Going Against the Golden Grain: A Primer on Golden Rice
Of Seeds, Food, and Farmers’ Rights
The past, present and future contributions of farmers in conserving, improving and making plant genetic resources for food and agriculture available has been recognized in The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) through the provisions on Farmers’ Rights.
Although the Plant Treaty as it is commonly referred to was not explicit on what these rights are, it nonetheless mandated that the responsibility for implementing its provisions on Farmers’ Rights rests with the national governments, which are free to choose the measures they deem appropriate, according to
their needs and priorities. Even in the Philippines, there has yet to be a law operationalizing the Farmers’ Rights. But even without such legal recognition, farmers since the dawn of agriculture have established their relationship and claim to the seeds which is the basis of all food and agricultural production in the world.
The informal seed system that has evolved over time is a living testimony of the invaluable contribution of the relations between the farmer and his farming activities and to environmental biodiversity. Central to these farming activities is the farmer as an individual or as collective group determining what to plant, when to plant, which seed to plant, and what seed to keep for the next planting season, among others. This nurturing process has evolved as an informal system that takes into account the relationship of a farmer and the seeds that he or she is planting and breeding and even sharing to other farmers.
Farmers being part of the informal seed system plays a crucial role in maintaining agricultural biodiversity. The variety of seeds that farmers have planted, cultivated, and bred to improve further the varieties of seed that they want to plant and save for the future is part and parcel of the agricultural biodiversity. An improved variety leads to a continuous flow of genetic resources of rice and other food crops.
Farmer’s Rights are basically about enabling farmers to continue their work as stewards and innovators of agricultural biodiversity, and about recognizing them for their contribution to the global pool of genetic resources.
Golden Rice as a Solution to VAD
A relevant part of the knowledge about Vitamin A relates the vitamin, or the lack (deficiency) thereof, as a significant public health concern. Vitamin A deficiency is largely responsible for blindness and has contributed significantly to morbidity and mortality in many countries. The interest in the problem of Vitamin A deficiency or VAD has experienced a surge in recent times. The same interest has also spawned a number of control programs to combat this health menace. A good percentage of groups affected by VAD can be found in developing nations. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 13.8 million children to exhibit symptoms of visual loss related to VAD. Night blindness and, in its worsened condition, xerophthalmia, are markers of VAD. VAD is also known to cause impaired immune function, cancer, and birth defects.
With the goal of producing a fortified staple grain that can deliver Vitamin A, Golden Rice was produced from the Oryza sativa variety through genetic engineering. The objective was to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, in the endosperm or the edible parts of rice. The research was conducted with the hope of producing a fortified variety that can be grown and consumed in areas with insufficient dietary Vitamin A, where the symptoms of Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) are reportedly prevalent. The research and development of Golden Rice began in 1992 by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg. The scientific details of the study were first published in Science in 2000, and at the time of publication Golden Rice was considered a significant biotechnological breakthrough.
A new variety was then produced in 2005 led by researchers at the biotechnology company, Syngenta. Called Golden Rice 2, this variety produced 23 times more beta-carotene than the previous iteration, and preferentially accumulates beta-carotene (up to 31 ?g/g of the 37 ?g/g of carotenoids). At present, neither variety is available for human consumption.
Funding for research has significantly grown with grants coming from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further improve golden rice with the hope of increasing levels and bioavailability of pro-vitamin A, vitamin E, iron, and zinc, and to improve protein quality through genetic modification. A 2011 article [Nayar, A. (2011). “Grants aim to fight malnutrition”. Nature. doi:10.1038/news.2011.233] forecast that “golden rice would clear final regulatory hurdles and reach the market in 2013.” The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is currently coordinating the Golden Rice Network with other partners in agriculture and nutrition to research and develop Golden Rice. Helen Keller International, a leading global health organization that aims to reduce blindness and prevents malnutrition worldwide, announced in 2011 it was joining the Golden Rice project.Golden Rice was developed to address a humanitarian need. Its proponents have hailed it as a real world solution to the problem of food security and nutritional deficiency, specifically Vitamin A Deficiency. However, as will be explained further in this primer, this solution is merely illusory.
Intellectual Property Rights
Many biological products and processes that have been discovered orinvented through modern biotechnology are protected by intellectual property rights (IPRs). Patents, a type of IPR, are state-licensed monopolies for new technologies with industrial applications. Patents give the patent-holder exclusive rights to use, make, offer for sale or sell the protected product or process. It therefore restricts farmers’ access to improved plant varieties and restricts their traditional practice of exchanging or selling farm-saved seeds. It puts them in danger of prosecution for infringement if they replant, save, sell or exchange patented varieties. The predicament of farmers in the United States should serve as a cautionary tale. Thousands of farmers have been threatened and charged with infringement of patents on GM crops and made to pay exorbitant fines. Further, the last few decades have seen dramatically reduced choices in the farmers’ supply of seeds, leading to an unsustainable dependence for the most basic of agricultural inputs.
In addition, the Philippine government can also grant a cousin of the patent, a Certificate of Plant Variety Protection. A PVP certificate may be more insidious than an outright patent. It grants the same exclusive rights of producing, selling, marketing, exchanging and exporting as a patent, but does not require the higher level of inventiveness that patents require. While patents require that the product or process be not obvious to another person skilled in the art, a PVP merely requires that it be distinct from others that are of common knowledge.
Patents for the method of producing golden rice have been granted by the World Intellectual Property Organization, South Korea, the European Patent Office, Mexico and the United States. They now belong to Syngenta, a Swiss chemical company marketing seeds and pesticides and which has the third largest share in the agricultural seeds market. The inventors, Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, were originally granted a patent but had to turn it over in 2000 to Syngenta (formerly Zeneca), which had funded their research through the European Commission’s ‘Carotene Plus’ research program. Their work built on myriad other patented technologies, making use of 70 intellectual property rights belonging to 32 different companies and universities. Syngenta negotiated licenses with the other companies to use a number of ancillary technologies, needed to create Golden Rice. Syngenta, in turn, has given the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, members of which include the inventors, a “humanitarian license” to the full set of necessary technologies with the right to sublicense to public research institutions and low-income farmers in developing countries free of charge. However, it bears noting that Syngenta retains commercial rights to the patent, that is, the right to use the patented method for commercial purposes.