Public germplasm development at a crossroads: Biotechnology and intellectual property
Brian Wright, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC Berkeley
California Agriculture 52(6):8-13.
This year, U.S. growers planted 45 million acres of genetically engineered crops, primarily corn, soybeans, cotton and potatoes (Pollan 1998). These transgenic “smart crops” can produce their own insecticides, or withstand broad-spectrum herbicides such as Roundup or Liberty. Some say these developments signal the coming of age of the most profound technological revolution since the advent of computer technology.
But while transgenic crops promise new options for California farmers, they raise questions as well. For instance, a series of laws, legal judgments and Patent Office decisions during the last two decades have transformed property rights and incentives in the seed industry. Today genetic materials ranging from DNA sequences to whole plants, as well as essential biotechnology tools and techniques, are being patented by private and public research entitles. At the same time, a series of mergers and acquisitions in the agrochemical and seed industries have led to increasing dominance by a small number of transnational corporations in these fields. Such industrywide changes signal a profound shift in the ownership of life forms and the recombinant DNA tools needed to manipulate them. How will the existing options for assigning “ownership” change the way in which germplasm development will occur? How will those changes affect farmers?
B.D. Wright is Professor, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC Berkeley.
The author thanks Marlon Brandon, Director of the Rice Experiment Station, Biggs, CA and Alan Bennett, Associate Dean of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, for their critical comments on the manuscript and the sharing of their stories.