The Technology Protection System:
Revolutionary or evolutionary?
John W. Radin
||Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research
(CGIAR), Sterile seeds, Genetic engineering, Technology transfer, Relation
||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
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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