The Technology Protection System:
Revolutionary or evolutionary?
John W. Radin
Keywords:  Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), Sterile seeds, Genetic engineering, Technology transfer, Relation public-private sector.
Correct citation: Radin, J.W. (1999), "The Technology Protection System: Revolutionary or evolutionary?" Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 37, p. 24.

The patent granted on a technology for the control of seed germination has been criticized as a threat to farmers’ age-old practice of saving seed and re-using it for the next season. John W. Radin, on the other hand, argues that this technology should be viewed as a tool to introduce beneficial biotechnology into crops. The control of seed germination is therefore one important step in the long-standing evolution of crop improvement.

On 3 March 1998, US patent 5,723,765 was awarded to the Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA-ARS) and to the US cottonseed company Delta and Pine Land Co. This patent, entitled Control of Plant Gene Expression, describes the Technology Protection System (TPS), a genetic modification that allows a normal crop to be produced but prevents germination of its progeny seeds. Since then, the patent has raised a great deal of attention, both in terms of its benefits and its potential for harm. We in USDA-ARS see two far-reaching benefits resulting from this technology.
First, TPS is the only genetic system currently capable of preventing the spread of transgenes into the environment. Not only does activated TPS prevent seeds from germinating, but pollen from a TPS plant also leads to non-viable seeds when it fertilizes a non-TPS plant. As a result, naturally-occurring hybrids between crops and wild plants will not be perpetuated. This characteristic does mean that the TPS prototype now under development might be useful primarily with self-pollinated crops, to avoid problems of sterility in nearby fields of the same crop. In fact, the patented system is intended for use in cotton, a self-pollinated crop with little field-to-field spread of pollen. However, for applications in cross-pollinated crops, TPS will clearly have to be modified to fit their specific needs.
Second, TPS represents a new way to protect valuable agricultural biotechnology and enhance its applications for US agriculture. Today’s highly productive crops are the result of considerable investment in research and development (R&D). Much of the investment in agricultural biotechnology has occurred in the private sector, which must realize a profit on its investment if R&D is to continue. The TPS simplifies protection of technology and removes it from the legal arena. It is likely to allow companies to increase their research with the expectation of a fair return on the investment, just as development of hybrids opened the door for companies to invest in maize earlier this century.
Why should we encourage agricultural biotechnology research? The answer is that the world greatly benefits in multiple ways. The first products of this research include insect-resistant and herbicide-resistant crops that have been immensely successful. In 1997, transgenic insect-resistant maize saved farmers in the USA an estimated US$ 190 million and substantially reduced insecticide use in the USA. The promise of more biotechnology applications, in a world that makes ever more dramatical demands of its agriculture, is an excellent reason to nurture the research. TPS is an important step in that direction.
Critics of TPS contend that the technology will victimize poor farmers in developing countries. They envision that non-TPS varieties will disappear, forcing farmers to buy seeds from the large seed companies each season, instead of saving seeds for replanting. However, we see little danger that the channels for development and distribution of non-TPS germplasm will disappear. Agricultural research is multifaceted, with many organizations, both private and public, pursuing different goals. In the USA, for instance, one role of USDA-ARS is to carry out fundamental research of broad applicability that cannot be funded by the private sector because it is not clearly associated with profit generation. In the case of TPS, the technology will be transferred to the private sector, which is fully capable of creating specific products. Although USDA-ARS is co-owner of the patent it will not develop and release varieties that contain TPS. In addition, internationally the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has taken the position that it will not introduce TPS into its breeding material. Therefore, TPS may be applied exclusively by the private sector, which will do so only when there is a sufficient market for the product. Non-TPS germplasm will continue to be made available through a variety of channels both public and private, and the long-term research to improve that germplasm and its production systems will be as vigorous as ever.
Plant improvement for human use has a long and elegant history. Successes in plant breeding, which allow Earth to carry its current population of more than 6 billion people, have come through a series of individual advances, most of which introduced a higher level of technology to agriculture. For instance, the advances of the Green Revolution were based on a substantial increase in technology. TPS should be viewed as a tool that will continue this long-standing trend toward technology by facilitating the wider introduction of beneficial biotechnology into crops. In this sense, TPS is part of a continuing evolution of modern improved crops, rather than a revolution in technology. The public discussion of TPS should centre not on whether to shun technological advances in crops, but how to manage them to the advantage of humanity.
John W. Radin

The author is National Programme Leader, Plant Physiology and Cotton Production, Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

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