GMO Patent Nonsense

One of the most contentious issues in the debate over GM crops and foods is the existence of intellectual property protection and patents on GM organisms and processes.  Anti-biotechnology NGOs fret about a future clouded by corporate control of agriculture, while even many biotech supporters worry that intellectual property rights could prevent resource-poor farmers in less developed countries from sharing the benefits of the Gene Revolution.Recent events, however, should help demonstrate why patents are not the scourge they are sometimes made out to be.  On <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />December 22, 2003 and January 16, 2004, the first three GM plant patents expired, reminding us that only diamonds are forever; patents are just temporary.The first GM plants were developed in 1982 and 1983 by four research teams working independently – one at the State University in Ghent, Belgium, the others in the United States.  The European patent for that process was granted to the Belgian team, and it expired in December.  Two other European patents, held by the biotechnology company Monsanto, expired on January 16.  And, over the next few years, many other important biotechnology patents will expire in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United States, freeing those products and processes for use by anyone.Of course, even technologies still under patent have been put to productive use in less developed countries.  Today, over 5 million resource-poor farmers in South Africa, China, India, the Philippines and elsewhere already happily grow nearly one-third of the world’s total GM hectarage because they have higher yields, require fewer inputs and raise income.Additionally, public sector research labs are creating other products specifically for farmers throughout the developing world, almost invariably with access to patented technologies under liberal humanitarian use exemptions.  But these truths have never stopped anti-biotechnology activists from arguing otherwise.When Switzerland’s Ingo Potrykus and Germany’s Peter Beyer invented a rice variety with beta-carotene, they needed permission from several different holders of more than 70 patents before they could begin testing their Golden Rice in field trials.  Critics continue to use this fact in their campaigns against GM. What they repeatedly neglect to tell their audiences, however, is that those patent holders did indeed grant Potrykus and Beyer exemptions for Golden Rice.Potrykus himself says that, while obtaining those exemptions was time consuming, the primary reason Golden Rice and other bio-fortified crops have not yet begun to help resource-poor farmers is not patents but “regulatory obstacles based on undue paranoia.”  He has even argued that “those who oppose GM technologies for political advantage or self-interest [should be] held responsible for the unnecessary suffering of millions of people with vitamin A deficiency,” which Golden Rice could help address.Of course, it’s much easier for critics to blame capitalism and intellectual property than their own fear mongering for the woes of resource-poor farmers.  But the reason this message is so compelling to so many people is that patents are so commonly misunderstood.The purpose of intellectual property is not, as is often believed, to provide financial protection to those investing in product development or to encourage research into new technologies.  This is a valuable outcome of patents, but it is not the primary goal.  Rather, the chief purpose of patent laws has always been to encourage the dissemination of information so that new technological knowledge could be introduced into the public domain more quickly.To qualify for a patent, inventors must provide a written description of the invention and the process used to make it so that any person skilled in the field can reproduce the technology once the patent expires.  This “enabling disclosure” requirement is the root of all patent systems and, combined with the financial rewards of intellectual property protection, has tended to accelerate the movement of new technologies into the public domain, not impede it.Biotechnology’s critics and advocates alike would do well to remember that, while the wealthy are often first to adopt new products, in time we have all come to rely on once-patented technologies as varied as automobiles and antibiotics.  If we permit it, the whole world could, in time, also benefit from GM foods.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />