Coalition Seeks to Make Agricultural-Biotechnology Tools More Widely Available

The Chronicle of Higher Education
July 11th 2003

A dozen of the most important land-grant universities and plant-research centers have joined forces to try to knock down the intellectual-property barriers blocking the use of genetic-engineering tools that might help feed millions of people in the developing world.

Although agricultural biotechnology remains undeniably controversial, many academic researchers and institutions are eager to exploit its promise by creating new disease-resistant strains of crops like rice and cassava, overcoming crop failures that can lead to shortages and starvation in many countries. Many, especially those at institutions with the mission of helping agriculture in their state, also want to provide improved varieties of specialty crops to their local farmers.

But legal and financial roadblocks stand in their way. Some of the most fundamental genetic-engineering tools needed to create these crops, such as techniques for introducing genes into plants to make them resistant to insects or viruses, were patented and licensed exclusively to companies -- sometimes by the very universities that today want to use the techniques.

With about $400,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation, the institutions are forming an organization that will establish new principles for commercializing agricultural technologies, with licensing terms that would ensure that the universities don't sell off the rights to use the inventions for endeavors that benefit the public. For example, participants might make a practice of including a "humanitarian use" clause in all licenses, which could ensure that they retain the rights to the inventions when creating new strains of crops for developing countries.

"We're trying to make sure that the public sector maintains the ability to serve the poor farmers" around the world, says Gary Toenniessen, director of food-security programming at Rockefeller.

The new organization, Public-Sector Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture -- they call it "Pipra" -- will also create a public database for researchers, with information from participating institutions that will detail which genes and techniques for using them are patented and licensed, and which are still in the public domain.

While many of the key tools are covered by patents and licenses, and many of those licenses are confidential, developers of the database "will try to figure out what hasn't been licensed away," so that academic researchers will know the kinds of techniques that offer the greatest freedom to operate, says Mr. Toenniessen.

The members may also pool their patents and offer them for license, as a package deal, to one another or to commercial partners, in order to promote the development of crops to be used for humanitarian purposes.

The presidents and chancellors of the participating institutions announced the venture in a paper published in today's issue of the journal Science, saying they hoped it would yield "significant benefits both for U.S. agriculture and for the world's food security."

The initial 12 participants include six land-grant institutions that are among the largest owners of active patents in agricultural biotechnology: Cornell, North Carolina State, and Rutgers Universities, the University of California system, and the Universities of Florida and Wisconsin at Madison. Michigan State and Ohio State Universities are also involved, as is the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, in St. Louis, and the Cornell-affiliated Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research. Along with the president of the University of California system, the chancellors of its Davis and Riverside campuses have expressly committed their institutions to the collaboration. Organizers say other land-grant institutions are considering joining but haven't yet signed on. Eventually, the group hopes to include major private institutions as well.

"It helps to restore the commitment of the universities to public-goods research," says Roger N. Beachy, a renowned plant researcher and president of the Danforth plant center.

Marye Anne Fox, chancellor at North Carolina State, says the collaboration will also help the institutions make better use of the agricultural research that they have spent years developing. "We have a vested interest in transgenic crops," she says.

Some skeptics may say that the effort comes too late, since so many of the most important technologies have already been licensed away. "To some extent, that's true," acknowledges Alan B. Bennett, director of technology transfer for the University of California system. But "over the next 10 years there will be entirely new platforms of technology developed." He says universities erred in the past because agricultural biotechnology was a new phenomenon. Today, he says, "we know where it is headed."

And while some critics praise Pipra for taking steps to place some limits on the licensing of agricultural patents, several say the effort won't go very far toward solving the world's food problems. Of all the causes for hunger in large parts of Africa, "lack of biotech crops is very low on the list," says Jean Halloran, director of the Consumer Policy Institute, an arm of the Consumers Union that also works with international consumer organizations. Armed conflict, drought, disparities in land distribution, and poverty are all more compelling factors, she notes.

Mr. Toenniessen doesn't dispute that assertion. That, he says, is why the Rockefeller Foundation continues to support other kinds of programs in agriculture. The $120-million that the foundation has given toward projects to apply agricultural biotechnology to crops in developing countries in the past 20 years represents about 30 percent of the foundation's total investment in agricultural development for poor countries over that period.

Proliferating Patents

Organizers of Pipra say the consortium's effort is necessary because agriculture patents have proliferated, as have the licenses that restrict their use.

Universities are part of the problem. In the 1980s, as biotechnology was just emerging, universities licensed away some key technologies. Two of the major techniques for introducing genes into plants, for example, were developed by researchers at Cornell and at Washington University in St. Louis. The Cornell invention is now controlled by DuPont. Washington University's is controlled by Syngenta, a multinational agriculture company.

And while those companies and a few others control many of the key genetic-engineering technologies, they are only using them on crops like corn and soybeans, which have the largest markets. Few, if any, of the companies are using the technologies for so-called subsistence crops, like rice, cassava, millet, chickpeas, or sweet potatoes, which are of greater importance to the developing world.

While debate rages over use of genetically engineered crops in Canada, Europe, and even the United States, some universities that have traditionally worked with agricultural ministries and research institutes in poor regions of Africa and Asia say their overseas colleagues are interested in certain biotech-enhanced crops, particularly those that might be developed to resist insects or disease.

The demand for the biotech crops "is selectively high" says Robert M. Goodman, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who oversees a program financed by the McKnight Foundation, which brings together scientists from developing nations with those from the United States and Europe. He says that a grantee in Uganda is interested in introducing insect-resistant sweet potatoes, but getting the rights has been complicated because Monsanto owns the genes and other companies own the promoters -- biotechnology tools that turn on the gene that expresses a particular trait.

Once Pipra is active, and developers of the crop can see that there is an alternative way to create the variety, it "could dramatically reduce the transaction costs," he says. McKnight is also backing Pipra.

Companies like Monsanto that hold broad rights are sometimes reluctant to surrender them, even if they are to be used for crops that the companies are not interested in marketing, for fear that they will be held liable in the event something goes wrong when other parties use the techniques. But Pipra organizers say the companies likely would go along if they were only given limited rights to begin with.

A spokeswoman for Monsanto, Shannon Troughton, says the company has already agreed to provide some of its technology for humantarian purposes, and welcomes Pipra as a vote of confidence in genetically engineered crops. "It recognizes that plant biology is an important tool" for dealing with problems like world hunger, she says.

Helping Local Farmers

Organizers say the venture could also help land-grant institutions fulfill their public-service missions in their own states. At North Carolina State, for example, plant scientists have been developing genetically engineered strains of cucumbers, melons, strawberries, and other crops with research support from growers' associations.

But these efforts remain in the experimental stages, says Steven A. Lommel, assistant vice chancellor for research, because both the university and the growers' groups eventually found that they would have a hard time obtaining all the intellectual-property rights to the underlying technologies they'd use to develop the strains for commercial use.

This is not what the growers' groups paid for, says Mr. Lommel. "They want more than just an intellectual demonstration," he says.

Mr. Bennett, the University of California system's technology-transfer director, says its universities have developed a number of genes that convey particular traits to many of the crops that are important to California's economy, like tomatoes and strawberries.

But, he says, "a lot of our trait-technology genes are not being licensed," because the small start-up companies that would be likely partners for commercializing these varieties don't have the rights to the basic underlying technologies that University of California researchers used in developing them. Nor do they have the legal or financial wherewithal to get them.

Mr. Bennett, who is overseeing the Pipra database, says it could help ease that logjam. Even if a researcher found that the technique she wanted was covered by a license, "at least you'd know where to go" to try to get the rights, he says.

Or, a researcher might use the database to learn about an alternative technique.

For example, UC-Davis has developed a gene promoter that might work as well as one that Monsanto has commercialized. "Some people have used it. Most people aren't aware of it," says Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotech Center there. But once it's in the database, they might use it and save themselves some hassles later.