Bureaucrats battle over plant genes New Scientist 23 Nov 96 p 7
TWO UN organisations, meeting on different continents, locked horns last week over who should control the world's agricultural genetic resources. The success of the much-heralded new green revolution could depend on who wins.
In Leipzig in June the Food and Agriculture Organization won agreement on a treaty to conserve crop plants (NS 29 June p7) The treaty, which aims tp preserve plants in the field and in seed banks formed a cornerstone of action to curb hunger approved at the World Food Summit. But behind the scenes in Rome, FAO officials were crying foul over developments at a meeting of signatories to to the UN's convention on Biological Diversity in Buenos Aires. While the biodiversity convention's aim is to conserve wild species, it also contains provisions on protecting crops. FAO officials claim some countries were pushing for the convention, which is run by UN Environment Programme, to seize control of crop conservation. "We are confused," said Stein Bie of director of research at the FAO. Some countries are saying different things here and in Buenos Aires." The UN battle could determine whether, as the FAO wants, plant varieties are protected as a global resource, available to all researchers, or whether large companies are able to patent their characteristics and uses.. This may be easier if crops come under the biodiversity convention, observers say. 'Who controls the genes? That's the great fight," said Pat Mooney of the Rural Advancement Foundation international. Argentina, Australia and Brazil, backed by the US, were pushing hardest in Buenos Aires to place agricultural genetic resources under the biodiversity convention, he said. The stakes are high. One estimate is that the world's plant gene banks are worth $5 billion a year, through sales of patented seeds, for instance. This figure could swell through the use of genes from wild plants. In this week' s Nature, researchers at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, the China National hybrid Rice Research and Development Centre in Changsha report that they have improved the yields of a leading rice variety by adding genes from a wild relative wild relative, oryza rufipogon.
West won't cough up cash to save vanishing crops. New Scientist 96
AN EMERGENCY plan to save the dwindling genetic diversity of the world's food craps has been agreed by 150 countries, but the developed countries have failed to commit themselves to giving Third Wbrid nations any addidonal funds for the task. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that a million varieties of agricuttural plants are threatened with extinction because the gene banks In which they are stored are poorly funded (This Week, 29 April). Delegates at the FAO conference in Leipzig tut week agreed a 50-page plan of action promising to devote more effort to conserve plants in gene banks and on farms. But despite long and tortuous arguments in Leipzig, the final text refers only to funding that developed nations had already promised at the Earth Summit In Rio de Janeiro four years ago. The FAO, however, has calculated that an additional sum of up to $3 billion is needed fbr the task over the next decade. During the negotiations, the US fought fiercely against any commitment to providing extra money, or to giving Third World farmers commercial rights to plants taken from their land. This threatened to derail the conference, a potential disaster for the FAO. But after a series of late-night sessions, the US delegation was forced to back down over farmers' rights, opening the way to amendment. Delegates from developing countries left Leipzig disappointed that they had not managed to win more concessions, but relieved that a global plan had been agreed. "It could have been a lot worse," says Kristin Dawkins from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minnesota. 'At least we are treading water".
A matter of life and death - patenting
of living material in disarray
New Scientist 96
THE thorny issue of patents on life is back on the European agenda now that the European Commissicn has reopened negotiations with the European Parliament for a directive on the 'legal protection of biotechnological inventions'. Across Europe, around 30000 children die each year from inherited diseases, and ten times as many will be born disabled or with long-term health problems. Advances in biotechnology are their only hope, so the question must now be - how can their interests best be served by a single European biotechnology patent law? The Commission's first proposal was scuppered by the Parliament in March 1995 in an unexpected but decisive vote. Though the Parliament was strongly criticised at the time by the biotechnology lobby, with hindsight the 'no" vote was blessing in disguise for the industry. After six years of negotiation and repeated alterations to the directive, no one was entirely clear about the meaning of substantial parts of the text. Had it been agreed, the goal of a single European patent regime for biotechnological inventions would have been missed by a mile. Each of the national patent offices would have interpreted the new rules differently. The "no" vote took the Com mission by surprise. In its new proposal, it has taken heed of nearly all of the Parliament's concerns. However, it has dug its heels in on one point which, unfortunately, is at the core of the philosophical problems with patenting living material and is likely to be a serious impediment to the acceptance Of this directive. Last year, there was majority support in the Parliament to allow patents on .8 inventions that make use of human biological material isolated from the body, such as genes, hormones and proteins, i but to exclude patents on the material itself as these are "discovered" in the body, not 'invented". The new directive allows a patent on an invention based on the use of isolated human material to extend over the material itself. But it will also allaw a "free-standing" patent on such material on the grounds that the process of isolation conveys "inventive ness' on something that was merely discovered in the body. The argument used is very odd. The knowledge of the gene sequence or the structure of a hormone or protein is regarded as a "discovery" and is not patentable. But to isolate such materials from the body requires "techniques which only human beings are capable of implementing and which nature is incapable of accomplishing by itself". The text claims that an isolated gene, hormone or protein once out of the body is an "artificial" construct and thus may be patented. This creates a patent regime for biotechnological inventions markedly different from other inventions, Applied to a non-biotechnological invention, its absurdity becomes apparent. For example, a reactive metal will not exist in nature in its pure metallic form. Yet, if a patentable technique to extract the metal from the ore is developed, should the metal itself be patentable because it does not exist in nature? The pharmaceutical lobby is responsible for this special pleading. Without patents an extracted human material, it says, there will be no incentives for research, investment in biotechnology will drain out of Europe and into the patent nirvanas of the US atid Japan, and advances in medicine will be inhibited, particularly for genetic diseases. On the other side, the Greens are opposed to any patenting of living material. They argue that patents do not provide incentives for research, they merely act as a brake on initiatives by other laboratories.
They say that allowing patents on isolated human material, particularly genes, will skew research and development towards commercially exploitable products. In other words, patenting will not help patients with rare disorders who form too small a market to provide a commercial incentive. The European Parliament's attempts to bridge the yawning gap between these opposing opinions is doomed to failure because there is no middle ground. There is truth on both sides. In theory, market forces give patent-holders an incentive to exploit their patents. In practice, however, if a patent-holder frustrates other researchers by being difficult over licensing or charging exorbitant royalties there is little redress for an aggrieved would-be competitor-particularly one who cannot spend the time or the money obtaining a compulsory licence. 'the creation of monopoly rights over genes could enable commercial provide "genetic services - a carrier screening, perhaps, or therapies for sufferers of the disease, services which therapeutic sector would have difficulty providing. The market could stimulate opporturiities that would not otherwise exist. On the other hand, giving control over the exploitation of a gene to a commercial company could seriously inhibit research. "Sclerosis plc" may make a breakthrough in treatment, but sufferers may not be able to use it because of cost or geography or licensing conditions. The truth-which neither the proponents nor the supporters will admitis that patenting is neutral in value. whether it enhances research or inhibits it will depend on the way the rights granted are exploited. The continuing uncertainty over patenting will impair genetic research in the European Union, though this impairment is probably exaggerated by the biotechnology lobby. This directive is urgently needed, because until the Union creates a regulatory framework for patenting biotechnology that allows genetic research to develop unimpaired, then it is children with inherited diseases who will be the losen. By backing the biotechnology lobby. the Commission has reduced the chances of this Parliament agreeing to the directive. It could take another six years to come up with a compromise that is acceptable to everyone.
Maggice Grace Is a research assistant
to Gijss de Vries MEP.
Nations clash over genetic protocol - New Scientist 3 Aug 96
International rules to punish exporters of "genetic pollution" inched closer last week when delegates from 90 countries met in the Danish city of Arhus to draft a protocol governing tile movement of genetically engineered organisms across borders. But rich and poor nations disagreed over tile contents of the protocol, first proposed in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The poor countries want the treaty to stop the import of genetically engineered products that would threaten local industries. They also want industrialized countries to accept liability and pay compensation if their multinational companies pllute poorer countries with with genetically modified organisms. The richer nations, however, claim such rules would be obstacles to free trade. Calestous Juma, the executive secretary to the Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by 155 nations in Rio, says many poorer nations, particularly those in Africa, believe they will be used as test sites for genetic engineering. For this reason, "they only see the potential for harmful impacts of genetic engineering, not the benefits". The aim of last week's conference was to draft a list of subjects for inclusion in the protocol. But delegates only agreed unanimously on 10 points, with a further 38 still up for discussion. Juma explains that the lack of agreement was "because of the divisive character and controversial nature of tile protocol. What we achieved last week was a tentative agreement on the elements for the protocol." Apart from arguing about compensation liability and "socioeconomic" barriers delegates also disagreed on how to assess the risks of releasing genetically modified organisms and safety measures necessary before such releases could be allowed. There was also no consensus on emergency procedures should a release go wrong, nor on measures to punish illegal traffickers of genetically engineered products. Delegates did agree on the need for definitions of words and terms tised by genetic engineers, and on several trivial points, such as a title for the protocol. Juma's secretariat is compiling a 40-page summary A working group will meet next May - the deadline is November 1988.