but praised it for drawing attention to what he said is a real problem of corporate consolidation in the seed industry. Happily, he said, patent offices are ‘getting a lot better’ about not allowing overly broad gene patents. Jonathan Bryant, managing director of BASF’s U.S. division, said plants have tens of thousands of genes, most of them unexplored. ‘I think there’s still plenty of opportunity for many companies and institutions,’ he said. ‘We’re all looking to bring our technology together for a common good.'”

That last statement reminds me of Jack Nicholson’s line in “Mars Attacks” — something like, “Can’t we all just get along?” Speaking about getting along, an article in the New York Times reveals how you can get involved in climate resistance plant research [“Join the Hunt for Super-Rice,” by Steve Lohr, 14 May 2008]. Lohr writes:

“There is no quick fix to the world food crisis, but a project getting underway [14 May 2008] could make a difference in the long run. A team of researchers at the University of Washington are putting a genomics project on the World Community Grid in the computational search for strains of rice that have traits like higher yields, disease resistance and a wider range of nutrients. Ram Samudrala, the principal investigator at the University of Washington, describes the goal of the project as the pursuit of ‘super hybrids.’ The purpose is to hasten the pace of modern rice genetics, which since the 1960s has delivered a series of new strains, starting with higher-yielding semidwarf varieties, a breakthrough that was hailed as the Green Revolution. But the demand — all those mouths to feed — keeps rising. Rice is the main staple food for more than half the world’s population. In Asia alone, more than two billion people get up to 70 percent of their dietary energy from rice.”

So how can you help? Get connected to the World Community Grid.

“The World Community Grid, begun in 2004, gives selected humanitarian scientific projects access to massive computing resources. It taps the unused computing cycles of nearly one million computers around the world — much like SETI@home, the best-known distributed computing effort, which claims it has harnessed more than 3 million PCs in the search for extraterrestrial life. The World Community Grid places a small piece of software on your PC that taps your unused computing cycles and combines them with others to create a virtual supercomputer. Its equivalent computing power would make it the world’s third-largest supercomputer, according to I.B.M., which has donated the hardware, software and technical expertise for the project. Like so many sciences, molecular biology and genetics are being transformed by the use of computational tools. ‘This project is an excellent fit for the World Community Grid, both the science and the mission,’ said Joseph M. Jasinski, director of healthcare and life sciences research at I.B.M.”

According to Steve Hamm, using the World Community Grid (created by IBM in 2004 as part of its corporate responsibility program) will allow the University of Washington group to find answers 100 to 200 times faster (in years rather than centuries) had they been restricted to using school computers alone [“IBM’s Answer to the Food Crisis,” BusinessWeek, 14 May 2008]. Hamm writes:

“By tapping a cluster of nearly 1 million PCs scattered around the world, the researchers hope to develop more nutritious, robust strains of rice sooner by completing complex genetic calculations in just one or two years. Those calculations might have taken 200 years if left to the school’s computers. The University of Washington approach centers are breeding new strains of rice based on the results of the research.”

Lohr concluded his article with an explanation of how the World Community Grid will be used.

“The grid will run a three-dimensional modeling program created by the computational biologists at the University of Washington to study the structures of the proteins that make up the building blocks of rice. Understanding the structures provides clues to their functions, interactions between the molecular parts and how certain desired traits are expressed. But the computing, which should last a year or two, takes the search only so far, noted Mr. Samudrala. It speeds along the study of 30,000 to 60,000 protein structures and the selection of rice strains to breed. But the super-hybrids must still be developed in greenhouses in places like the famed International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. ‘In the end, it’s still all breeding, but what we’re doing should make it more targeted and productive,’ said Mr. Samudrala.”

Ultimately, it will likely be a race between the “for profits” and the “non-profits” to see who can patent the most genes. This places an important burden on the various national patent agencies. It also places a burden on an informed public to keep apprised of what is happening in this area. Unfortunately, the public outcry about food security often begins with lone voices in the developing world where those most affected have the least means of doing something about their predicament. Gene research is a complicated subject. It remains on the cutting edge of science and it is undoubtedly costly to conduct. As a businessman, I can understand why companies involved in such research deserve to profit from their labors. As part of the larger human race, I can also understand why people want to ensure that the common good is best served as we move forward. Compromises and accommodations are likely to be made as public/private partnerships are forged in an effort to ensure the world’s food security.

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