Agricultural Technology Could Feed Rising Population, But Who Will Own Crops? 20/03/2009 by Kaitlin Mara for Intellectual Property Watch and Catherine Saez 3 Comments Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)The genetic revolution has come to food, as debates over how to deal with future pressures of population and climate change look to agricultural technology in hope of answers. But questions still remain over who owns the technology, who will do the research, and what forms of – and even whether – biotechnology is appropriate to human needs and the needs of smallholding farmers. “Agriculture has to stop being a problem; it has to become a solution,” said Ioan Negrutiu, biology professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France. Solutions will rely on industry, said Jérome Péribère, President of DowAgroSciences US. “Science is going to make it happen, or it won’t happen.” These questions were discussed at two sessions of the 8-11 March BioVision life sciences conference in Lyon. “There are two forms of regulation” on this type of science: biosafety, and IP rights, said Piet van der Meer of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative, a foundation which attempts to bring public researchers into regulatory debates relevant to biotechnology development. Of course in agriculture, “it’s a bit more complex than just IPRs” he added. The Geneva-based International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), access and benefit-sharing frameworks such as under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, and farmers’ rights also play a role. There are serious questions over “who then owns these new varieties” of plants, said Janet Cotter, senior scientist at the Greenpeace International Science Unit at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. The Need For Seeds and the Role of IP “We need to double global food production in about 40 years,” said Willy de Greef, secretary general of Europabio, an association of European biotechnology firms. “We need crops … [that can] adapt to suboptimal, unpredictable climactic conditions.” “IPR is crucial for innovation, [and] for protecting and advancing crop genetics,” said Michiel van Lookeren Campagne, head of research of Bayer CropScience’s BioScience Business Unit, saying “in countries such as Argentina, which has a poor IP regime, companies like ours are placing very little emphasis. It is hard for them to get modern agricultural technology” as a result. Others had more mixed views. Van der Meer said that on the issue that “you ask one public researcher and he loves it [IP] and another hates it because it impedes her research.” His Public Research and Regulation Initiative has recently begun a working group on IP rights and plant genetic resources. Where intellectual property may play a key role is in determining what kind of agricultural solutions get explored and promoted. Organic farming, and other forms of low-input agriculture, could help increase food security, said Cotter. However, she later told Intellectual Property Watch, “the business model is lacking there.” Van Lookeren Campagne explained “we don’t breed for organic farmers because we can only sell that seed once.” And “businesses will invest in R&D if there’s added value in that R&D.” The difficulty, said Cotter, is that “you want incentives for innovation. But you also want farmers to save seed.” Many basic patents are in public hands, said de Greef, so it could be possible to carve out rights from that intellectual property for humanitarian causes. Picking The Right IP Plant variety protection is a more variegated than just patent protection. Two major international agreements – the UPOV agreement, the World Trade Organization Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement – regulate a series of IP rights for plant varieties, including plant breeders’ rights, patent protection and the poorly-defined sui generis (or in-kind) proposals for protection (see the 2004 Food and Agriculture Organization report “Intellectual Property Rights In Plant Varieties” for more detail). “Diversity is key” in crop technology, said Marion Guillou, CEO of public agricultural research centre Institut National de Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in France. “But you need to know what you have and what your freedom is to use it.” There are special rights on plant varieties, she explained. Seed breeders in the US use patents to protect their innovations, but European seed breeders rely more on plant breeders’ rights (a type of IP protection that notably exempts those who wish to use a protected variety for further research), Guillou said. INRA prefers this approach as it does not restrict use of genetic resources for further breeding. INRA does use patents but never on a gene sequences, she said. INRA also is coordinating a patent pooling project. Launched in 2006, it aiming at setting up a collective network for the management of patents and other exploitable assets held by European public research organisations in the field of agricultural biotechnologies, Guillou said. Technology, Tradition, Or Both For Agricultural Future? “No single technology can solve these complex issues by itself, neither organic nor biotech,” said van der Meer. “Biotechnology alone cannot build the future of all agricultures,” added Negrutiu. But to the extent that biotechnology is part of the future, there are different forms it might take. “Our planet needs GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms] urgently,” said Marc Van Montagu, chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries in Belgium. He discovered with his colleague Jeff Schell the gene transfer mechanism between agrobacterium and plants, which resulted in the creation of transgenic (or, genetically modified) plants. The increase of global meat consumption will bring the need for more crops, he said. “With GMOs we can grow plants organically, with less fertiliser, less pesticides … they are very ecological plants,” he said, adding they could provide sustainability and support biodiversity. Patents are the only way to get the industry’s interest, he added, but the fact that there are so many patents is leading to a setback for research. INRA does not work on GMO innovations any longer due to the public perception of this technology in Europe, Guillou said. They are working more on genomics (the study of the genomes of organisms) and gene markers. “There are other ways for innovation than GMOs,” she said. Marker-assisted selection – which uses knowledge of genetics to improve on traditional plant breeding – is one such area. Marker-assisted selection is “more of a grey area” for patenting, said Cotter, but its ability to work with the complexity of a genome – in which a gene’s position might be just as important as the trait expressed in isolation – is more applicable to modern agricultural needs. “GM crops aren’t part of the future,” she added. It is not about being for or against GMOs, “we have to get out of the extremes,” said Timothy Hall, acting director for biotechnologies, agriculture and food research at the European Commission. A package of technologies should be used, including traditional agriculture. 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