6:57 AM May 7, 1997


Geneva May 7 (TWN) -- The Bt gene, found in naturally occurring soil bacterium, and which is being inserted into the genomes of other crops, and whose ownership is claimed by many corporations is hitting back: the legal wrangles over ownership is swallowing up time and money, reports GRAIN, the Spain-based international environment NGO.

The Bt-gene, GRAIN points out, in its March issue of 'Seedlings', is a very clear example of biopiracy. This gene is isolated from the naturally-occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces a protein that destroys the gut wall of a number of common insect pests.

As a result of these properties, it was used by organic farmers since the 1960s as a biological pesticide. Recently, says GRAIN, in the light of regulatory constraints and consumer opposition to conventional chemical pesticides, the environmental-friendliness of Bt caught the interest of several large agrochemical companies.

Scientists have isolated the Bt gene and have inserted it into a range of crops, including maize, soybean, cotton, rapeseed, potato, tobacco, rice and tomato.

In the wake of these transformations, numerous patent applications have been filed. By March 1995, there were no less than 440 patents granted or pending related to Bt. 88% of these were being claimed by the private sector and 44% by only 10 companies.

In the US, Bt corn, cotton and potato have all received patent approval and in Europe, the approval of Novartis' Bt corn has been stalled over the presence of a marker gene which codes for antibiotic resistance.

According to GRAIN, there is a good deal of conflict over who really owns what.

For instance, Plant Genetic Systems has been granted a US patent for all transgenic plants containing Bt and Mycogen has been issued a European patent which covers the insertion of any insecticidal gene in any plant.

Such driftnet patents give rise to conflict with many narrower spectrum claims.

The resulting legal wrangles, especially in the US, over the ownership of the Bt technology are causing many leading agrochemical companies to consume vast amounts of time and resources. In their eagerness to cash in before their competitors, these companies are rushing new products to the market and into farmers fields as fast as they can.

As a consequence, adds GRAIN, research on the safety and the environmental implications of the newly transformed crops is coming in after the stable doors have been closed.

Recent studies have shown that the potential for resistance to develop in the targeted insects is dramatically higher than was predicted.

Farmers, therefore, who used Bt initially, are not only robbed of a very important pest control tool, they have to face having the product they have carefully developed taken away from them without any recognition of or remuneration for, their role in developing it.

GRAIN says that the Bt story clearly illustrates how stifling patenting system is to the process of innovation which is essential to agricultural development.

Farmers all over the world have always insisted on the free flow of seeds and knowledge in order for agriculture to thrive and develop. Allowing the patenting of agricultural produce is causing companies to spend more and more time and money in lawsuits, rather than putting their energies into innovation and development, concludes GRAIN.