Roots of paucity

US policy limits agricultural yield of poor nations

Published: Sunday 15 February 2004

-- (Credit: EMKAY)food insecurity and chronic poverty could be easily overcome if poor countries are able to improve agricultural productivity. But they do not have access to the necessary tools, especially biotechnology. In its latest report, us-based research institute Resources for the Future accuses the us's patent policy of restricting the use of biotechnology only for the benefit of the developed world. Important components of the 'biotechnology toolkit', like plant transformation tools and genetically improved germplasm, are mostly patented by private companies in the us and elsewhere. The report argues that the private entities 'lack' the economic incentive to develop technologies that the poor African farmers need.

As per the report, for the next two decades the use of biotechnology for the betterment of African farmers can be made available through local governments and publicly funded or public-private cooperative channels, if the us changes its policy. The main recommendation of the report is to limit the scope of the patent monopoly such that the use of a patented tool to ensure food security in a developing country would not mean an infringement of the patent. Other suggestions include making available us government-funded or owned biotech inventions to poor countries.

But why would the us change its patent law? Michael Taylor and Jerry Cayford, the authors of the report, make a moral case for the change. "The us has a national security interest in reducing global poverty and hunger and a duty as the richest and the most powerful nation to avoid actions and policies that adversely affect food security," they argue. Tragically, moral considerations seldom guide the us' actions; but the threat to national security from poverty-bred terrorism might prompt a change.

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