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Syngenta's power over rice genome: What might it mean?

By Robert Schubert
CropChoice.com editor

(April 8, 2002 – CropChoice opinion) – People concerned that private ownership of life will erode public research and the rights of farmers – and reduce genetic diversity – should note the recent developments with the genetic blueprint of rice.

Syngenta mapped the japonica rice genome last year, but refused to make the data available to the public. Now, on the heels of a Chinese research team’s announcement that it will make public its mapping of the indica rice genome, Syngenta has changed its tune and decided to allow researchers access to the information.

But contrary to what a perusal of press reports, including a glowing release last week from the International Rice Research Institute (a href= http://www.irri.org target= "_blank">http://www.irri.org), might lead one to believe, it’s doubtful that the Swiss biotechnology giant will open completely its findings.

Consider, as have a group of scientists, that the company will not place the genome data in GenBank, a computer database that’s free to researchers. Instead, they’ll have to log into the company website – http://www.syngenta.com – to use it.

When it comes to allowing access for commercial use, which could include research on seeds to provide to farmers at minimal or not cost, the parties likely will have to hash through so called Material Transfer Agreements. What could lurk in the fine print of these contracts?

"The reality is that MTAs could be used to give Syngenta first rights to any commercial results and/or prohibit the sharing of resulting materials with third parties. These are unacceptable constraints and conditions," says Hope Shand, of the ETC Group, formerly RAFI. (http://www.etcgroup.org "This is dangerous for public sector research, for farmers and food security."

Dr. Ronald P. Cantrell, director of the International Rice Research Institute told the journal Nature 416, 111-112 (2002): "You have to ask the question 'is it better not to have any access at all?"

"We find this comment unacceptable and believe that IRRI should join other top genome researchers in vocally protesting the publication of genome maps without full public access," Shand says. "This shows how vulnerable we could be to a major multinational setting the terms and conditions for access to the genetic blueprint of the world’s single most important food crop."

The issue of owning the life blueprint of a major crop aside, one might want to think about how inserting a gene(s) into new crop varieties might affect genetic diversity.

Dr. Jeffrey Bennetzen, a Purdue University corn expert, told The New York Times: "I personally do not believe that we can rely on the private sector to maintain genetic diversity. In fact, we can rely on them not to."