Who owns the genes?

In a  recent article by ABC reporters Eleanor Bell and Suzanne Smith titles “Future of food now a global battle” the issue of gene patenting was examined in the context of current research to uncover the genes responsible for stress and drought resistence (something that PolyGenomX has extensive knowledge of). Snippets of the report below, for the full article click here.

The race is on to find and patent all the known stress resistant and drought resistant plant genes in the world. The largest private and public seed, biotech and agrichemical companies and institutions have been granted at least 900 patents over plant genes that will be able to survive a world beset by climate change.

Scientists predict continents such as Africa will need crops that can survive at least a two degree rise in temperature, otherwise thousands of people could starve.

With predictions too that the world’s population will reach 9 billion by 2050, governments are also involved in building seed banks and working with big multinationals to find stress-resistant genes that can be scientifically altered to make plants more resilient.

According to Monsanto Australia’s Peter O’Keefe, Australia is in a unique position to benefit from and contribute to solving the global food shortage expected over the next few decades.

“We’re a big exporter on the world stage, so it’s important that we do our bit,” he said.

“But secondly, Australian farmers need to remain competitive, so we need to have access new technologies and particularly biotechnology to be able to increase production and remain competitive.”

But concerns about the rise in the number of patents being awarded to the top 10 multinational companies, who also have significant market share in seeds, chemicals and other essential farming stock, has prompted Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan to launch another inquiry into the issue of patents over genes.

The inquiry, to begin on June 30, will look at whether the patents granted already over plant genes give too much control to companies and institutions and how that control might affect farmers in the future.

A recent Senate inquiry into patents on human genes is expected to report in early June. A landmark court case in the US has also found patents were wrongly awarded over the breast cancer BRCA 1 and 2 genes; the company who owns the patents, Myriad Technologies, is appealing the decision. Currently Myriad Technologies charges women in the United States more than $3,000 for the breast cancer susceptibility test to see whether they carry the BRCA 1 and 2 genes. There is no second opinion tests allowed.

Senator Heffernan says, “In terms of national security and sovereignty, countries need to have control over their seed production not necessarily commercially controlled; now, if a company in America owns the absolute gene patent to a seed bank where does it leave countries like Africa (sic) and God knows where?”

Owning nature

But there is debate about whether the patents are actually granted over natural biological material. Supporters of the patents say the companies who have isolated the genes have done so by using an “invention” and therefore should be allowed control over the genes. Opponents believe the genes are natural biological material and no different when transferred to a lab environment and therefore should be judged as a “discovery” and not be allowed to be patented. The US District Court in the Myriad case found that the patents were null and void because the genetic material claimed in the patents was identical to that which exists inside the body.

Monsanto Australia – one of the top five multinational companies in the seed, biotech and agrichemicals business – says patents drive innovation. Executive director Peter O’Keefe says, “Without patents there’s no reward for commercial companies that spend a lot of time and effort on research and development, discovery and innovation. Patents are the key to ensuring that this research continues.”

He says Monsanto will be applying for more plant gene patents in the future and is happy to comply with Australian regulatory processes.

“We’re in the process of commercialising water-use efficient or drought tolerant corn in North America at the moment. It’s hypothetical but if we were able to bring that product to Australia then we would go through the regulatory process.”

Monsanto rejects Senator Heffernan’s belief that there is no inventive stage in the current plant gene patents.

“There’s a misconception that genes can be patented, that genetic material in its native state can be patented, and that’s incorrect. There has to be a lot more involved in the patent application than just picking a piece of genetic material and slapping a patent on it … it is about combining those genes with other genetic material, reinserting it into another plant. So the plants are lot more complicated than what we call genes or what we refer to genes.”(PGX note – this is specific to GMO’s, our plant technology recreates a natural process called polyploidy in which the plant replicates its genetic material in response to stress, polygenomic plants created through our unique technology are NOT GMO!)

Monsanto says it broadly licenses its developments so the technology is widely used and not restricted. The company says it also waives licence fees and is not charging royalties on some crops in Africa as a philanthropic exercise.

Global markets and the patent system

Geoff Tansey, trustee of the UK Food Ethics Council and author of The Future Control of Food, says global markets and the OECD nations have developed a patent system that benefits the big players and not the small operators and farmers.

Under the World Trade Agreement, all countries must sign up to the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property rights or ‘TRIPS’ convention. The convention forces each country to protect patent owners’ rights. Trade sanctions can be issued if signatories fail to honour patent holders’ intellectual property rights.


The impact on science

The CSIRO has patents on plant genes in crops, and benefits from revenue generated by its patents. One of its scientists, Dr TJ Higgins, is optimistic about the future of crop biodiversity.

“We have access to 300 different crops at least for food. Intellectual property rights are probably concentrated on five or six out of that group so I don’t see it as a major threat … but from the point of food security for the future I don’t see it as playing a major role. It’s much more important that we get stuck into research and development to feed the nine billion people.”

Dr Higgins says being fearful of patents is an old-fashioned view.

“When people say that patents are the worst thing to happen to Australian agriculture I think that’s a simple view of the world and probably not all that realistic. It would be nice to go back to the old ways, but the world has changed,” he said.

One patent expert, Dr Richard Jefferson, a molecular biologist and founder of a not-for-profit research organisation CAMBIA, says patents are encouraging the push to monetise research outcomes in the public sector. He says this could have severe implications for the type of science performed in Australia.

While Dr Jefferson believes Monsanto’s research is a critically important area of investigation, because of Australia’s arid environment he says the public sector should pursue different research initiatives.

“In our rush to find one effective tool, we may neglect many other alternatives that are very effective,” Dr Jefferson said.

He says complex research involving changing agricultural eco-systems through pest introduction or crop rotations aren’t receiving adequate funding. These methods, developed in paddocks and laboratories alike, often require interdisciplinary research and are difficult to commercialise.

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