Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Jan10/02)
The following article was published in
the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6844,
With best wishes,
Environment: Plunder of Tanzanian farmers' sorghum through patents
Geneva, 18 Jan (Riaz K. Tayob) -- A new
study questions the legal and ethical basis for patents granted, and
other pending applications, on a gene isolated from a Tanzanian farmers'
variety of sorghum that may yield tremendous profits outside for multinational
corporations and research institutions outside
The December 2009 African Centre for Biosafety briefing paper "Africa's Granary Plundered: Privatisation of Tanzanian Sorghum Protected by the Seed Treaty" by Edward Hammond states that the gene, named SbMATE, has enormous commercial potential because sorghum plants with the gene are tolerant to the negative combination of acid and aluminium commonly found in soils throughout the world.
Even though the research is still in its infancy, large corporations have already expressed interest in licensing SbMATE for further research for application in other species through genetic engineering, possibly in maize, rice and eucalyptus trees.
The briefing paper questions the ownership
of the gene from Tanzanian sorghum (IS7173), as patented in the
"Not long ago, it seemed like the question was settled in favour of farmers and citizens of developing countries," the briefing paper states.
This was through a 1994 In Trust Agreement between the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and then by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), in which it was established that the vast collection of farmers' germplasm held by the CGIAR could not be patented "in the form received" from those collections.
The rational for the prohibition on intellectual property claims was to further CGIAR's mission, "to achieve sustainable food security and reduce poverty in developing countries through scientific research."
The briefing paper states that the variety of sorghum from which SbMATE is sourced is part of the CGIAR collection and is covered by Annex 1 of the ITPGRFA.
Embrapa, one of three of the patent applicants,
obtained its material from Hugh Doggett (a breeder based in then British
Explaining the potential of the gene, the briefing paper explains that aluminium tolerance is a major breeding goal for a number of important crops that are often aluminium sensitive, including sorghum, maize and rice.
Aluminium toxicity is a significant constraint
on agricultural production and it is estimated to affect more than 20%
of the land in Sub-Saharan Africa and
The patent application that calls the
gene "SbMATE" was granted in the
In the international patent claim, the
applicants state that they are to seek national or regional patents
in more than 100 countries, including
The briefing paper explains the scope of the patents applied for. The patent claims the Tanzanian gene itself, including its promoter sequence (which is activated by aluminium) and related regulatory sequences.
The applicants also claim any other
Also claimed are genetically engineered plants of any species that express the Tanzanian tolerance gene. Specifically claimed are wheat, maize, sorghum, and rice plants with the SbMATE gene.
The benefits of the SbMATE gene are not limited to sorghum. For those that promote the widespread use of genetically modified plants, the gene has the potential to unlock new agricultural productivity on aluminium toxic soils that cover a large proportion of the world's arable land, the briefing paper states.
While the gene works in principle, research is in its infancy. Widespread commercial use is years away, particularly in non-sorghum crops into which the gene would have to be genetically engineered.
Even though the impact of the SbMATE
will only become clear in ensuing years, for now, the commercial potential
is significant and multinational giant Dow Chemicals is seeking to license
SbMATE to use it in maize and sorghum while
In 2009, the entire genome of sorghum was sequenced, well before that of other crops. The rapid development of sorghum genomics is in part due to considerable interest in sorghum as a source of ethanol for bio-fuels.
The briefing paper states that a series
of new studies have again underscored the irreplaceable contribution
of African farmers' varieties (both old and new introductions), to the
A recent external review of one US Agency
for International Development (USAID) program in
The sorghum in the
"Sart", a Sudanese sorghum
introduced to the
More recently, African contributions
that paid off handsomely for the
The briefing paper warns that permitting the SbMATE patent to stand, and for the private sector to profit from it, would signal a new open hunting season on privatisation of the vast collection of farmers' varieties of good crops held by the CGIAR. It cautions that such patent claims pose a grave challenge to the ITPGRFA and CGIAR. +