Where are the Crops?

Michael Heller, law prof at Columbia, has a nice opinion piece in this month’s Forbes concerning biotech patents. His article, Where are the Cures? is about medical biotech, but the ideas apply to agricultural biotech as well. The problem isn’t patents on finished products, but patents on the building blocks needed to make those products – the kernels, not the cob.
Michael blames the dearth of new drugs on “patent gridlock”. He writes: “Now, more than ever, biomedical invention requires assembling scattered bits of intellectual property. That’s expensive and complex. Simply to determine ownership of intellectual property used in a small lab studying a rare ocular disease, the University of Iowa reportedly had to contact 71 entities. Academic scientists routinely respond to gridlock by becoming patent pirates, just like their students who are illegally downloading music. Secrecy is on the rise, and scientists are increasingly reluctant to share research materials.” Ag biotech researchers have to do the same thing. To develop new crops, a scientist has to either be willing to ignore patent law or work for a corporation with an army of lawyers. With the laws the way they are, it’s no wonder we haven’t seen more innovation in either medicine or crops.
So what do we do? Aside from shifting much more research into the hands of government agencies (which of  course means higher taxes), we have to find a way to encourage companies to innovate while ensuring that they can innovate! Michael’s solution: “With a few tweaks to the patent system, such as changing the formula of determining patent litigation damages, innovators should be able, fairly and efficiently, to assemble multiple patents into valuable new products, including the drugs that might save our lives.” And, the crops that might feed the world.
Image by editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett, found on OpenWetWare‘s page on “Synthetic Society/Ownership, sharing and innovation”.


  1. I think another side of the problem is medicines that are released to the public haven’t been on humans for very long and their is no way of knowing the long term effects. The same goes for GMOs

  2. Dagny, I’m not sure how the idea of “patent gridlock” is related to any real or perceived safety issues. Could you please elaborate? Those real and perceived safety issues of GMOs are certainly something we need to consider, though. I’ve actually just finished a workshop on ethics where I’ve learned some new ways to think about these issues. Stay posted for some articles in which I will attempt to disentangle some of the ethical issues related to GMOs.

    Andrew, that’s an interesting combination of topics that all underline the issues of IP and regulation. Both are important but we certainly need to work to streamline the systems. I’m a big CAMBIA fan, especially since they are enabling people to work on “orphan crops”.

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