Genetically Modified (GM) crops have been shown to possess great potential in maximizing crop yield and minimizing harvest loss. This, in addition to the benefits that growing GM crops can have for the environment, render it an excellent option for farmers all around the world, especially those that live in areas with adverse and/or unpredictable growth conditions (Ruishalme, I., 2015). Patents on GMOs developed by corporations, however, make the crops too expensive to take advantage of in many cases for small farmers, particularly those in poor countries. Furthermore, extensive patents can allow companies to control the use and distribution of seeds and crops, thus hindering crop production. Farmers, for example, cannot collect and plant the seeds produced by the patented GM crops that they grow (Puck, L., 2013).
Private farmers in the United States have had to balance the benefits of GM crops against their steep price for many years (Regalado, A., 2015). And if the cost of 200 USD to plant and fertilize an acre of corn for a United States farmer means a cut in profits, this same cost would likely render GM crops entirely unaffordable for subsidence farmers (Johnson, N., 2013).
In many cases, the high costs associated with researching a viable GM crop means that it is mostly private corporations who have the capital to research and develop a marketable GM seed variety. Since the seeds are patented, the corporations can charge high prices for them in addition to preventing farmers from saving seeds from the harvest. From beginning to end, developing a single new plant biotechnology trait requires about 136 million USD and 13 years, a significant portion of which goes into regulatory testing and registration (Jones, W., 2014). Given these costs, patents are largely justified as incentives for companies to invest in developing the new crops in the first place. However, we believe that the existence of patents should not impede the spread of improved, bioengineered crops, especially in areas that could benefit the most from growing them.
Part of the solution to the prohibitive price of patented GM crops may lie in public-private cooperatives, where private biotechnology companies partner with public institutions for GM R&D. One such partnership is the African Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project, an initiative that connects a consortium of public entities that range from local African non-profits to United States state universities with the private GM crop distributor DuPont Pioneer. The private company sponsors the research done in the public institutions, under main governance by Africa Harvest, a non-profit organization that has headquarters in both Africa and the United States The goal of the project is to “create a highly nutritious biofortified sorghum that grows well in the semi-arid and arid environments of Africa” (“The ABS Project Consortium”, 2010).
Mission 2019 suggests a model of public-private partnership that builds on the ABS project model. The model consists of the following general steps:
- Private GM company invests in the research, which will be done in public institutions in the target country. When a new seed variety is developed, the company will gain the rights to sell it. As the ABS model shows, public institutions can range from public universities (including foreign ones) to non-profit organizations established by a consortium of researchers and professionals. Unfortunately, for many developing countries, especially those with corrupt or unstable governments, support from the government is not dependable.
- Option A: Companies will sell the developed seeds to small farmers in the target country through farmers communes at a lower price. Companies will relinquish their ownership over the developed seed in the target country, but receive a patent to sell it in their own country, thus guaranteeing them a return on their investment.
Option B: Companies sell the developed seeds to farmers at a lower price, and in return receive a tax break on the profits that they earn in the target country. The viability of this option depends greatly on the economic willingness and/or capability of the local government to cooperate.
For both options, legal agreements between the company and the public institutions involved will ensure that the company fulfills its part of the deal.
With this model, we hope to improve crop bioengineering in two ways: 1) to encourage GM corporations to invest in developing crop varieties that poor, small farmers can afford and 2) introduce a focus on developing crops that are biofortified, resilient, resistant to extreme weather conditions, tolerant of poor soil conditions, and other properties that are better targeted towards farmers in developing countries. This model can also be applied to populous, developed countries by allowing the developed crops to be more locally suitable. This can also help bring out the aforementioned environmentally friendly and resource sustainable aspects of GM agriculture.
We estimate that the establishment of this form of private-public partnership will take at least five years, with the subsequent research and development timeframe being the norm (15 to 20 years) for creating a new seed variety.
Johnson, N. (2013, September 26). “Are GMOs worth their weight in gold? To farmers, not exactly”. Retrieved from http://grist.org/food/are-gmos-worth-their-weight-in-gold-to-farmers-not-exactly/
Jones, W. (2013, November 7). GMO Answers. Retrieved from https://gmoanswers.com/ask/how-much-time-does-it-take-and-how-much-does-it-cost-successfully-develop-hybrid-one-or-more
Puck, L. (2013, March 24). “Monsanto Bullies Small Farmers Over Planting Harvested GMO Seeds”. Retrieved November, 2015, from http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=15825
Regalado, A. (2015, July 30). Monsanto Roundup Ready Soybean Patent Expiration Ushers in Generic GMOs. Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://www.technologyreview.com/news/539746/as-patents-expire-farmers-plant-generic-gmos/
Ruishalme, I. (2015, April 29). “Are GMOs increasing profits of farmers and biotech companies a environment’s expense?” Retrieved November, 2015, from http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org 2015/04/29/are-gmos-increasing-profits-of-farmers-and-biotech-companies-at-environments-expense/
“The ABS Project Consortium”. (2010). Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://biosorghum.org/abs_consort.php