The Golden Rice Deal
On Golden Pawns
Do the poor get unproven GM rice while AstraZeneca gets the Gold?
Summary: On 16 May the UK-based Gene Giant, AstraZeneca, announced that it
had struck a deal with the European inventors of the publicly funded,
genetically-modified, Vitamin-A fortified rice to make it freely available
to poor farmers in the South. The deal gives AstraZeneca commercial rights
to the so-called Golden Rice in the North. The AstraZeneca deal was a
mistake. Rather than dodge or submit to intellectual property pressures,
public science must confront its problems openly and directly. If they don't,
they will do what neither the US Government nor the WTO have succeeded
in doing, and force a global patent regime on the poor.
From the 'get-go', the prospect of genetically modified rice with enriched
vitamin-A was a Red Flag to embittered GMO opponents and a Flag of
Convenience for the embattled biotech industry.
The beleaguered Gene Giants - reeling from GM seed pollution scandals in
Europe and 'mystery guest' appearances of itinerate DNA fragments in GM
soybeans in America -are trumpeting the rice as proof positive that genetic
engineering can really feed the hungry. In theory, Golden Rice (so dubbed
for its yellowish tinge contributed by beta-carotene) could help address a
significant nutrient deficiency afflicting the Souths poor.
For biotech activists, including RAFI, vitamin-A rice targets vulnerable
people within the centre of genetic diversity of the crop. Golden Rice is
also the first serious product of biotech's long-awaited 'Generation Three'
portending actual -- or at least perceived -- benefits to consumers. For
all of these reasons, the initiative demands forensic scrutiny.
Real Concerns: Critics are concerned that the advent of Golden Rice's
'quick fix' for vitamin-A deficiency could kneecap other low-tech and more
cost-effective initiatives, among them, to re-introduce the many
vitamin-rich food plants that were once cheap and available. Rather than
nurture a strategy that encourages biodiversity, Golden Rice could promote
monocultures and genetic uniformity. This is the wrong strategy.
Especially worrisome, given the huge per capita consumption of rice among
the poor, is the risk that changes in the nutrient or toxicant content of
rice could have serious consequences. Some worry that children could
over-dose on vitamin-A.
Then, of course, there are the GMO issues. As the standard-bearer for
industry's Generation Three, aimed directly down the gullets of consumers,
can the technology be proven safe for people? As a GMO to be released in
the genetic heartland of the crop most important to the world's poorest
people, will it be safe in the environment?
Golden Pawns? Most galling, however, is the Gene Giants' capture of the
whole public sector initiative. The Rockefeller Foundation (RF), among
others, bankrolled public sector researchers in Switzerland and Germany to
come up with something possibly useful. For good reason, RAFI and others
went 'ballistic' when AstraZeneca announced on May 16 that it was taking
over the further development of vitamin-A rice. Sanctimoniously promising
to make the technology freely available to poor farmers in developing
countries, AstraZeneca captured years of public investment at minimum cost.
It also acquired commercial rights to the public technology in the North
and among large-scale farmers in the South. The company speculates that it
could have vitamin-A rice in farmers' fields as early as 2003. Such a
schedule for introduction would not leave sufficient time to undertake
socioeconomic, human health and ecological impact studies necessary to
ensure everyone's wellbeing. In RAFI s opinion, the Golden Rice deal was a
rip-off of the public trust. Asian farmers get (unproven) GM rice and
AstraZeneca gets the 'gold'.
The deal between the two inventors and AstraZeneca (brokered by
Greenovation - Freiberg University s spin-off biotech company) was galling
on many counts.
Enforcers for the Golden Rule? First, the reason the public researchers
went to the private sector, it was rumoured, was because Golden Rice
transgresses anywhere from 70 to more than 100 patents. The legal and
licensing fees involved in threading through the patent haystack were said
to be too complex and costly for public institutions. For civil society
organizations, the natural response is to fight, not surrender. To
challenge the patent system and the companies and - at the very least - to
shame the patent-holders into waiving their licenses.
Second, and of yet greater concern was the impression left by the deal that
the public researchers and their primary financial backer, the Rockefeller
Foundation, were capitulating to US patent laws that have no jurisdiction
in the vast majority of poor countries that may someday adopt the
technology. De facto, a high-profile defender of public science, RF, was
doing the work of the US Trade Representative enforcing US hegemony on
sovereign states. Public scientists and CSOs were stunned by the precedent.
On examination, of course, while all the major issues remain unresolved,
some of the detail is less dramatic. The inventors are - not only concerned
about national patents - but also about Material Transfer Agreements (MTAs)
they had to sign in order to do their work. MTAs know no geographic
limitations and could impede the further development of Golden Rice if it
proves ultimately beneficial. Then, too, the Rockefeller Foundation was as
much taken off-guard by the AstraZeneca announcement as everyone else. The
first Foundation staff knew about the sealed deal was when AstraZeneca's
spin-doctors came looking for a quote. This makes sense, since no
foundation would normally own or interfere with public scientists by
dictating the path to market introduction - beyond ensuring that the
research was available to the poor. Whether RF is 'pleased' or 'put off' by
the deal is another, unanswered, question.
Fools' Gold? The big issues still remain. Is Golden Rice necessary or safe?
Will Generation Three biotech products make any real contribution to the
poor, or will these products merely provide 'safe cover' and positive PR
for the Gene Giants? How can public research be protected from predatory
patents and patenters? Most important: is there an unspoken 'understanding'
within the international public sector that US patent law is 'Pax Romana'
and must be respected and enforced around the world? It is, for example,
rumored that Japan's Kirin Brewery - a company with a vat full of lawyers
and a long biotech history - does hold a key patent they are refusing to
surrender for Golden Rice. Apparently, vitamin-A rice could prove
commercially viable in Japan and among the Asian NICs. Since the patent is
non-applicable in most of the South, would public researchers working in
the South be willing to incorporatre the Kirin technology in their breeding
programmes or would they be afraid to risk the wrath of Japanese donors?
The smart money is on surrender.
The AstraZeneca deal was a mistake. Rather than dodge or submit to
intellectual property pressures, public science must confront its problems
openly and directly. Will they do what neither the US Government nor the
WTO have succeeded in doing, and force a global patent regime on the poor -
or will they honour existing international law and uphold the rights of
poor countries? Will they accept the problems inherent in MTAs and pass the
risks onto the poor, or will they address them? Will their solution always
be to subsidize the corporations and acquiesce to IP by surrendering their
publicly-funded research rather than to defend public goods?
Crossover? While the Rockefeller Foundation may have found itself
innocently caught between the crosshairs of all the GMO protagonists, it
should not duck for cover too quickly. Historically, RF has only been
slightly less unpopular than the IMF and the World Bank among activist
CSOs. It is a founding member of the Green Revolution and it has poured
over $100 million into biotech over the past 15 years. Defending the 'poor
and excluded' (Foundation 'speak') from their sanctum in the upper-echelons
of a Manhattan skyscraper, the Foundation makes for a plump target. At the
same time, a relatively small percentage of their agricultural grants have
been related to GMOs and the Foundation confesses itself to be uneasy about
the direction taken by the Gene Giants with respect to Terminator
Technology and intellectual property. Even though it provided much of the
money for Golden Rice, it appears genuinely open to stringent evaluation of
its socio-economic, health, and environmental implications. Perhaps to its
own surprise, the Foundation could move from being in the crosshairs to
becoming the crossroads for a real global and public dialogue on the future
of public science, intellectual property, and food security. If so, a
powerful institution once thought to be industry's pawn, could indeed
become a benefit to the 'poor and excluded' - with or without Golden Rice.
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