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June 22, 2000


Hungry for Biotech


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

Hungry for Biotech

Life sciences companies say agricultural biotechnology will feed the
world. So why are they standing in the way?

C.S. Prakash

Technology Review (MIT Press)
July/August 2000

Bioengineered crops were grown on nearly 40 million hectares (100
million acres) in twelve countries last year-up from less than two
million hectares when they were first introduced in 1996, making
biotechnology the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of
agriculture. But this phenomenal success has been a double-edged
sword. Despite the certified safety of biotechnology-derived foods,
opposition by environmental activists has undermined consumer
confidence in the new gene technology. Food companies such as
McDonald's and Frito-Lay are now asking their suppliers not to use
bioengineered potatoes and corn. Many European countries are avoiding
imports of bioengineered corn and soybeans entirely.

Meanwhile, the industry has responded with a public relations
campaign of its own. The press releases and TV commercials extol
potential benefits of biofoods, such as better nutrition and
ameliorating the problem of world hunger. Although biotechnology
clearly provides ammunition for improving food production, the fact
is that right now there is little industry research on food staples
of importance to the developing world. It's time for the industry to
put its money-actually its patents-where its mouth is. Nobody should
expect Monsanto to end world hunger. That's like counting on
Microsoft to wipe out illiteracy. The biotech industry has spent
billions of dollars developing a powerful technology for redesigning
crops to evade pests and diseases, and to improve food quality. But
because investment dollars need to be recovered, the target of such
research is on commercial crops in Western countries.

So where does that leave the developing world? Poor countries such as
Ethiopia or Bangladesh don't have the funds or scientific talent
needed to pursue biotech research on their own. Nevertheless, many
public institutions are developing food crops with improved
attributes such as "golden rice" rich in provitamin A, which can
prevent blindness in children. In my own lab at Tuskegee University,
we have created high protein sweet potatoes.

These new crops are designed to be distributed freely to farmers in
the developing world. However, industry "ownership" of genes and
technologies used to create such varieties represents a serious
obstacle. Nearly every core technology used in crop biotechnology is
the intellectual property of companies such as Dow, DuPont, Monsanto
and Novartis. So if Vietnam or Liberia wants to distribute golden
rice seeds to its farmers, it must first negotiate with various
companies for the gene transfer, gene promoter and selectable marker
technologies that were used in its development. Most poor countries
simply do not have the financial resources or the scientific or legal
acumen to wade through this complex patent maze. Thus, agricultural
biotechnology cannot make inroads into developing nations without a
"freedom to operate" license from the owners of these
technologies-major life science corporations.

If companies really want to combat global poverty and hunger, they
must make their technology available for use on select food crops
such as rice, cassava and millet by developing countries on a
royalty-free basis. Not only will this provide a tremendous boost to
world food production, but it also makes good business sense.
Acceptance of biotech food crops in the developing world would create
market opportunities for commercial crops such as cotton, and would
also give the industry a much-needed human face. Would anyone oppose
such a plan? Although there's much willingness among corporate
scientists to share technology, their lawyers cannot see beyond the
issue of liability. Activists are also to blame. Their opposition to
using new technologies in the Third World puts industry in a "damned
if you do and damned if you don't" position.

Clearly, we need an independent middleman to take charge. Catherine
Ives of the Agricultural Biotechnology Sustainability Project at
Michigan State University believes that a new international agency
should be set up to act as a "technology trust" that can assume
responsibility for transferring biotechnology to developing
countries. A central agency would not only help indemnify companies
from liability suits, but would also help negotiate the labyrinth of
patent laws and intellectual property claims.

The benefits of agricultural biotechnology are as real as the
problems we face. In my native India, every third child is
underweight due to malnutrition and 400 million people go to bed
hungry every night. In a country where 70 percent of people are
associated with farming, technological innovation in agriculture is
critical not only to produce more food but also to improve living
standards. It's time for the agricultural biotechnology industry to
show a social conscience and clear the way for the harnessing of
their newfound knowledge to combat global hunger and malnutrition.

Professor C.S. Prakash teaches plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee
University. He has recently received endorsements from 2,200
scientists across the world for his declaration in support of
biotechnology in agriculture.


(Note: This article was written prior to the AstraZeneca
announcement that it would make Potrykus' Golden Rice available
freely to researchers in the third world..........CSP)