The explanation, it turned out, was rooted in basic science. As a graduate student, Ronald had put in a request to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines for a sample of a hybrid cultivated from Oryza longistaminata, a wild species that had long been gathered by the Bela tribesmen of Mali. O. longistaminata tastes lousy and offers unexciting yields, but this particular variety had one thing going for it: It was virtually immune to the lesions of rice blight.
Ronald and her colleagues at Cornell University—and then at U.C. Davis—spent the next five years tracking down the precise location of Xanthomonas resistance in the hybrid sample. She knew that if she could isolate the resistance gene, her team could eventually insert its sequence into any variety of rice they wished, from long-grained to sticky, sushi or Uncle Ben’s—which was just what they accomplished in 1995, when they introduced a gene of Xanthomonas resistance into a once widely cultivated glutinous variety called Taipei 309 and created immunity to the ravages of blight where none had been before, immunity that could be passed down from one generation to the next.
Just as the transnational agribusiness giants would have done with such a potentially lucrative breakthrough, Ronald and U.C. Davis filed their discovery with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, thus ensuring that this genetic key to Xanthomonas immunity would become their intellectual property. Soon thereafter, Monsanto and Pioneer had negotiated an option to license the gene and it looked as though Xa21-enhanced seeds would quickly enter the marketplace. But as the U.C. Davis Office of Technology Transfer haggled over the terms for returning the Xa21 gene to the International Rice Research Institute, Monsanto and Pioneer lost interest, and the commercial development of a potentially marvelous technology was frustrated. Disease resistance, it turned out, did not have the same attraction for multinationals as it did for Pamela Ronald, perhaps because Monsanto and Pioneer were already enjoying windfall profits from more lucrative agri-tech innovations, such as “Roundup Ready” crops.
Adamchak downed his last test tube of wine. “Monsanto and Syngenta are taking advantage of patent law,” he said, “but I’m hoping that over time, there will be a better understanding of genes and patents and the effect on markets.”
In fact, lawyers at the U.S. Department of Justice attempted to clarify some of those issues last fall, when they argued in a brief that no one can own a gene simply because it has been isolated from the rest of a genome. A gene is an element of a law of nature, they said, and a law of nature cannot be patented. But the Patent Office itself has yet to act on the briefing, and so the licensing and sale of genetically modified, mass-produced and mass-marketed seeds continues apace.
Still, just recognizing that a gene may be unpatentable is a useful first step toward achieving the long-term goal of preventing starvation. After all, it is the patent law that allows untold profits for agribusiness giants while demanding acquiescence from small farmers. It is the patent law that has complicated and delayed the commercial planting of Xa21 rice throughout the developing world. And it is the patent law that lurks behind the inequities that have sparked the war between organic and GMO.
As long as the patent law remains as it is, the world’s farmers and scientists will benefit from making intellectual property their common ground. Which is why Ronald and U.C. Davis made a special provision as it pertained to their Xa21 rice: They would make the genetic information freely available to less developed countries, while sharing any profits they or their corporate licensees might eventually earn with the impoverished African nation of Mali, birthplace of the gene. In this way, rice could be improved where improvement was most needed, and Pamela Ronald could accelerate the next green revolution. “This is a new time in science,” she said. “Things are not happening fast enough.”single page