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Stanford Report, February 23, 2000

Far-reaching U.S. patents could threaten developing world, law professor says


Feeding a hungry world, an ambitious and often elusive goal in this or any millennium, may depend less on our ability to grow enough food than on our ability to resolve disputes about how it is grown, according to John Barton, the George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford.

In a talk at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 21, Barton warned that far-reaching patents on laboratory processes useful in agricultural production could threaten the ability of developing countries, especially, to produce enough food for their people. "The problem is in the broad sweep of these patents and the concern that industry could, in essence, keep this technology to themselves," Barton said in an interview recently.

According to Barton, a small number of companies dominate the field of ag-biotech and control the technology responsible for many of the important advancements in food production. Particularly in the United States, patents on this technology are so broad they hamstring efforts to alleviate hunger, he said.

Essentially, genetically altered products allow food staples like rice to be grown much faster and more cheaply than through conventional means. But what if these products were off limits? For example, Barton said, patent protection applied to such gene components as so-called "promoters" ­ "standard laboratory workhorses" in improving agricultural production ­ could have devastating effects. Without access to the technology, the developing world must either ignore the patents or find a new way to reproduce the results. "Depending on the country's willingness to ignore developed-world patent desires, they couldn't use the promoter," Barton said in the interview. "They would have to find a special alternative. In a sense, they would be reinventing the wheel."

Publicly funded research centers even now are trying to develop alternatives to patented biotech processes, but with discouraging results. Recent mergers in the ag-biotech industry have magnified the problem, Barton said. "Allowing a smaller and smaller number of companies to dominate an entire category of products is a bad idea."

Barton said his position on the issue falls between that of advocates for strict patent enforcement and those who believe patents should never be applied to food products. Because of the cost associated with researching and developing genetically altered products, corporations need the financial incentive that patents provide, he said. "They can really only justify their costs if they know they will capture a very, very large market share," said Barton, who estimates that private-sector research in this area totals "in the low billions." But because some of the patents are so broad, particularly those granted in United States, they may effectively shut out the countries that can't afford the cost but need the food the most, he said.

"We need to find a balance between the intellectual property side, which wants an oligopoly, and the consumer side, which wants competitive prices." Barton said he would not eliminate the patent system, but plans to propose specific patent reforms in a forthcoming paper.

Equally dangerous, in Barton's view, is a growing movement -- particularly in Europe -- to ban genetically modified food. "That would be most unfortunate for the world," he said. "I support genetic engineering. Without it, we may not have the food we need."

Barton appeared on a panel titled "Open Markets and Food Security," which examined the relationship between market forces and global food needs. SR