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Sustainable Agriculture and the Rise of GMO Patents

May 24th, 2016

220px-Golden_Rice

At the Patents for Humanity Awards last year the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) gave awards to seven patents for innovations in different humanitarian fields including sanitation, energy, and medicine.

Among these seven, winning an award for its work in nutrition was U.S. Patent No. 7,838,749 for Golden Rice.  Invented by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer at the University of Freiburg, the rice has a genetically engineered carotenoid pathway to biosynthesize beta-carotene, allowing for the rice to have a higher level of vitamin A than conventional farmed rice.

The purpose behind the development of Golden Rice is to provide the enhanced rice to developing countries with the goal of lowering the rate of vitamin A deficiencies and the deaths due to those deficiencies. The inventors teamed up with the seed manufacturing company Syngenta (pending an $43 billion offer for purchase by ChemChina) in order to provide the seeds free of cost to developing countries.

Golden Rice, however, has not been entirely accepted with open arms. Many people today disapprove of the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in agriculture for health reasons, and the increase of resistances to disease and pesticides etc. within the crops themselves, which then require more genetic engineering to fight off the higher resistances.

As we move further into the 21st century, biotechnology is becoming more advanced and innovations easier to achieve, raising the question about agricultural GMO patents.

On one hand, like Golden Rice, these inventions could potentially save thousands of lives. On the other hand, GMO’s are still new and scientists are not fully aware of any long term implications they may have.

As GMO patents become more abundant, the USPTO, other national intellectual property offices, and IP policymakers will face serious scientific and moral issues surrounding GMO work within agriculture and the policies connected to them creating the need for more collaboration between the scientific and legal communities.

*Anna Lippert is a 2015 graduate of Purdue University with a Bachelors of Science in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.  Ms. Lippert is a certified OSHA hazardous waste technician and currently a second year law student at Golden Gate University School of Law with a focus on agricultural and environmental toxicology patent law.