What Green Revolution?

Article excerpt

It was one of those rare inventions that could save the world. Back in the mid-1990s, Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus and his collaborators came up with a genetically modified strain of rice containing beta-keratin, a precursor to vitamin A. Soon dubbed "golden rice," Potrykus's creation had the potential to save millions of children in the developing world from the deadly effects of vitamin-A deficiency. But first he needed a good lawyer. To bring the new strain to market, Potrykus soon discovered, he would need to strike deals with as many as 30 different biotech companies claiming patents on the technologies he used to create his rice. Potrykus was lucky: though it took years to sort through the web of legal constraints, golden rice is now hitting its first markets--in large part due to the assistance of one big biotech company that joined the effort. But it may never have been possible without the adoring praise of the media and the obvious PR benefits to the GM-food industry. "Almost all crops produced by biotechnology face the same thicket of intellectual-property constraints," says Gary Toenniessen, director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation. "In many other cases the companies are not likely to be so forthcoming."

There's been a lot of talk lately about Europe's role in blocking the potential of GM foods to save lives in the developing world, most notably in Africa. U.S. Presi--dent George W. Bush was only the latest critic to invoke the starving masses when he attacked Europe on a swing through Africa in May. Europe was blocking attempts to ease famine in Africa "because of unfounded scientific fears," he said, vowing to take the fight to this week's WTO meeting in Cancun. He declared: "European governments should join--not hinder--the great cause of ending hunger in Africa."

But European resistance is not, no matter what Bush suggests, the only reason why GM foods are not reaching Africa in significant quantity. Bickering and competition within the biotech industry have created a tangle of legal and licensing hurdles through which small researchers must crash if they set out to develop GM foods for Africa. For business reasons, big companies have been slow to experiment with ways to apply and market existing GM technologies such as insect- and disease- resistant crops in Africa. And African nations themselves have caused problems with regulatory bumbling. In short, a wide cast of characters all over the world, including America, is blocking the advance of GM foods to the world's poorest continent. "There's a lot of potential," says Daniel Karanja, a policy analyst of Bread for the World and a former economist at the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute. "Until recently there hasn't been any widespread push to develop African crops."

The sad story of neglect begins in the early 1990s, when genetically modified foods first hit the market. Back then Africa was little more than an afterthought. Though companies like Monsanto set up a limited program to research potential in the developing world, it was the lucrative markets of Western Europe, the United States and Canada that stretched forth with seemingly infinite promise for profit. Those prized markets prompted the trade war looming this week--but only after infighting among biotech companies set a legal precedent tough enough to scare away many would-be do-gooders in the mid-1990s. "As soon as they proved genetically modified food worked, and the farmers were interested, the companies began suing each other," recalls John Barton, a professor at Stanford University Law School who recently headed a panel tasked with studying the impact of intellectual-property rights on research. All told, Barton estimates there were more than 20 major lawsuits, some of which are still going today.

The costly court battles clearly showed that intellectual-property rights for inherited genetically modified traits--such as the viral and insect resistance that could have such an impact on Africa crops--would hold up in court. …