Letters: Hands off genes
Tuesday 06 July 1999
Sir: Many people concerned about Third World hunger will welcome the call from Rockefeller Foundation president Gordon Conway for Monsanto to reform its GM operations to enable greater involvement by farmers and poor communities in deciding how they can feed themselves (Podium, 2 July).
However, a massive "gene rush" is under way as giant corporations claim patent rights over the genetic building blocks of plant and animal life. They claim to have "invented" gene sequences through developing the technology to map them and their role in the organism. This discovery of what already exists allows these companies to secure patents on the sequence and control its use and price.
Such technical capacity cannot be matched at present in the deprived southern hemisphere, even though the majority of the world's genetic resources are found there. This "gene rush" represents the transfer of publicly held resources, with huge value for the most needy, to private and affluent hands in the North.
One recent example is that Celera, another US firm, plans to map the entire rice genome in just six weeks and patent any commercially useful discoveries. This would undercut a collaborative international public sector project to achieve the same objective by 2008.
While Mr Conway is right to urge Monsanto to consider sharing the cutting edge of the company's scientific research power with those far less advantaged, the law also must be changed. Current patent law has not kept pace conceptually with technical advances.
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