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Will patenting crops help feed the hungry?

Rice is the primary source of food for roughly half the world’s population. But it falls well short of providing enough iron, zinc and pro-vitamin A to meet daily nutritional requirements. Iron deficiency…

Iron-rich rice helps feed the poor: could we do it without patenting? Jane Rawson

Rice is the primary source of food for roughly half the world’s population. But it falls well short of providing enough iron, zinc and pro-vitamin A to meet daily nutritional requirements.

Iron deficiency is the most widespread nutritional disorder in the world, affecting more than two billion people. Symptoms include poor mental development, depressed immune function and anaemia.

To address this problem, scientists from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) have produced rice with iron levels high enough to meet daily recommended requirements. This rice has up to four times more iron than conventional rice and twice as much zinc.

What’s surprising about this development is it doesn’t involve patented technology.

The iron rice instead uses very clever science to “trick” the rice into thinking it has insufficient iron so the rice absorbs a lot more iron from the soil than normal. It’s a bit like tricking a person into thinking they are hungry when they are not.

Gene patents are commonplace in agriculture. It’s now possible to improve plants by transferring genes from plant to plant. Genes can be turned on or off and made to work only in particular parts of a plant.

Why would anyone patent a gene?

The knowledge of genes and their function is a valuable tool to improve our food supply and quality. But gene patenting has been a contentious issue recently.

Proponents claim gene patentability is the key to recovering the huge investments required to improve crops and human health.

When someone takes out a patent in Australia, they’re given the right to use their idea, exclusively, for 20 years. After that, the knowledge becomes freely available.

This system encourages innovation and the generation of new ideas which have practical application. In the scheme of things, 20 years is a small piece of eternity.

The agricultural biotechnology industry uses the patent system in the developed world to recoup extensive research expenditure. Large companies such as Syngenta, BASF, DOW, Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer hold 63% of the patents in this area.

Without gene patents we would have less innovation, a solution that wouldn’t help food security at all.

How do we support food security in the developing world?

Companies that invent genetically manipulated crops want to make their money back. But there are alternatives to gene patents when we are making crops for the developing world.

In the case of the iron-enriched rice, the work was funded by the HarvestPlus program and the Australian Research Council. The former is a charitable organisation and the latter is funded by the Australian taxpayer. These organisations don’t expect to recoup their costs.

Also, iron deficiency is largely a problem of the developing world. We need to ensure the technology is made available to as many people as possible, at the lowest possible cost. There is little likelihood of recovering development funding under these circumstances.

In some cases, where new technologies are useful in the developed world as well as in developing nations, it may still be useful to patent those technologies. Such technologies can be licensed to seed companies in the developed world for commercial gain, whilst still providing the technologies “for free” elsewhere.

From developed to developing and back again

Patent ownership can also help stop “leakage” from the developing world into the developed world. By this I mean the developed world cannot gain, for no cost, technologies which they should pay for.

There are many instances where even patented technologies owned by large companies have been “donated” to the developing world. The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project is one such example.

In this case, Monsanto has donated drought-tolerant transgenes (developed with BASF) to the WEMA project with no expectation of royalties. This approach is commonplace, despite cries from some that multi-nationals are trying to control the food supply chain.

In some cases, organisations such as ACPFG – where I am General Manager – patent technologies in both the developing and the developed world.

Why do we do this? Well, it means we can control how technology is deployed. We can ensure that large companies don’t exploit our technology for commercial gain if we don’t want them to.

And of course we don’t want that to occur in the developing world.

The other reason we may wish to patent in the developing world relates to the length of time it takes to develop new technologies – ten years is not uncommon. In that time countries can transition from developing to developed.

ACPFG works with many of the research centres that help developing nations, such as CIMMYT in Mexico, and the International Rice Research Institute in the Phillipines.

In the developing world, we have a policy of making technologies freely available, whether patented or not. Even if we have a patent on a gene, we can provide a no-cost license in developing countries; many large companies do the same. This is a policy that continues in the case of high-iron rice.

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. Eric Ireland

    logged in via Facebook

    I don't believe the ability to patent genes is in the public interest. I've heard stories in the news about farmers in America being sued for patent infringement who didn't even know their seeds were transgenic; their non-GM crops were cross-pollinated from their neighbours' GM crops. So, I have no problem with GM crops as such, but genes should be in the public domain. If it cuts investment into GM crops, so be it. I'm not convinced it would have that much effect on investment into the most useful research anyway, which has often been publicly funded. The crop research that led to the green revolution happened before the advent of GM crops, and gene patents.

    I think patenting of crops gives the whole biotech industry a bad name, and could ultimately result in the public demanding restrictive laws that would stop all kinds of good research, as has happened recently in Turkey (see

  2. Bob Phelps

    Director at Gene Ethics

    Yes, a few single gene traits such as herbicide tolerance and Bt insect toxins have been transferred from bacteria into plants using genetic manipulation (GM) techniques but multigenic traits will defy transgenesis. For instance, when the Beef CRC was defunded recently, its CEO Heather Burrow assessed the limits to their focus on GM and mapping in animal breeding and selection. Dr Burrow said:

    “the dramatic breeding and selection advances (that mapping the beef genome sequence) promised have been…

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  3. wilma western

    logged in via email

    I think this article gives important information about uses of patents and it is reassuring that non corporate bodies such as research institutes do not patent every innovation and that their approach is philanthropic in that they never expect to recover even the cost of developing new crop varieties let alone make profits from them . Of course the anti-Gm zealots would treat Monsanto's transfer of ceratin varieties at low cost to African nations as merely a cunning move to capture even more markets. It's also amazing that campaigners loudly demand all sorts of peer-reviewing when an article is supportive of certain GM crop innovations but comment gushingly about less factual articles on alleged animal cruelty or the alleged horrors of "industrial Agriculture".

  4. wilma western

    logged in via email

    Bob Phelps , the best known anti-GM campaigner and the spokesperson for Gene Ethics , wants people to believe that because some attempts to achieve improvements using biotechnology have not succeeded , the whole technology should be binned. If this approach was used with more "conventional" pre-GM techniques, there would be much less food available globally.Mr Phelps ignores the huge takeup by farmers in North America , China , India , Latin America and increasingly in Australia of successful , profitable and lower impact Gm cropping. Most cotton grown in Australia is GM , Japan depends for much of its livestock raising on GM soy feeds, and the uptake of GM canola varieties by Australian farmers is increasing. Mr Phelps failed to declare his interest.

    1. Bob Phelps

      Director at Gene Ethics

      In reply to wilma western

      Hello Wilma. Get a load of US farmers successes with GM crops here. A short-lived high and a hangover now. Video at:

      I say is our scarce public research and development budgets should not be wasted on GM research and development, principally to benefit those corporations which own and the genes and commercially exploit our research. As I wrote in 1998: "Australian governments, committed to free trade and global markets, back the factory farming model and…

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    2. Michael Gilbert

      General Manager at Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics

      In reply to Bob Phelps

      Dear Wilma,
      Thank you for your positive comments. Some people have been quite nasty.
      In defence of Bob, he has been to see us recently. Whilst obviously we do not agree with each others views, we invited him and he was keen to come to see what we do.
      We had a great conversation, and sensibly chatted about each others' views. That is all we can do; keep the dialogue open and not get too excited, and at least Bob made an effort to come, and therefore we all learnt something..
      It was actually an enjoyable interaction and we encourage anyone to come to ACPFG to see what we do,

    3. Bob Phelps

      Director at Gene Ethics

      In reply to Michael Gilbert

      Thanks Michael:

      I also found the visit congenial. We have all been subject to some heavy criticism over the years and agree that civility is important.

      It also rankles that there is such unequal resourcing by government and industry for the public interest side of this long-running debate. The systematic exclusion of public interest critics from forums is also unfair.

      I do hope ACPFG may be willing and able to assist us to resolve these questions.