Patents on Tanzania’s sorghum raise legal, ethical questions

The following article was published in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6844, 19 January 2010 and is reproduced here with permission. 

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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 Africa.

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 US and asserted in other pending claims by the applicants, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Texas Agricultural & Mechanics University and Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation).

"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 colony Tanganyika and later in Uganda), who may "plausibly" have placed it in the sorghum collection.

Brazil has ratified the ITPGRFA and the US has signed it. The briefing paper asks, "What meaning does the ITPGRFA and In Trust status have if governments say they will follow the treaty, and then proceed to ignore its provisions, pillaging the coffers of the CGIAR and selling them to Dow Chemical and other wealthy country concerns?"

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 East Asia and 30% in Latin America and South East Asia.

The patent application that calls the gene "SbMATE" was granted in the US on 1 September 2009 and "international" patent claims under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (administered by the World Intellectual Property Organisation) were also lodged on 9 May 2008. Applications in other countries are pending.

In the international patent claim, the applicants state that they are to seek national or regional patents in more than 100 countries, including Tanzania and other African countries, according to the briefing paper.

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 DNA that is 95% or more similar to the Tanzanian gene and which has the same aluminium tolerance effect, as well as the molecules that the DNA encodes.

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 Japan's second largest paper products producer, Oji Paper, has also expressed an interest in a license. Oji's interest appears related to genetically modified eucalyptus trees for its plantations.

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 US sorghum industry.

A recent external review of one US Agency for International Development (USAID) program in Africa concluded that sorghum varieties released by the program to US plant breeders benefit the US economy by $680 million per year.

The sorghum in the US gene pool from Africa has proved their value to US farmers since the 1850s. South African "Blackhull Kafir" seeds were the most widely grown variety for almost fifty years.

"Sart", a Sudanese sorghum introduced to the US in 1951, provided resistance to foliar disease and was used to confer resistance to other species. "Kaura" sorghums from Nigeria contributed to improved grain quality and drought resistance and were also incorporated into breeding programmes.

More recently, African contributions that paid off handsomely for the US included three seeds for mildew, drought and disease resistance from Ethiopia. A Sudanese seed helped boost yield in white grained sorghum types. From 1996 to 2005, the Texas A&M gave private US seed companies 213 sorghum breeding lines.

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. +