Today in AgBioView on March 21, 2005 (http://www.agbioworld.org):
* Money and Blood
* UK - Fear of Extremists Kills Off GM Tests
* Extremists' Protests Halt GM Crop Trials
* Collapse of Economy May Prove Fatal to Food Security
* On Borlaug's Dream of Wheat Glutenin Genes in Rice
* Green Groups 'Deceive Public to Stop GM Crops'
* Mexican and Brazilian Biosafety Laws: Help!
* Kenyan Parliament Should Revisit Biotech Bill
* To Patent or Not to Patent? - Part II
* Innovation and IPR: Serving Society, Securing The Future?
Money and Blood
- Andrew Apel, AgBioView, March 21, 2005 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
From time to time, the news in one single edition of AgBioView happens to juxtapose nearly all the major current issues surrounding agricultural biotechnology in a way that brings them sharply into focus. That is the case with the March 19, 2005 edition.
In "On the Uptake of Healthier GM Foods" from New Scientist, we are told that "[o]ne of the biggest hurdles in selling genetically modified crops to sceptical consumers, especially in Europe, has been that there was nothing in it for them. All the traits commercialised so far, such as herbicide resistance, benefit farmers. So it is a major - and pleasant - surprise to find that the agribiotech company Monsanto has created a crop specifically to appeal to health-conscious westerners."
That claim, while true, conceals as much as it reveals. It is well-known that the currently available ag biotech products are those developed with the farmer in mind-as farmers around the globe have enthusiastically demonstrated, even to the point of risking crop destruction, fines and imprisonment. It is less obvious that Western consumers, much less those in Europe, will embrace agricultural biotechnology developed with specific health benefits in mind.
Such products have been in the production pipeline for years. The most obvious of these is Golden Rice, a favorite whipping-boy of Greenpeace. (See "Greenpeace Says that Golden Rice is a Technical Failure!") The Amsterdam-based multinational organization can easily oppose Golden Rice, because those who would most benefit from it are voiceless people of color whose political power is nil. Voiceless and powerless in actual fact, though Greenpeace allies such as the infamous Oxfam and the execrable Zambian Jesuits pretend to be their voice and to act on their behalf. The Council On Racial Equality (CORE) has repeatedly pointed out the depravity of so casually counting the poor in developing countries as acceptable losses in the activist war against progress.
Consumer-oriented products other than Golden Rice have been in the production pipeline far longer, and there is reason to believe that these will be treated far differently. The hungry cannot afford, literally, to worry about trans fats or linolenic acid in their diets. The wealthy can-and they are neither voiceless nor powerless. What is more, they can vote with their pocketbooks.
Now biotechnology is currently under fire from activists who claim that biotechnology is not living up to its promises to deliver products with human health benefits for the wealthy, in the same manner as they are criticizing Golden Rice. The trouble is, the casualties in this "theater" in the war on progress will not be the people Oxfam and the Jesuits claim to speak for. They will be wealthy people with money and political power. And there is the rub.
Europe has been quite successful in protecting its farmers from competing products by using activist groups to press its agenda. This is obvious from the funds the Netherlands diverts to Greenpeace and other groups, the Euros that the European Union bestows openly on the BEUC, and Britain's brazen manipulation of the statistics generated ("How to Make A Minority Look Like A Majority," Australian Science) by the farm-scale field trials and the 'GM Nation' public debate (which was no more "public" than it was a "debate.")
The question is whether Britain and Europe will be able successfully to use their paid-for activists to block products that wealthy consumer may well want to pay for. Activists are unruly servants, and their plush lifestyles are contingent on the dubious credibility they enjoy with taxpayers and the politicians who for now so gleefully abet them (See, e.g., "Genetically Modified Crops: Safety Research Falls Foul of German Politics," Science). The success of GM consumer products in Europe would be a blow to credibility that activists can ill afford.
In Europe, the activists have a distinct advantage they do not enjoy in the United States. In addition to European funding, activists also have European culture on their side. It is inviting to consider the European Union to be a 'melting pot' somehow similar to the United States, in that the EU combines so many different countries within a single political body. That would be a mistake.
The individual states that make up the EU and, indeed, the regions within those individual states-each have their unique histories, which citizens remember and retell in painstaking detail across generations. These histories entail everything from wars to perceived injustices, and stamp each parochial culture with a privately-owned brand of xenophobia. Far from glossing over European xenophobias, the EU collectivizes them and vastly magnifies the political penchant and economic ability to keep "outsiders" at bay. The European tendency to politicize everything, along with a blatantly superstitious approach to food and health, may make it quite easy to block GM products with demonstrated health benefits. (Bear in mind that as much as Europeans profess to love the environment, they are willing to sacrifice the environmental benefits of modified crops to keep "the others" out. "Blut und Boden is still alive and well, it merely has a face-lift.)
Money is interwoven with political and cultural concerns to the point where it's nearly impossible to understand them separately. Nowhere is this more true than in patent policy and law (To Patent or Not to Patent?). India will have to wrestle with the issues of intellectual property and in the course of that its lawmakers, and indeed everyone, should envision the possibilities of a system which grants intellectual property rights to an invention (a) in perpetuity (b) without public disclosure.
Obviously, this would be the ultimate dream for an inventor; a monopoly both permanent and secret. On the other hand, it violates our expectation that patent monopolies have short lives and that the nature and scope of each be easily discoverable.
However, the US has the "ultimate dream" patent system for agricultural products. How can this be? Well, don't go looking for such a patent at the Patent Office. Go, instead, to the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. These "stealth patents" are made up of registration data -- the voluminous data generated by field trials of agricultural products, which the law demands for new products. The corporations, which must by necessity be huge in order to afford the cost of these field trials, make the resulting data secret as a matter of routine. Public officials protect these secrets, and corporations may license these secrets to other corporations wanting to make use of the same technology. The cost for licensing these secrets is, of course, quite high. There is no expiration date on these secrets. The irony is that the corporations who widely tout the value of conventional patents, the extensive testing of biotech products and the conclusive demonstrations of their safety will do nearly anything, including launching suits against government officials, to prevent public disclosure of the results of these tests.
It is of course in the best interests of India to have a strong conventional patent system. A far better question is whether a parallel "stealth patent" system does anyone any good. It may appease the xenophobia of the biotech corporations, but it is inherently destructive to the industry.
Such a vast chess game... But it is a game with real money, and real blood.
Fear of Extremists Kills Off GM Tests; Threat to Dig Up Experimental Crops Drives British Research Overseas
- Robin McKie, The Observer (UK), March 20, 2005 http://education.guardian.co.uk
Research on crops that can withstand climate change, provide allergy-free foods and give consumers cheap sources of nutrition have been abandoned by British scientists.
This country's leading plant scientists have told The Observer that the threat of 'field-trashing' by environmental activists is now so high, they had given up all attempts to grow new varieties of genetically modified crops here.
In some cases, trials are being carried out in eastern Europe and China. In others, crop varieties designed to help British farmers withstand global warming have simply been abandoned. 'Environmentalists have complained that scientists keep promising to deliver a new generation of GM crops but have failed to do so,' said Professor Ian Crute, director of Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire. 'But every time we attempt a field trial of a new laboratory-created variety, extremists come along and dig up our plants.'
It is a point backed by Chris Lamb, head of the John Innes research centre in Norwich. 'Every trial we carry out has to be published on a website on which the site's six-digit grid reference is given. You may as well put up an illuminated sign and invite campaigners to dig it up.'
No field trials of new GM crops have been attempted by Rothamsted scientists in the past 18 months. 'We have had to export our experiments to other countries and they are the ones who will reap the benefits,' added Crute.
Among the varieties being studied at Rothamsted are those designed to create wheats that would contain no gluten, a protein linked to cases of severe allergic reactions in some individuals, particularly among children.
Rothamsted scientists have also been working on varieties of GM rape that would provide oils whose make-up would mimic those of fish oils. 'These are particularly rich in nutrients that help brain and eyesight development in children,' said Crute. 'We are overfishing our oceans and these plants could be crucial in providing us with cheap sources of key nutrients.'
However, in both cases scientists have had simply stopped field trials and given their work to researchers who are now working on field trials in East Europe and China. 'These are likely to become valuable crops and our farmers, who would have been first in line to grow them, will now be pushed to the back of the queue of those seeking to grow them,' added Crute.
The revelations come as the final farm-scale evaluation of GM crops is to be published tomorrow. This will focus on the environmental impact of GM winter oil seed rape. The trial results are expected to be ambiguous. This generation of crops was designed to be tolerant to certain forms of pesticides. The next generation was intended to be far more exciting, added Lamb. 'We have learnt a great deal about the genes that control when a plant comes into flower,' he said. 'As global warming begins to have a major impact on crop growing, this knowledge will become extremely important.'
Extremists' Protests Halt GM Crop Trials
- Duncan Gardham, Daily Telegraph (UK), March 21, http://www.telegraph.co.uk
Genetically modified crop trials have been effectively halted in Britain because of protests by environmental activists, scientists said yesterday. The country's leading centre for GM crop research said it had been forced to move trials abroad or end them entirely because they were constantly torn up by protesters.
Prof Ian Crute, director of the Government-backed research unit at Rothamsted, Herts, said: "Every time we attempt a field trial of a new laboratory-created variety, extremists come along and dig up our plants." No trials had been attempted for the past 18 months, he added. "We have had to export our experiments to other countries and they are the ones who will reap the benefits."
Commercial GM companies halted their involvement when farm-scale crop trials ended two years ago and, although the results are due out today, they are unlikely to go ahead with using the technology unless attitudes change.
Dr Julian Little, spokesman for Bayer CropScience, told The Telegraph: "We are hoping that new legislation which clamps down on animal rights protesters may be used to apply to us as well, but there is an impasse in the EU that means we cannot grow our crops commercially anyway."
Chris Lamb, the head of the John Innes research centre in Norwich, said the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) had added to problems by insisting on the publication of sensitive information. "Every trial we carry out has to be published on a website on which the site's six-digit grid reference is given," he said. "You may as well put up an illuminated sign and invite campaigners to dig it up."
Rothamsted, founded in 1843, is the world's oldest agricultural research station, and carries out £27 million of research every year, funded largely by Defra and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Most of the trials conducted there and at the John Innes research centre are small-scale attempts to grow crops that have been developed in the laboratory. As such they are more vulnerable to attack by protesters.
There are fears that the vandalism could cause a scientific brain drain on the same scale caused by attacks by animal activists. Dr Little said he hoped that the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill might come to the scientists' aid. "Trashing our fields has been the least of our problems. Our staff have been intimidated, things have been scrawled on their property and there have been site invasions," he said. "In the end it is pointless because we have simply moved our research to Canada, the US and Australia and there is a knock-on effect on researchers who won't stay in this country."
Rothamsted researchers are understood to have moved their trials to eastern Europe and China. They have been trying to grow gluten-free wheat and rape which would provide healthy oils to replace those found in fish. Today the Royal Society will publish the results of 70 farm-scale studies of GM winter oil seed, produced by Bayer CropScience. The crops are able to withstand spraying with poisons that kill weeds and insects, but there has been concern about the effects this might have on the wider environment.
Collapse of Economy May Prove Fatal to Food Security - Norman E Borlaug
- Ashok B Sharma, Financial Express (India) March 21, 2005 http://www.financialexpress.com
The father of the Green Revolution, Dr Norman E Borlaug cautioned that the collapse of the economy may prove fatal to food security. He urged the world leaders to prepare themselves to meet such an eventuality. The nobel laureate said: "Such a situation happened way back in 1929 in the US when the stock market crashed. Collapse of the economy can happen any time any where, if weakness creeps into the system. We need to be vigilant."
He said that it can happen both in developed and developing economies. He also cited the recent financial crisis in Argentina, which took a toll on food security. According to Dr Borlaug food production alone cannot ensure food security. "The problems of food distribution and raising the income of people need to be addressed," he said. He indicated that he is confident that there is enough food in the world, today, to meet the needs of food security. The problem is about distribution of food to 800 million underfed and low purchasing power of the poor. Asked to comment on the situation of heavy farm subsidies given in developed countries which have depressed global prices affecting the interests of Third World farmers, Dr Borlaug said: "Initially these subsidies were given to small and marginal farmers in Europe. Today rich peasants are cornering large amounts of subsidy. This is the compulsions of a democracy." In the Indian context, Dr Borlaug said that there exists a paradox of surplus food stock and a large number of underfed. "India needs to develop rural infrastructure like roads and provide basic services like health and education to the poor. Food-for-work programme should be extensive to augment employment opportunities for the poor. He, however, said that the situation is not so bad in India as it was prior to 1960s when the Green Revolution was launched."
He pointed out that science and technology is there to augment production. What is now needed is to ensure food management and distribution through policy approach. He expressed concern that poor African countries are unable to provide subsidised ration to the poor unlike other countries. Commenting on India's wheat economy, he said: "It is satisfying to note it is proceeding on the right track. Farmers are gradually taking up improved agronomic and agricultural practices and increasing the efficiency of irrigation." Dr Borlaug was the pioneer of dwarf wheat varieties which ushered Green Revolution in India. At the behest of Dr Borlaug Mexican varieties, Lermaroso and Sonara-64 was crossbred with Japanese Norin-10 gene to produce dwarf wheat grown in spring season and from this dwarf wheawt varieties several Indian varieties were subsequently developed for cultivation in the country. Dr Borlaug advocated the practice of zero tillage and raised bed cultivation as these would save the soil from erosion. He noted during his short journey to Punjab and Haryana a decline in factor productivity and suggested these states take up these agri practices in a big way. He said that these practices have proved effective in Argentina, Chile and even in the US. He said that west African countries should adopt these practices as there is a dearth of animal power in the region and poor farmers have no money to purchase tractors. He noted that many wheat crops in Africa are becoming susceptible to rust diseases and said that global research bodies are active in resolving this issue. He ruled out the possibility of feeding the world through organic farming and alleged: "The issue is mere political." World's cattle population will have to be increased threefold to produce dung needed to replace 80 million tonne of nitrogen consumption, he said and added: "This is just not possible." He said that if the cattle population is raised to this level, it would cause a shrinkage in cultivable land and more grazing space would be created. Dr Borlaug advocated the case for application of transgenic technology in agriculture in the interest of food and nutritional security. He suggested the transfer of wheat gene to rice for increasing the glutenin content and transfer of rice gene to wheat for making it resistant to rust disease. He said that if BT cotton has failed to deliver in parts of of India "it is not due to the BT gene but due to the insertion of the BT gene in a not-so productive crop."
On Borlaug's Dream of Wheat Genes in Rice
- Fogher Corrado , Professor of Genetics, Universitą Cattolica S. Cuore, Piacenza Italy
Dr. Borlaug dream of transferring wheat proteins (glutenin) that enable making superior dough for leavening bread to other cereals (rice) has been already partially achieved (see patent PCT/IB2003/05092).
Green Groups 'Deceive Public to Stop GM Crops'
- David Harrison, Telegraph (UK), March 20, 2005 http://news.telegraph.co.uk
Aid agencies and environmentalists have deceived the public over genetically modified crops by deliberately ignoring scientific evidence that supports the technology, according to a new book. The March of Unreason, by Dick Taverne, the Liberal Democrat peer, accuses Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other green groups of turning their opposition to GM plants into a "religious crusade", based on "blind faith and deep bias" rather than serious research.
Lord Taverne, a member of the House of Lords science and technology committee, accuses environmentalists and aid agencies of ignoring "solid science", citing each others' reports, and using discredited studies to push the case against GM crops.
He also argues that the green lobby has whipped up public hysteria with scare stories and emotive terms such as Frankenstein foods when the science shows overwhelmingly that GM crops will help to ease world hunger and poverty, help the environment and improve public health.
The peer, who is also the founder-chairman of the charity Sense about Science, said that the green lobby's activities had done enormous damage to Britain's biotechnology industry, a field in which it was a world leader. As a result of the opposition, the Government imposed a five-year moratorium on GM crops - from 1999 until last year - and has still to approve their full-scale commercial production.
In the book, which has been published ahead of tomorrow's announcement by the Government of the results of its latest field-scale evaluation of GM crops, Lord Taverne gives many examples of the green lobby's "misuse" of evidence and research. He highlights how a report by the charity Action Aid in 2003 quoted studies by Greenpeace, other green pressure groups and its own "branches" before concluding that GM crops would not benefit the Third World.
Lord Taverne said, however, that the study ignored the findings of independent experts, the National Academy of Sciences USA, several other national academies of science, the Third World Academy of Sciences, four Royal Society reports and two reports by the Nuffield Council. "But because it is published by an aid agency and relies on reports by green lobbies to which most newspapers are sympathetic, the press treats it with deference," he said.
The book also refers to the case of the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), a species said by one study to be at risk from GM crops. Its cause was adopted by green groups and received widespread media attention. Soon afterwards, however, eminent plant biologists rejected the research when field studies found that the impact on the butterfly was negligible. Despite this, green groups still say that GM crops kill the Monarch.
Another report, Feeding or Fooling the World - Can GM crops really feed the hungry? - published in 2002 by the Genetic Engineering Alliance, a coalition of 120 British-based organisations calling for a ban on GM crops, applies "a similar lack of rigour", according to Lord Taverne. "Every possible quotation that supports or might appear to support the case for a freeze is cited, irrespective of its academic worth; no evidence against is mentioned, however eminent and independent the source... in places this report seems almost deliberately designed to mislead," the author said.
Lord Taverne mentions another report by Action Aid, this time on the Golden Rice project. This involved genetically modifying rice to produce Vitamin A in the body - a breakthrough hailed by scientists as an important step towards helping 14 million children under five years old who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to measles and blindness.
The charity's report dismissed the project as worthless and cited a "finding" by Greenpeace that a child would have to eat about 7kg of cooked Golden Rice to obtain the required amount of Vitamin A. The report failed, however, to quote the conclusions of the project's original researchers, who said that a child would benefit by consuming 200g of rice a day.
Lord Taverne said that to dismiss the project on the basis of Greenpeace's claims was "like quoting the Pope as an unbiased authority on contraception". Most of the media have swallowed the green lobby's line, he said. A genetically modified tomato puree was popular until the press began a campaign against Frankenstein foods in 1999, prompted by publicity given to a study in The Lancet.
The research highlighted the adverse effect of GM potatoes on rats, but was discredited as "flawed" by the Royal Society. It said that no conclusions should be drawn from it, but Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and their allies, continued to stress health hazards from GM crops, Lord Taverne said.
To illustrate the green lobby's "eco-fundamentalism" Lord Taverne cites the response of Lord Melchett, then the director of Greenpeace, to a question asked by the Lords select committee on GM crops, which reported in 1999. Asked about his opposition to GM plants Lord Melchett replied: "It is a permanent and definite and complete opposition based on a view that there will always be major uncertainties. It is the nature of the technology, indeed it is the nature of science that there will not be any absolute proof."
The European Commission encourages GM crops, which it has declared to be safe, but EU member states, except Spain, are reluctant to license them. Lord Taverne's book says, however, that GM technology will lead to more efficient land use and produce more nutritional, varied and cheaper food. The crops will be able to grow in arid and saline areas, survive drought, eliminate the need for pesticides and free land for wildlife.
He highlights the widespread use and success of GM crops in countries including the US, China, South Africa, India and Argentina and expresses puzzlement that the public accepts biotechnology for medicines such as insulin, but not plants.
Green groups rejected the peer's accusations. Tony Juniper, the executive director of Friends of the Earth, said that the green lobby took science "very seriously" and studies so far had failed to prove the long-term safety of GM crops. "Science has its limits. We have concerns about the social, economic, environmental and ethical impact of this technology," he said.
Action Aid also denied that it had ignored scientific evidence, while Pete Riley, the spokesman for the Five-Year Freeze Campaign, another anti-GM lobby group, said. "Dick Taverne and his friends should get out and find real solutions to the world's problems, and not just help those who want to profit from new technology."
Mexican and Brazilian Biosafety Laws: Help!
- Drew Kershen, , University of Oklahoma College of Law
Recently the legislative bodies of Brazil and Mexico passed Biosafety laws regulating biotechnology. I have requests concerning both laws.
First, I ask for a copy of the law as adopted in Brazil. Please send in English translation (if possible) but I would also appreciate receiving the law in Portuguese.
Second, although the Brazilian law passed the Brazilian Congress, the President must sign the law for it to become a valid law. Has the President signed the law? If "yes," is the law now a valid Brazilian law?
Third, although the Mexican Congress passed the Mexican Biosafety law, for the enactment to become a binding law the President must formally publish the law in the Mexican Governmental Gazette. Has the President formally published the law in the Gazette? If "yes," is the law now a valid Mexican law?
Thank you for providing answers to my questions.
Kenyan Parliament Should Revisit Biotech Bill
- Florence Wambugu, All Africa, March 17, 2005 Via Agnet
NAIROBI -- Kenya's - new era of openness has given everybody a chance to comment on virtually anything. While this has its merits, there are dangers of crowding out the truth as different interest groups articulate their viewpoints. Legal issues such as the constitutional review are politicised. Scientific issues such as bio-safety are commingled with the debate on genetic modified crops.
People with no legal or sci entific backgrounds make the debates muddled. Those who are more savvy in getting media coverage - even when they are wrong, or have a hidden agenda - often appear to have the dominant, and correct, position. To make matters worse, the media does not always sift the ideas, leaving a gullible public even more confused about issues.
One of the debates that best illustrates this state of affairs is the Bio-safety Bill. Even before it got to Parliament, pro and anti-biotech forces were jostling for supremacy. The pro-biotech forces - of which I am one - seemed to have lost out when, just before the Bill's introduction during the last sitting of Parliament, anti-GM forces managed to get the support of some MPs. In the ensuing debate, the Bill wrongly became equated to GM crops.
The anti-biotech forces have been celebrating ever since; the reason for this is because it is easier to argue for a ban of GM crops than to ask Kenyans to "ban" the Bill, which, in actual fact, lays the foundation for legislation that will all ow us to decide whether we want to be engaged with the GM technology, and if so, how we want to be engaged.
The Bill is not something that the pro-biotech forces have sneaked into Parliament. It has taken almost a decade of discussions, debates and workshops. At one stage, nearly 100 MPs from the current Parliament summoned Kenyan scientists with a view to "educating themselves" about the GM technology.
The anti-GM forces' assertion that the Bill is synonymous to the introduction of GM foods is tantamount to a punch below the belt. It is a cruel and unfair game with disastrous consequences for Kenya. This is why as Parliament resumed yesterday and this Bill has not been resolved, we need to re-visit the matter and open further debate on it.
Since, as a country, we have a regional leadership in science and technology, what we should be arguing about is how we want to be engaged with biotechnology. The Biosafety Bill provides the basis for clear policy guidelines and regulations; it covers issues such as trade, industry, health, environment and agriculture. The Bill will enable the country to acquire the capacity to participate meaningfully in rapidly changing world of science and technology, especially the biotechnology revolution that is beginning to generate new products and services including vaccines and drugs.
It said that policy makers in developing nations like Kenya's do not practically appreciate the importance of science and technology and this remains the major reason why the countries export jobs and money as consumers of all sorts of imported goods and services.
Let us learn from South Africa, which crafted its biosafety policy, regulation and guidelines more than 10 years ago. Today, South African GM cotton and maize farmers are on the global map as beneficiaries of this new technology.
The country has placed its priorities above those of interested parties, be they pro or anti-GM. We should do the same. We must stay away from fear, irrationality and propaganda that is widespread in the GM debate. Kenya and other African nations must not continue to be empty technological cheerleaders who will only serve as consumers or markets for products and services from the North. We must put in place structures to participate in this US$ 5 billion per annum opportunity. How we do this will be defined by the Biosafety Bill. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, through the National Council of Science and Technology, must guide the country if Kenya is to gain from the ongo ing biotechnology revolution.
However, finalising the much-awaited Biosafety Bill also involves appropriate input and support from other sections of the government including the ministries of agriculture, livestock, health, environment, trade and industry, the Attorney General and Government agencies. The anti-GM bill, which tried to pre-empt the Bio-safety Bill, is simply a front for those who do not want Kenya to acquire credible capacity (human and infrastructural) to reject, outright accept or accept with certain conditions, the GM technology.
In other words even anti-GM groups should contribute to the finalisation of the Bio-safety Bill instead of derailing the process by attempting to equate it with GM crops. Kenya and other African nations that are rich in genetic resources now have a chance to tparticipate effectively in the biotechnology revolution instead of waiting to be consumers. This begins with finalising the Biosafety Bill that will provide the guidelines and regulations facilitating responsible handling or use of biotechnology. There have been too many meetings and workshops.
What we need is to move the process forward and have a Bill that will protect us from the things we don't want while providing direction in the fields of research, development and generation of various goods and services for export and local consumption. Let us not allow the current euphoria of politics to stifle the evolution of home-grown research and development activities.
-- Dr Wambugu is a genetic engineer and the CEO of Africa Harvest, a US-based foundation with offices in Kenya and South Africa.
To Patent or Not to Patent? - Part II
- Shanthu Shantharam, BioSpectrum (India), March 9, 2005
India as a sovereign nation must reserve the right to exercise its powers to revoke patent rights to meet its emergency needs. This is a social responsibility of any government in the world. Such a provision in the Patent Act will be hovering around the private sector head always so that it fulfils its role as a responsible corporate citizen. There is a concern that the law is not sufficiently clear about what constitutes "emergency". Leaving that definition hazy might well be for a good reason and if push comes to shove, the Supreme Court can step into provide legal definition that will be a sovereign right of India. No one should be crying about the lack of precision in defining emergency right now. That will be tested in due course of time. And put to rest.
Patent protections granted these days in the areas of modern biotechnology seem unfair to many objectors of IPR as they consider natural living beings as a common heritage of the world, and mere modern scientific validation (Dr Kochhar of NISTAD has coined a clever new term "molecularization") of ancient knowledge by devising modern technological approaches (in this case approaches to gene discovery and gene manipulation technology) should not be sufficient grounds for granting IPR to an individual or a company or an organization To them, it is just a discovery and not an invention. What these critics fail to understand is that progress or advancement of knowledge has always been from the unknown in an incremental manner. Nobody creates knowledge from nothing. By this logic we should be doing away with awards and recognition for any creative individual or an organization as they would have made contributions based on someone else's contributions (Nobel Prizes come to mind).
But, the scientifically advanced North America and the Europe that hold the world's largest IPR portfolio, their system gives them protection by recognizing their ingenious and creative efforts to discover (what is already there, but was not or could not be found or obvious to anybody else), invent, and manipulate biological molecules and organisms (extremophiles come to mind!) that have industrial application. With their way of granting IPR (both product and process patent), North America and Europe have built a formidable economy and have established a lead science and technology, and all of the developing world still knock on their doors for their scientific and technical know-how. This is all changing albeit slowly in India's next door China. By slowly adopting Western ways, China is trying to dominate the world as a super economic power. They do not seem to have time for endless and unproductive debates as it happens in India! They just do what is good for their rapid economic growth.
The common allegation against the patent system of the North is that many of their patented inventions are based on some prior knowledge, whether in the formal or informal domain, but by some minor or major application of present day science (some call it trickery), they garner protection and deny the benefits to those who contributed to the body of the knowledge based on which the present day "trickery" would not have been possible. This, according to many objectors, is patently unfair and such an IPR ought not to be encouraged or granted. They contend that many of the developing and third world countries are home to ancient civilizations and cultures are a treasure trough of millions of brilliant ideas and wisdom that will be pirated and turned into some useful commercial technology and these countries will receive nothing for their original contributions.
On the face of it all these arguments look very passionately appealing and easy to provoke innocent and gullible politicians and ordinary people into believing that indeed the profit hungry foreign companies will run away with profits galore, and the people of the developing world will remain poor and will have to pay through their nose to buy back those patented technologies. What is at the root of this line of socio-economic argument? It is nothing but jingoism based on false national pride and a fertile case of self serving political activism.
There is no doubt that the patent system of the North has granted some patents without proper review and examination, some patents have been too broad, and many have been outright deceptive. Considering the volume of patent applications received, these wrongful patents are still a tiny minority (less than 1% of the total patens granted), and wrongful patents should not be condoned. Instead, they should be challenged and overturned as they usually are. That in itself can be a costly affair, which few in developing countries can afford. But, what is needed is a careful and prudent form of patent protection system that plugs all the abuses, misuses, frivolous claims, and yet provides patent protection for genuine inventions and discoveries that can spur genuine economic growth through industrialization or commercialization. India must strive to do just that. India can learn lots of lessons from what has gone wrong in the patent system of the US and Europe. Volumes of critical studies have been done to expose those faults and appropriate remedies have been suggested.
A comparison of the overall economic impacts of the patent system of the North with that of what most of the developing countries have should be an eye opener to policy makers in the developing countries. Developing countries may have ancient wisdom, but they have not been able to commercialize them for the economic benefit of the society today. The spirit of discovery, invention and creativity, is still a primitive art in most of these countries. Modern scientific knowledge and technological skills are very costly whether one likes it or not. Just look at any modern biotech lab or a company and their investment levels. By a current reckoning, it takes $300 to 500 million of annual investment to run a world class biotech R&D facility. One cannot think of any indigenous agri-business company in India that is capable of investing that kind of money to be a competitive biotech company in the developing world. That kind of investment has to be recouped. On an average, it takes 10 years to bring a GMO market place in the regulated world of technology. With such cut throat competition, there is hardly anytime to make all kinds of profits as it is alleged. For sure they all make profits and they will perish if they do not. No one should grudge a healthy profit making, but no one should be allowed unscrupulous profiteering.
What is not being understood about IPR in the biotechnology sector is that mere knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not enough. It is like a library full of books in which there is so much information and knowledge, but creativity involves converting that knowledge into wealth and fuel the engine of the economy by providing solutions to problems, goods and services that people would want to pay. IPR is one of those instruments to facilitate such an economic growth in the present day world of knowledge economy. To underscore this point, one might look at the present day Russia which possesses sophisticated science and technology, infrastructure and technically trained workforce, but none of which has been of any use as that knowledge has not been converted into wealth which takes creativity, ingenuity, and market based incentive. India with its traditional indigenous knowledge is very much in that same situation.
As much as one can sympathize with those who want equity in benefit sharing for access to knowledge and resources, most of the people crying hoarse about piracy of intellectual property are those who don't have any. Otherwise they would be busy protecting it. That is precisely what atleast some grassroot organizations such as Srishti of Ahmedabad are doing by recording TK (traditional knowledge) and IK (indigenous knowledge) and seek modern scientific validity and technological viability so that such a knowledge can be commercialized and everyone who has contributed to the process benefit equitably. Let us hope that one day many of those IK and TK turn out to be blockbuster products and services for which there will be a profitable market to benefit some of the poor communities and tribes from where they emanated. If one wants to help the people who created IK and TK, the best way is to give them modern day patent protection and see that whoever uses it pays for it.
What India needs is a method by which you convert that knowledge into to a serviceable technology which is where the "invention" plays a part. Modern biotechnology is responsible for discovering hitherto unknown and unheard of genes and thereby qualifying to be an "invention" and all the attendant methodologies needed to convert that invention into a commercial technology. No modern day inventor should be granted monopolistic IPR on a proven TK or IK and mechanism must be in place to ensure benefit sharing. But, to completely deny patent protection for ingenious applications of the knowledge of natural (life) sciences in the area of modern biotechnology will only add to the widening technology gap of between the North and the South. Indian biotech industry is poised to take off and there a huge economic potential to be tapped, and the proposed Indian patent law amendment will give it a great boost for investment in the industry which in turn will create jobs and economic growth.
IPR is just like Physical Property Rights (PPR). If you want to enhance your PPR which is held so dearly in all societies and cultures, then you must invest in IPR. IPR is a powerful tool to fight poverty of nations if used fairly and equitably. In this era of knowledge-based economy, it is time all societies start respecting IPR of everyone. Only then economic emancipation is possible. Patent you must, otherwise be prepared to perish. After all arguments, debates and discussions, poverty can be tackled not with slogans, emotions and debates, but by pragmatic policies that create wealth. What matters is economic growth that can lift everyone. If a present day society or culture does not learn to respect IPR, it will be condemned to eternal poverty.
This is the second part of the column. The first part appeared in the February 2005 issue.
Innovation and Intellectual Property: Serving Society, Securing The Future?
- CropLife International Conference - Brussels, Belgium; June 2, 2005
Diverse range of stakeholders from academia, governments, research institutes, and NGOs to debate the question: how will innovation and intellectual property best serve society and secure a better future?
The ability to innovate for a better future has fuelled human progress since the beginning of time - fostering economic and social development, fighting diseases, reducing hunger, and improving nutrition for many around the world. In today's knowledge-based economy, the ability to innovate drives a nation or a company's economic performance and competitive strategy. It is also essential to address the pressing environmental, social and economic challenges of sustainable development.
Registration is free to academia, governments, member associations, NGOs and the media. Contact Carolyn Gill at email@example.com