The Green Revolution Yields to the Bottom Line

(New York Times – May 15, 2001)


Dr. William Folk, a professor at the University of Missouri, wants to genetically engineer soybeans to improve their nutritional value. But he faces more than scientific hurdles. He and Monsanto never agreed on how he might use a patented technique for inserting genes into the beans.

“These procedures that have by and large been most useful are now inaccessible,” Dr. Folk said.

Dr. Folk is feeling the effects of a major change engulfing agricultural research. Once the realm of public institutions like land-grant colleges, it is increasingly being controlled by private companies.

This fundamental shift alarms some farming experts, who point out that the public research system trained thousands of farmers over the decades and vastly improved farm output both in the United States and overseas.

Now, these critics say, patent restrictions are choking the free exchange of seeds and technology that nourished the public system.

Research on potential crop improvements has been delayed or abandoned. And in the quest for profits, crop development for poor countries could be neglected.

Scientists at the University of Costa Rica, for example, have genetically engineered rice to provide resistance to a virus that is a major problem in the tropics. But before the university can sell the seeds to farmers, it must get clearance from holders of as many as 34 patents, said Dr. Ana Sittenfeld, an associate professor there.

In the United States, about 45 percent of plant breeders at universities said that trouble getting seeds from private companies interfered with their research, according to a 1999 survey by Steven C. Price, director for industry relations at the University of Wisconsin.

“The things that give us a safe and healthy food supply are slowly eroding,” said Dr. Samuel H. Smith, the former president of Washington State University, who is trying to secure more financing for land-grant colleges like his own. “It’s a slow death.”

Seed companies and other agricultural experts dismiss any safety concerns or say they are overstated.

And, they say, the private sector influx has brought with it new technology and increased total research spending.

“Nobody was investing any serious money in improving soybeans until there was intellectual property protection,” said Dr. Tony Cavalieri, a vice president at Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

But some critics say companies are overemphasizing genetic engineering because it is easier to protect engineered crops with patents. That is risky, they say, because consumers may reject bioengineered food. Nor is it certain that biotechnology will improve crop output the way classical breeding has.

“I am worried we are getting off the proven thoroughbred too quickly to get on a highly decorated donkey,” Dr. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists said.

Others worry that a small group of companies could control the world’s food supply.

Such concerns were heightened in January when two companies announced they had determined the genetic code of rice, years ahead of a government effort.

“One thing people could argue is, How can a company own the most important food crop in the world?” said Dr. Rod A. Wing of Clemson University. “In Asia, rice is like a religion. To own a religion, so to speak, that’s just a question. Can you do that? I don’t think so.”

The shift from public to private research was spurred by court and patent office decisions in the 1980’s that allowed plant varieties and genes to be patented. The rulings meant that companies could more easily recoup investments in improved crops. And with the advent of biotechnology, advanced research now requires tools that some public institutes cannot afford, like gene databases.

At the same time, growth in government spending on farm research has slowed as fears of widespread hunger have abated. In industrialized countries, public spending has been growing 1.8 percent a year and private spending 5 percent, according to Philip G. Pardey, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s research budget, about $2 billion a year, has barely grown in real terms over two decades.

Britain has privatized some government agricultural research centers. And some developing countries have actually cut research spending.

In the United States, private agricultural research spending surpassed public spending in the early 1980’s, and the gap has widened. By 1994, two-thirds of American plant breeding was in the private sector, according to an Iowa State University survey that is still considered authoritative. “Breeders in the public sector have essentially vanished,” said Dr. William F. Tracy, professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin.

If public breeding withers, perhaps the biggest concern is that the improvement of crops for the developing world will falter because of low profit potential.

“It’s the same phenomenon with the malaria vaccine,” said Dr. Hubert Zandstra, director general of the International Potato Center in Peru, which is supported by governments and charities. “Why is there no malaria vaccine? Because there’s no one to pay for it.”

Dr. Zandstra said seed companies hesitated to develop virus-resistant potato seeds because the harm done by viruses forced farmers to buy new seeds. But with his center developing such seeds, companies are following so they don’t lose sales.

Even in wealthy countries, companies are not likely to devote much effort to minor crops.

A further concern is that a wave of acquisitions has left much of the seed business and most agricultural biotech patents in the hands of five big companies: Monsanto; Syngenta; DuPont, which bought Pioneer Hi- Bred; Dow Chemical; and Aventis.

Some smaller companies also worry about this trend.

“If the companies are making all those discoveries they may lock them up,” said Dr. Jerry Caulder, chief executive of the Akkadix Corporation, an agricultural biotech start-up. “If our universities were doing it, then literally thousands of new companies could be created.”

Even at universities, a small but growing portion of research is being conducted by companies. In 1998, Novartis, now known as Syngenta, agreed to give $25 million over five years to the plant and microbial biology department at the University of California at Berkeley in exchange for first rights to licensing some department discoveries.

While critics on campus say the deal threatens academic freedom, the university argues that it gets needed money and access to crop gene databases that are needed for plant research but which it cannot develop on its own.

The old breeding technique of crossing two plants rarely involves patents. But the modern equivalent &emdash; inserting a gene into a plant &emdash; can involve numerous patented technologies, including the gene itself, the insertion method, the “promoter” that turns the gene on and the marker used to detect whether the gene is present.

Golden rice, an experimental crop that might one day help alleviate vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness, was covered by as many as 70 patents owned by 31 companies or universities in various countries. The patent holders have agreed to charge no royalties for rice that is to be given free to poor farmers in developing countries. But the licensing process delayed work on the rice by about a year.

Hoping to garner public support for genetically modified foods, the biotech companies say they are willing to allow their technologies to be used for humanitarian purposes.

Some companies insist the process is less than overwhelming. “Is it more of a hassle? Yes,” Dr. Robert T. Fraley, chief technology officer of Monsanto. “Is it a real barrier? I don’t think so.”

Monsanto usually allows university scientists to use its technology for research, executives said, though a separate license may be required for commercial use. Dr. Folk of the University of Missouri planned commercial use for the soybean seeds he developed, so he was treated like a competitor and asked for a detailed proposal, which he did not provide, a Monsanto spokesman said.

But some scientists say having a license only for research is not enough. California strawberry growers canceled a project to develop a strawberry resistant to fungus for fear that they would not be allowed to let the strawberry be grown commercially, said Dr. Alan Bennett, executive director of the office of technology transfer at the University of California, which discovered the fungal resistance gene.

In some cases, companies let academic scientists use their technology in return for commercial rights to any results. And universities themselves are now patenting their inventions &emdash; and often licensing them to companies. The result is that companies are capturing the output of public sector research, said Dr. Gary Toenniessen, director for food security at the Rockefeller Foundation.

The gene that spurred the green revolution in the 1960’s &emdash; creating high-yield grain and helping alleviate world hunger &emdash; was provided to Dr. Norman E. Borlaug by Washington State University. “If that happened today,” he said, “Washington State would take out a patent and license it to DuPont or Monsanto or somebody.”

The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines spent 11 years narrowing the search for a gene to make rice resistant to leaf blight. It gave its work to the University of California at Davis, which found the gene and patented it. But before it could use the gene to develop blight-resistant rice for poor farmers, the institute needed a license from Davis, and that license took three years to get.

As companies and universities patent improved varieties, developing countries, which harbor many wild seeds useful in breeding, are growing reluctant to share these seeds without compensation. Barley from Ethiopia imparted virus resistance to California’s crop in the 1950’s, without any compensation to Ethiopia.

But such free exchange, which nourished world agriculture for decades, is becoming a thing of the past.

Now, farmers and public researchers hope to reclaim lost ground. A new lobbying group, the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research, held its inaugural meeting in January. It attracted about 50 individuals and institutions including farmers, farm groups like the American Soybean Association, university scientists and companies like Monsanto, which benefit from the scientific advances and training provided by the public sector.

Terry L. Wolf, a farmer from Homer, Ill., who is president of the coalition, said increased research was needed for American agriculture to remain competitive in world markets. “Most new innovation that has come about in the last 50 years has come from the public sector,” Mr. Wolf said.

The voices are being heard somewhat. The Agriculture Department’s budget is up 11 percent this year. However, President Bush’s budget for next year would increase the department’s main research program by only $1 million, to $916 million, and would cut other research programs.

It is difficult to argue for more funding when farmers suffer from crop surpluses, when obesity seems a bigger problem than malnutrition and when medical research has more ardent advocates.

“It’s a real poignant testimony for a youngster to come in and say, `We need more funding or I’m going to die,’ ” said Barbara Glenn, chairwoman of CoFARM, a coalition of professional societies pushing for more agricultural research. “No one’s dying from starvation. It’s a really hard argument to make.”

Some academic experts say that ultimately the best hope for the public sector is to tap into the money and technology of the private sector. The companies now seem more willing to enter into such partnerships, in part to avert criticism of biotechnology and in part because the sequencing of crop genomes is providing too much information for the companies to analyze alone.

“Perhaps the private sector is more willing to have public institutions working with them, whereas in the past they didn’t need us,” said Dr. Victor Lechtenberg, dean of agriculture at Purdue.

Right now each licensing deal has to be arranged separately, a cumbersome process. Scientists met in Berkeley in February to discuss setting up a patent exchange on the Internet.

Still, some say that even faster licensing is no substitute for the old ways. “Improvements will slow with the loss of free exchange,” said Dr. Tracy of the University of Wisconsin. “That’s just basically inevitable.”