UCD joins biotech drive on hunger

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Friday, July 11, 2003

The University of California and several other leading agriculture institutions have teamed up with the Rockefeller and McKnight foundations to fight world hunger using biotech crops.

A major new initiative announced Thursday in Science magazine aims to ease the transfer of technology for developing genetically engineered crops that are critical to poor countries -- without undermining commercial relationships that universities rely on for revenue.

The effort likely will draw opposition from environmentalists seeking to halt the spread of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

University leaders, however, say they need a new approach to getting potentially lifesaving products out of laboratories, where they sometimes languish for lack of commercial interest.

"This will potentially make it easier to get (new technology) into the hands of the people who need it," said Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the UC biotechnology research and education program.

As part of the project, the University of California has been commissioned to create a database of public patents on agricultural technologies -- something that should eventually make them easier to share.

Alan Bennett, professor of vegetable crops at UC Davis, said the initiative aims to position public institutions for future biotech developments -- even if some existing technologies are hampered by intellectual property curbs.

"We anticipate that there will be new waves of technology in the next five to 10 years that will replace everything that is important today," he said. "We want to be prepared to manage those technologies in a way that supports as much innovation as possible."

In the Science magazine article, top officials from many of the nation's leading farm schools said several companies have made use of public university research to boost production and reduce chemical use in major crops such as corn and soy.

"Work on crops of less commercial interest has progressed slowly," said the article. "Therefore, we ... are now collectively asking whether institutions such as ours can do a better job in fulfilling our mission in support of agriculture in the United States and developing countries."

University leaders said their institutions' research is increasingly restricted because technologies belong to multiple public and private parties. In one case, more than 40 patents and contracts constrained the development of a vitamin-rich GMO rice.

Monsanto -- the world leader in genetically engineered crops -- said it wouldn't interfere with the initiative.

"Overall, we see that it's a recognition of the importance of biotech and it brings important new resources to ensure that biotechnology continues to develop and the benefits are applied more broadly," said company spokesman Bryan Hurley.

He said Monsanto has donated its work on a virus-resistant sweet potato to researchers in Kenya.

But resistance is likely from the same kinds of groups that demonstrated in Sacramento last month against the U.S. government's role in exporting GMOs to developing countries.

Steve Scholl-Buckwald, co-director of the Pesticide Action Network North America in San Francisco, wondered whether universities might simply be using humanitarian goals to put a good face on controversial GMOs.

"I would think this is a way to keep a hand in the profit-driven development of proprietary seeds," he said.

About the Writer The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.