by Professor Dennis Shaughnessy 

This year’s winner of the “Patents for Humanity” award given by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) included the inventors of a genetically modified organism (“GMO”) called “Golden Rice”.

Patents for Humanity” is a USPTO program that recognizes patent owners and licensees working to improve global health and living standards for the poor. The program recognizes private sector leaders who bring life-saving technologies to those in need, while showing how patents, when used responsibly, can play a role in solving the challenges of global poverty.

Golden Rice is a patented “GMO” food designed to address the needs of the poor from both a nutrition and public health standpoint.

On campuses across the country and world students often protest GMOs, as a corporate attempt to control the world’s food for profit and personal gain, while risking the health of people and the environment.  Many students who are adamantly opposed to GMOs are also passionately supportive of global development and efforts to improve the lives of the poor.  The story of Golden Rice challenges many of the assumptions behind the anti-GMO movement with the support of many in the development community.

Golden Rice presents an interesting and immediate challenge to the idea that GMOs are by definition harmful to people and the environment.  It also presents a compelling case study for examining the unfortunate but all too common situation in which the affluent or rich world decides what’s best for people living in very different circumstances in the developing world.  While protesters from the US and the EU focus their attention on blocking GMO seeds from entering the agricultural sector, often poor small holder farmers in places like Kenya or the Philippines are enthusiastically lining up to buy these very seeds.  Many of these poor farmers can’t afford not to pursue seeds that will increase their yields and allow them to better feed their families and bring a surplus of harvested crop to the market for much needed family income.

Golden Rice results from the genetic insertion of a source of Vitamin A (beta carotene) into a rice kernel.  This genetic manipulation increases the vitamin A content of rice thereby addressing the health problems associated with a deficiency in this essential vitamin, from vision loss to malnutrition to immune system weaknesses.  Beta carotene is actually naturally found in the non-edible leaf of the rice plant, so the genetic insertion step is merely allowing the best of the inedible portion of the rice plant to enter its edible portion.  As we all know, rice is a staple in the diet of billions of people and most especially of poor people around the world.

Most development experts agree that Golden Rice has the potential to reduce hunger and otherwise improve the health of poor children and families in developing countries.  Yet protests against this “GMO food,” by well-meaning people, are threatening its use in the Philippines and elsewhere.  Reports of Green Peace followers burning stocks of Golden Rice and destroying fields planted with GR are of increasing concern.

The inventors of Golden Rice (Professors Potrykus, Beyer and Dubock) licensed their patent to help insure that their product would be effectively and efficiently developed for humanitarian purposes.  They licensed their patent rights to a large multinational seed company called Syngenta, requiring as part of the commercial license that Syngenta fund the humanitarian development and use of the invention.  While Syngenta’s management later concluded that the commercial development of golden rice did not meet its strategic or financial targets, because of their contractual commitment, the company continued its funding obligation for humanitarian uses of the product.  As a result, a new food product stands ready to enter the market beginning in poor communities in Asia, with the purpose of reducing hunger and illness among the poor.

There are lessons to be learned from the Golden Rice story, at least to this student of social enterprise and private sector development.  One lesson is that it’s clear from this example that patents, when used with moral clarity and for a socially responsible purpose, can further the humanitarian purpose of an invention.  Another might be that well-intentioned people that advance a movement or cause from their base in the developed world, like the anti-GMO movement, might be well served to consider the different interests and unique challenges of people in the developing world before imposing their view on those people. And finally, this case speaks to the important role that the private sector and even large multinational businesses can play in addressing the needs of the poor while simultaneously pursuing their business strategy and financial interests.

I hope that we see more Golden Rice planted in the months and years to come in communities where it is needed most.

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