GM Foods and Bt Brinjal: Interview with Prof. Richard Jefferson(Part II)

Uploaded by NewsClickin on 06.05.2010

hello and welcome
we are here in a continuation of our conversation with Dr. Richard Jefferson
tell us something about how you came
to open source biology. What ended up happening is that the public sector start selling off
their rights to large players and to small players which were then absorbed by the larger players
so became to be the consolidation of capabilities and
probably several thousand patents emerged worldwide around
not only this trick of transfer of gene
how you did in this particular crop at this particular stage of development and so
on and so forth
so you have this thickets- as we call- of patents and which is incredibly difficult to understand written in
ecclesiastical language interpretable only by an expensive clergy
so we set out to understand we hired some expensive clergy
wonderful wonderful patent attorneys
who would help
guide this into a public research. so we published this online as an open resource
to look at this transfer of agro bacterium genes in the plants
we discovered something wonderful
when you actually look at the evidence and actually look at it in this context it almost like a map
a cartography of this innovation
we can actually see that there are plenty of spaces between these
shores and reefs of intellectual property
that people have not drawn attention to
And there was one in particular - instead of winding their way through
why not do an end-run around? It's the classic sports metaphor if there's anybody caring about that
You pound through a line and you run around it.
well in this particular case it turned out that
as you know
Law depends on definitions and precedence
and if the early definitions are thought to be adequate those definitions are held to
throughout the whole history of that particular innovation
agrobacterium tumefaciens that's one particular species of bacterium
that was capable of doing gene transfer
and everybody use the same terminology
And we thought what if there is another species there?
What if there is a benign species that is not plant pathogenic and causes tumors
but a gentle bacterium, a sweet bacterium
And what if we ask that bacterium through
through laboratory intervention to do the same thing to be the karyon
to take the genes in but don't mess with the plants otherwise.
and it would fall completely outside the definition of all these patents
the patents are extremely defined by their definitions
And it turned out
that we can see that
let's find a benign bacterium - rhizobium
another cell bacterium
which doesn't cause disease
but which has a very beneficial effect on plants
and can we get to that to do the same thing
and then
work around a thousand patents which are constrained by using that definition
So that was our scientific idea that was informed by patent transparency
So we set out to do it
and a tiny team of us founded by "exiles" and "car-washers"
we did it
and we published it as a cover article in Nature
-the Journal, not the Phenomenon-
decided to share with everyone
so patented it
this is the
counter-intuitive moment
we're thinking
how do we ensure
that the same thing doesn't happen again - we just set it out there
what happens to the improvements that actually making it commercially viable. Remember that
the first stage of an invention is never really a finished stage. It's always a good lead
and from there people improve in to make certain commercially viable has to be able
to produce thousand events per week or whatever
and if you need to adapt it for your crop
people will make improvements and those improvements are important to be able to make it a usable invention
we knew that
so the question is if we just put it out in the public domain
first of all that would save us a lot of money
and we will be able to still get press about how wonderful it was
but would it actually have the impact we wanted - Busting a monopoly
as a new monopoly can form very quickly by obscuring even what we our best intentions
one has to take in good course
So we patented it
and we spent
a couple of years, while we knew this was going to work, the science would and I knew it was going to
work so I spent a lot of time with
our patent professionals going around
every university, every legal scholar, every company
and said
what sort of license could you live with
how could
we build a license around a patent
that could actually forestall the development of a monopoly like this
and we listened to a lot of people and that's an important part as scientists are not very good at listening
to people outside the realm of expertise and we really had to stretch ourselves to learn
how to do it
Make an interdisciplinary team.
So we did that and by the time we published that we had prepared and filed patents
and we prepared a new type of license and we called it bios license and this is what became quickly biological
open source
but we used patents instead of copyright
so we started providing this under a license
that said, "you may use it at no cost to you
but we ask you to behave in a different way" We asked if you improve this technology you
don't disrupt those rights
over anyone else who's agreed to the same terms. So
this opened up the open source concept of biology
and it kind of worked.. That was five years ago - we got good write ups in the Economist, in the New York times
and other
fairly substantial journals. We had a very nice write up here
in the Business World, in India which is trying to promote this approach
But what happened is that it became
clear over the next five years that the challenges we face are not going to be overcome by piecemeal
one at a time
solutions of patents there are
millions of patents out there and the idea is each one is going to be picked apart
is unreasonable. We need to look for structural solutions because it is well beyond a
single patent
so even though we got many licensees of our technology we didn't see the successful change
in innovation culture we wanted
I actually thought the public sector would be my strongest ally
I would have to actually wrestle with the private sector
ironically it's been exactly the opposite way
the public sector has perverse incentives they don't have
any positive incentive for social delivery of their work product
so most
are awarded for publishing
and for beating someone else in the publishing process for getting grants
and from getting a committee, getting a parking place. But basically not for social
adoption of their work product
The private sector ironically can only exist if they do get social adoption - they are called customers
and if they don't get adoption they go out of business
we're trying to convince the public sector - this willy-nilly using everybody's intellectual
property every day every laboratory, every laboratory in delhi, every laboratory in brishane and every laboratory
in berkley
is using intellectual property patented technologies every day with no consequences
to themselves
they in essence contaminate their work product using other people's technology impermissibly
with out their permission
but nobody's going to come after them and they're okay because they can get their paper
out to journals - Science or Nature or second tier journals and they
can advance their careers
The problem is
it makes their contribution very hard to assemble into a final innovation
affordably they can benefit the people who need them most
it basically
puts "carbuncles" on every piece of science
We realized then that trying one at a time to prise off carbuncles was not a way to change
social policy, innovation policy
We were getting buy-in from the the companies
because they saw that they were spending ridiculous amounts of money in accessing pre competitive
platforms- the very question you ask
So the companies - yeah, we could live with that it's not usually the way we do business but we
could save a lot of money and actually open up
our real investments in real products and services and so it was okay
So it ended up that
I had gone into it thinking that I was going to really
dislike the private sector
and then
public sector was going to adopt our view.
But public sector just didn't care
because they have not any reward system
So the private sector cared but not enough because by the time we got there, that was too little
too late. There was, already a
stovepiping in the industry
So coming around to the whole GMO question
what's happening right now
the problem is that we have
allow the lexicon to be rewritten where science has been captured
by big industry
or by
behavior sets
that look a lot like
big industry
It's not that big industries are necessarily bad. But it should never be the only game in
the problem is we allow it to be.
so the biggest problem about Monsanto is not Monsanto it's us in the public sector. We have allowed
the scorched earth to occur
We have allowed
a dysfunctional ecology of innovation to happen where science has been
owned by big companies
and frankly not even to their service to be honest most big companies will
probably be able to do a fine job
when there's a flourishing of different and alternative business models
But when you ask a question about licensing
if exclusive licensing is an option
most people say that it's an essential one
if you tell a drug company
that that one of the options we can negotiate for us is exclusive, do you think they're going
to we won't have that we will go for something else
if on the other hand if you offer and say
we only do it and not exclusively
if they turn your back
it is only as part of a bargaining tool generally
people would take it because they only want to get the job done
Our approach, generally is to say that with GMOs, the problem with them is not genetic modiciation
because in fact all the crops that we grow here in India and anywhere in the world are defacto
genetically modified through the artifice of human invention
we wouldn't have modern wheats without
slamming together three genomes which had never seen each other historically
it was genetic modification through human intervention
Now what's the difference - the difference is we've allowed the human intervention to sound
To not have
a personal component
to be honest the genetics of modern crops is a very complex and beautiful thing
but the genetics of modern ecosystems is more exciting
and that
local scale knowledge could contribute so much if science was their tool
we have not allowed that to happen
so we need is to rethink the debate. Its not about GMOs
it's not about
genetic modification it's about really
How democratised the scientific process can be because in fact some of the interventions the
GMOs are doing
are okay. Any industrial agriculture paradigm when invented are actually better
than what came before
there's no doubt in my mind that the data about
let's say Roundup Ready soyabean
actually supports the contention that we've saved a lot of diesel in industrial agriculture
by not having to do multiple tilling. We saved a lot of
very toxic herbicide sprays they are more toxic than roundups
But the problem is it enforced a
superficially successful paradigm of industrial agriculture. It allowed that to
have more life
breathing some life into it for some years
It wasn't bad in the context of what it was doing compared to what immediately before
the same context it was an improvement there's no doubt about it
so these guys are not lying, I think, about
the impact on agriculture
What's happened unfortunately is that
short term success breeds
a particular lemming like convergence to that way of solving problems
so it's not Monsanto is bad
it is that we don't have a viable science driven alternative ecology
and we need more. We need to have
a lot of different creative ideas about how you use science to adjust
ecosystem development
So we are throwing the baby out with the bath water by
raging against the GMO
What we are actually doing is throwing out the beauty of
of complex mechanism driven science to understand how things work
so it's totally empiricism or
big multinational. There is stuff in between
But it's not linear.
It is not black white and grey
it's black white and B-flat minor
it's different metric and thats what we should depend on and thats what we should demand in society!