Summary: On 16 May the UK-based Gene Giant, AstraZeneca, announced that it had struck a deal with the European inventors of the publicly funded, genetically-modified, Vitamin-A fortified rice to make it freely available to poor farmers in the South. The deal gives AstraZeneca commercial rights to the so-called Golden Rice in the North. The AstraZeneca deal was a mistake. Rather than dodge or submit to intellectual property pressures, public science must confront its problems openly and directly. If they don t, they will do what neither the US Government nor the WTO have succeeded in doing, and force a global patent regime on the poor.
From the 'get-go', the prospect of genetically modified rice with enriched vitamin-A was a Red Flag to embittered GMO opponents and a Flag of Convenience for the embattled biotech industry.
The beleaguered Gene Giants - reeling from GM seed pollution scandals in Europe and 'mystery guest' appearances of itinerate DNA fragments in GM soybeans in America -are trumpeting the rice as proof positive that genetic engineering can really feed the hungry. In theory, Golden Rice (so dubbed for its yellowish tinge contributed by beta-carotene) could help address a significant nutrient deficiency afflicting the South s poor.
For biotech activists, including RAFI, vitamin-A rice targets vulnerable people within the centre of genetic diversity of the crop. Golden Rice is also the first serious product of biotech's long-awaited 'Generation Three' portending actual -- or at least perceived -- benefits to consumers. For all of these reasons, the initiative demands forensic scrutiny.
Real Concerns: Critics are concerned that the advent of Golden Rice's 'quick fix' for vitamin-A deficiency could kneecap other low-tech and more cost-effective initiatives, among them, to re-introduce the many vitamin-rich food plants that were once cheap and available. Rather than nurture a strategy that encourages biodiversity, Golden Rice could promote monocultures and genetic uniformity. This is the wrong strategy.
Especially worrisome, given the huge per capita consumption of rice among the poor, is the risk that changes in the nutrient or toxicant content of rice could have serious consequences. Some worry that children could over-dose on vitamin-A.
Then, of course, there are the GMO issues. As the standard-bearer for industry's Generation Three, aimed directly down the gullets of consumers, can the technology be proven safe for people? As a GMO to be released in the genetic heartland of the crop most important to the world's poorest people, will it be safe in the environment?
Golden Pawns? Most galling, however, is the Gene Giants' capture of the whole public sector initiative. The Rockefeller Foundation (RF), among others, bankrolled public sector researchers in Switzerland and Germany to come up with something possibly useful. For good reason, RAFI and others went 'ballistic' when AstraZeneca announced on May 16 that it was taking over the further development of vitamin-A rice. Sanctimoniously promising to make the technology freely available to poor farmers in developing countries, AstraZeneca captured years of public investment at minimum cost. It also acquired commercial rights to the public technology in the North and among large-scale farmers in the South. The company speculates that it could have vitamin-A rice in farmers' fields as early as 2003. Such a schedule for introduction would not leave sufficient time to undertake socioeconomic, human health and ecological impact studies necessary to ensure everyone's wellbeing. In RAFI s opinion, the Golden Rice deal was a rip-off of the public trust. Asian farmers get (unproven) GM rice and AstraZeneca gets the 'gold'.
The deal between the two inventors and AstraZeneca (brokered by Greenovation - Freiberg University s spin-off biotech company) was galling on many counts.
Enforcers for the Golden Rule? First, the reason the public researchers went to the private sector, it was rumoured, was because Golden Rice transgresses anywhere from 70 to more than 100 patents. The legal and licensing fees involved in threading through the patent haystack were said to be too complex and costly for public institutions. For civil society organizations, the natural response is to fight, not surrender. To challenge the patent system and the companies and - at the very least - to shame the patent-holders into waiving their licenses.
Second, and of yet greater concern was the impression left by the deal that the public researchers and their primary financial backer, the Rockefeller Foundation, were capitulating to US patent laws that have no jurisdiction in the vast majority of poor countries that may someday adopt the technology. De facto, a high-profile defender of public science, RF, was doing the work of the US Trade Representative enforcing US hegemony on sovereign states. Public scientists and CSOs were stunned by the precedent.
On examination, of course, while all the major issues remain unresolved, some of the detail is less dramatic. The inventors are - not only concerned about national patents - but also about Material Transfer Agreements (MTAs) they had to sign in order to do their work. MTAs know no geographic limitations and could impede the further development of Golden Rice if it proves ultimately beneficial. Then, too, the Rockefeller Foundation was as much taken off-guard by the AstraZeneca announcement as everyone else. The first Foundation staff knew about the sealed deal was when AstraZeneca's spin-doctors came looking for a quote. This makes sense, since no foundation would normally own or interfere with public scientists by dictating the path to market introduction - beyond ensuring that the research was available to the poor. Whether RF is 'pleased' or 'put off' by the deal is another, unanswered, question.
Fools' Gold? The big issues still remain. Is Golden Rice necessary or safe? Will Generation Three biotech products make any real contribution to the poor, or will these products merely provide 'safe cover' and positive PR for the Gene Giants? How can public research be protected from predatory patents and patenters? Most important: is there an unspoken 'understanding' within the international public sector that US patent law is 'Pax Romana' and must be respected and enforced around the world? It is, for example, rumored that Japan's Kirin Brewery - a company with a vat full of lawyers and a long biotech history - does hold a key patent they are refusing to surrender for Golden Rice. Apparently, vitamin-A rice could prove commercially viable in Japan and among the Asian NICs. Since the patent is non-applicable in most of the South, would public researchers working in the South be willing to incorporatre the Kirin technology in their breeding programmes or would they be afraid to risk the wrath of Japanese donors? The smart money is on surrender.
The AstraZeneca deal was a mistake. Rather than dodge or submit to intellectual property pressures, public science must confront its problems openly and directly. Will they do what neither the US Government nor the WTO have succeeded in doing, and force a global patent regime on the poor - or will they honour existing international law and uphold the rights of poor countries? Will they accept the problems inherent in MTAs and pass the risks onto the poor, or will they address them? Will their solution always be to subsidize the corporations and acquiesce to IP by surrendering their publicly-funded research rather than to defend public goods?
Crossover? While the Rockefeller Foundation may have found itself innocently caught between the crosshairs of all the GMO protagonists, it should not duck for cover too quickly. Historically, RF has only been slightly less unpopular than the IMF and the World Bank among activist CSOs. It is a founding member of the Green Revolution and it has poured over $100 million into biotech over the past 15 years. Defending the 'poor and excluded' (Foundation 'speak') from their sanctum in the upper-echelons of a Manhattan skyscraper, the Foundation makes for a plump target. At the same time, a relatively small percentage of their agricultural grants have been related to GMOs and the Foundation confesses itself to be uneasy about the direction taken by the Gene Giants with respect to Terminator Technology and intellectual property. Even though it provided much of the money for Golden Rice, it appears genuinely open to stringent evaluation of its socio-economic, health, and environmental implications. Perhaps to its own surprise, the Foundation could move from being in the crosshairs to becoming the crossroads for a real global and public dialogue on the future of public science, intellectual property, and food security. If so, a powerful institution once thought to be industry's pawn, could indeed become a benefit to the 'poor and excluded' - with or without Golden Rice.
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Last Updated on 8/18/00
By Dan Ellis