Patent system "stifling science"
2.The great GM miracle?
NOTE: You may have thought that the release of "golden rice" has taken so long because they couldn't get it to deliver enough beta-carotene to be useful.
And its inventor Ingo Potrykus and others in the pro-GM lobby have claimed that the delay is down to opposition by "activists", with Dick Taverne even claiming the resulting delays constituted a "crime against humanity".
But, according to a new report, the real reason golden rice still hasn't been released is down to the patent quagmire created by all the "companies holding patents for technologies used to engineer the rice".
Don't hold your breath while waiting for Taverne & Co's thunderous denunciations.
EXTRACTS: "It has taken years just to figure out how many patents there actually are and who owns them. We must address this lack of transparency." (item 1)
Lord Taverne proffered Golden Rice and banged on about crimes against humanity. Happily, I got the chance to respond and to point out that when it comes to helping deal with Vitamin A deficiency, not only is Golden Rice not all it's cracked up to be but there are a range of other, often more viable, solutions out there which we never hear anything about. Golden Rice, I pointed out, has everything to do with PR for the industry, but that's very different from seriously addressing the issues that drive malnutrition. (item 2)
1.Patent system 'stifling science'
By James Morgan
BBC News, 24 September 2008
Life-saving scientific research is being stifled by a "broken" patent system, according to a new report.
"Blocking patents" are delaying advances in cancer medicine and food crops, says the Canada-based Innovation Partnership, a non-profit consultancy.
The full benefits of synthetic biology and nanotechnology will not be realised without urgent reforms to encourage sharing of information, they say.
Their findings will be reported next week to UK policymakers and NGOs.
The report is compiled by the Innovation Partnership's International Expert Group on Biotechnology, Innovation and Intellectual Property.
It cites examples of medical advances which have been delayed from reaching people in need - in both the developed and developing world.
These include HIV/Aids drugs, cancer screening tests, and rice engineered to contain vitamin A.
The authors offer guidelines for a transition from "Old IP" to "New IP", in which companies, researchers and governments recognise that sharing information is mutually beneficial.
"If we are to turn the atoms of publicly funded discovery into molecules of innovation... we have to make sure research avenues stay open," said the report's lead author, Professor Richard Gold.
"That doesn't mean there will be no patents. It simply means that patents don't become a barrier to early stage research.
"We do not want to end up in the same situation with nanotechnology that we are in with genetics."
The traditional view is that strong patent protection stimulates innovation, reassuring companies that it is safe to invest in research without fear of being stung by rivals.
Under this "old" model of intellectual property (IP), biotech firms raced to file a "fortress" of patents around newly discovered genes, closing off avenues of research for their competitors.
But this strategy is ultimately counter-productive for both industry and consumers, argues the report, not least because it deters grass roots research in universities.
Work on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that can cause breast cancer has been held up by legal disputes over patents held on the genes by Myriad Genetics, a biotech firm based in Utah, US.
Meanwhile, patients in European countries were denied access to the cancer screening kits, because national health services were unwilling to meet the cost.
The Myriad case is "an anatomy of old IP gone wrong", said Dr Gold, Professor of Intellectual Property Law at McGill University in Montreal.
"Myriad is not the exception - it is the rule. Others are following and will continue to follow, unless we drastically change things."
Another casualty is the "golden rice" strain, genetically engineered to contain vitamin A.
The rice was intended to be freely distributed to farmers in the developing world, where vitamin A deficiency is responsible for more than 1 million deaths and 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness each year.
But even though the strain was created in 2005, farmers have still not reaped the benefits.
Distribution has been held up while its inventors negotiate agreements with dozens of companies holding patents for technologies used to engineer the rice.
"It has taken years just to figure out how many patents there actually are and who owns them. We must address this lack of transparency," said Professor Gold.
To facilitate sharing of information, he believes companies should be encouraged to form "patent pools", allowing them to cross-license their technologies without losing out on royalties.
An example is the pool established by the international partnership Unitaid to provide HIV patients in developing countries with access to affordable anti-retroviral drugs.
Governments should develop public-private partnerships to conduct early stage research, and seek other ways to encourage innovation - via tax credits, for instance.
Meanwhile, patent offices must standardise their information gathering and do more to help firms in developing countries gain access to accurate patent information, the report recommends.
Reform now would ensure that society feels the full benefit of new fields such as synthetic biology, a discipline that could lead to cells with novel genomes which perform useful functions, such as making biofuels or absorbing greenhouse gases.
Dr Craig Venter, the man who led the private sector effort to sequence the human genome, has already raised eyebrows by applying to patent the method he plans to use to create a "synthetic organism".
Fears that these patents may be too broad have been raised by the ETC Group, which campaigns for the reform of biotech patenting.
"The patenting system is not functioning. It is more of a barrier than an incentive," said Pat Mooney, the organisation's executive director.
"In pharmacy, we no longer see much discovery - we see firms playing safe and holding onto their turf.
"Meanwhile, in nanotechnology, we have seen some dangerously broad patents, which cut off whole areas of research.
"Patent offices must get up to speed with new areas of science, so they know exactly how much they are giving away."
2.The great GM miracle?
The Ecologist, 23 January 2008
The man on the phone said he was from the BBC. They were interested in interviewing me about my alleged involvement in crimes against humanity.
Possibly the deaths of millions.
I stood accused, it emerged, of holding back the fight against poverty, disease, and hunger.
No laughing matter.
Who was my accuser?
The person lining me up for the Pol Pot Award, apparently, was Lord Dick Taverne - the head of the lobby group Sense About Science.
By opposing GM, Taverne had told the programme makers, people like me blocked the products of this life-saving technology from reaching the starving millions. And others the BBC had spoken to had assured them that opposition to GM crops had even resulted in famine relief ships being turned back at sea by a southern African nation in the grip of terrible famine.
Radio 4's Costing the Earth team, I was told, were coming to investigate.
The resulting programme went out last Thursday and it's to the credit of the programme makers that they managed to cut through the hyperbole, peel back the rhetoric, and examine the actual factual basis of the claims being made by GM's promoters.
And once they focused on the facts Lord Taverne and his pals came seriously unstuck. Take for instance, the Government's recently retiring Chief Scientist, Prof. Sir David King, who in the demob-happy period before he finally quit at the end of last year launched a volley of dodgy promotionals for GM, nukes and badger-killing.
Costing the Earth re-ran part of King's interview with Today - Radio 4's flagship current affairs programme - the part where King told the listening millions that given the world's burgeoning population and the impact of climate change, "We're going to need to get even cleverer. More crop per drop. And we need the technology that can deliver that, and in my view we have the technology, it's GM." And Prof. King had the killer application to prove it.
Unfortunately, the high yielding GM product for Africa, which King described in such loving detail to listeners as an example of how GM was transforming agriculture around Lake Victoria, turned out on subsequent examination to be, errr”¦ non-GM! Developed by conventional plant breeding and involving companion planting it had absolutely nothing to do with genetic engineering.
"Can the biotech industry themselves do any better?", presenter Tom Heap wondered. They asked the industry's PR guy in the UK, Julian Little to give his killer application for transforming the lives of the poor. He came up with hybrid rice, which he readily admitted wasn't GM either, but non-GM biotechnology had had something to do with its development he claimed.
Lord Taverne proffered Golden Rice and banged on about crimes against humanity. Happily, I got the chance to respond and to point out that when it comes to helping deal with Vitamin A deficiency, not only is Golden Rice not all it's cracked up to be but there are a range of other, often more viable, solutions out there which we never hear anything about. Golden Rice, I pointed out, has everything to do with PR for the industry, but that's very different from seriously addressing the issues that drive malnutrition. I also got the chance to puncture the GM promoters' urban myths about what happened when Zambia turned down GM food aid.
It was left to the final contributor to the programme, James Wilsdon from the think tank Demos to spell out why GM's promoters need to cut out the demonizing and other negative rhetoric: "There's a real need to be more open to the very sensible social, political, economic questions that many critics of GM have been arguing about the place that that technology could have within global agriculture and not simply to dismiss these out of hand or to pretend that any objection to the technology is a sign of some luddite anti-scientific ignorance. It's not ignorance that's prompting these questions, it's very sensible concern about who will benefit from this technology, who will control it, who will take responsibility if and when it goes wrong. And it's those questions that remain unanswered."
If you;d like to find out more about the programme, there's a complete transcript available here
Jonathan Matthews is an editor at GM Watch www.gmwatch.org and LobbyWatch www.lobbywatch.org