Written by Jaime A Manalo IV
There is a massive internet information about the perceived horror related to patenting life forms, plants included. In her 1998 book, Biopiracy: The plunder of nature and knowledge, Indian activist Vandana Shiva explores the struggles of Third World countries to protect their crops and indigenous knowledge. Shiva asks thought-provoking questions in her monograph such as “Can life be made?” and “Can life be owned?”
In North America, a landmark decision was made in 1980 when the US Supreme Court ruled that modified microorganisms were patentable, which literally means these can be owned.
It is a big raging debate. No silver bullets, no easy answers. Perhaps, a good question to ask is: Is patenting evil? And does the scientific community only harbor people driven by greed and those bent on grabbing credit for themselves?
Massive, even sensational, are the contestations about the Golden Rice (GR) Project. One of the key arguments is that the GR, once sold, will serve only the interest of multinational companies, an issue that is well-anchored on intellectual property rights (IPR).
Based on the Golden Rice website (www.goldenrice.org), the inventors of GR have assigned exclusive rights of the technology to Syngenta, a multinational company. This was done as the inventors were university professors, and universities do not produce technologies in wide scale. They only develop it. Consequently, they had to partner with one that has the capability to develop the technology further, and hence, they saw that in Syngenta.
Golden Rice is composed of several ancillary technologies, patents of which were held by 32 different companies and universities. The 2005 editorial of the Nature Biotechnology titled Reburnishing Golden Rice states that Syngenta “has obtained free licenses for humanitarian use of the necessary technology.”
Syngenta has developed Golden Rice 2, which basically replaces the daffodil phytoene synthase gene with an equivalent gene from maize. The same article notes Golden Rice 2 could provide 50% of the RDA for Vitamin A. Golden Rice 2 is now the base technology for GR development worldwide.
Can Juan de Manila afford GR?
Yes, Juan, you could buy GR as though it were Sinandomeng or Angelica rice.
One big reservation about GR is its possibly unaffordable retail price owing to its added trait. Syngenta has given the Humanitarian Board, an honorary body that provides strategic guidance to the project, rights to use GR technology for humanitarian purposes, and to sublicense work to public research institutions like PhilRice.
The GR website says one inclusion to being a humanitarian project is use of the technology in low-income and food-deficit developing countries as identified by the Food and Agriculture Organization. Resource-poor farmers can freely plant GR.
The humanitarian-use clause provides that GR should be priced similar to other varieties without added trait. According to Dr. Antonio Alfonso, GR Project team lead in PH, PhilRice as the breeding institution will eventually become the variety owner-developer. Before it becomes a full-fledged commercial variety, GR will undergo the same process of evaluation under the close scrutiny of the National Seed Industry Council, as other ordinary varieties do.
Excess produce may also be sold by farmers, who can likewise resow the inbred GR seeds without having to pay for anything.
Apprehensions over GR patent may just be unfounded or emotional – perhaps driven by the connotation that gold is seldom or never free. In the case of Golden Rice, gold may not only be cheap, but also something that might sprout and be resown over and over again to produce more of its own kind.