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Gates Foundation, GMO banana face renewed attacks

, | | November 25, 2014

Among the controversial projects funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the development and testing of a biofortified GMO banana developed to boost its iron, Vitamin E and proVitamin A content.

To this end the Foundation, via its Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative, has so far given $15 million to Queensland University of Technology for the program run by Professor Dr James Dale, with a latest tranche of $10 million handed over this year.

The declared purpose is to roll out nutritional benefits across the tropics, but initially to India, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda – all countries that suffer from widespread nutritional deficiencies.

And Dale is certainly enthusiastic, telling the Independent that “This project has the potential to have a huge positive impact on staple food products across much of Africa and in doing so lift the health and wellbeing of countless millions of people over generations.”

So what’s so controversial about that?

What Dale has done is to take the high beta-carotene banana gene for his GMO ‘super-bananas’ from an existing Fe’i banana variety from Papua New Guinea, following a study that compared ten cultivars with yellow to orange fruit.

The trouble is, this makes Dales’ GMO ‘super-banana’ a clear case of biopiracy. The original Asupina, collected 25 years earlier from Papua New Guinea and held by the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (Q-DPI), is the rightful property of the nation and the communities that developed it.

Could his real intention be to capture a commercial market in selling a premium, novelty ‘high nutrient’ banana to northern consumers? And in the process pave the way for other GMO bananas with commercially desirable qualities?

Read full, original article: Why is Bill Gates backing GMO red banana ‘biopiracy’?

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion, and analysis. Click the link above to read the full, original article.

27 thoughts on “Gates Foundation, GMO banana face renewed attacks”

    • So a banana “collected” from Papua New Guinea is being “held” by a foreign government, and they are upset that a gene was used from this variety? Would they be similarly upset if someone bred a cavendish-like banana using the same genes, and got PVP protection for it?
      These authors do not seem to know what biopiracy is. It is taking the knowledge and property of others and using it for profit without their permission. This is a humanitarian not-for-profit venture. The authors of this piece speculate wildly claiming that there is a secret plot involved – a conspiracy! This is the new mantra – claim ownership of every gene in the world, and say that no one can use them – even to help people in need. Then accuse others of being pirates.

      • Karl — I’m not clear exactly what intellectual property is being claimed, whether protection is sought via PVP or otherwise. The article seems to imply the beta carotene gene from the fe’i bananna is being claimed as intellectual property, or the fe’i bananna itself, but isn’t it rather that the innovation of the expression of the beta carotene in the cavendish is what is being claimed as intellectual property? As a parallel, it was my understanding seed companies acquire intellectual property in the innovation of corn, soy etc. expressing a particular Cry protein, they don’t actually own or patent the Cry protein, the bt bacteria or the gene of the bacteria that expresses the cry. At the end of this, does anybody get to say they now own the fe’i bananna or its beta carotene gene?

        One of the advantages of  the intellectual property in the cavensish acquiring the beta-carotene expression being held in the non-profit public good entity is that they prevent it from being held in an entity that might have only propritary interests. Even if the Gates’ supported entitity did license use to some entity who might make commercial use in northern markets as a premium, novelty bananna, there would be nothing that inhibibits the foundation making it available to farmers in nutrient challenged places under philanthropic terms of licensure, something an entity in it for purely commercial reasons may not have an interest in if they owned the intellectual property in the cavendish. If there is a lucrative commercial value as the article speculates, then it is perhaps fortuitous that a public good organization does beat Chaquita, et al to the punch. In fact, licensure royalties to entities hoping to exploit it commercially in developed world markets would be a source of revenues to the foundation to fund non commercial development in developing regions.

        Last question. The article does to me ask a good question, why doesn’t the Gates Foundation just facilitate introducing the fe’i bananna or other existing varieties to address vitamin A dietary deficits. Are you aware of any practical limitations to that approach that the article doesn’t mention?

        • Fei
          bananas have a reputation for being difficult to grow and are not very
          productive. They are also nothing like the East African highland bananas (EAHB)
          that are a staple in the highlands of East Africa and which people use in their
          traditional dishes. The GM banana that would be introduced to Uganda would be
          an EAHB cultivar, not the Cavendish developed as a proof of concept. My
          understanding is that the GM banana is meant to help EAHB banana farmers who
          can’t afford a more diversified diet. According to Time magazine, village
          leaders would receive 10 GM banana plants on the condition that they share 20 of the shoots produced by these plants with villagers, and so on. There are other projects to introduce non-traditional cultivars that are richer in provitamin A, but one shouldn’t exclude the other.

  1. How can anybody not understand that patenting food is wrong and immoral? Why not patent and own all the water and air too? Why not patent and own the DNA in my body? This is so basic, yet greedy corporations want to own and control these basic building blocks of life! It’s wrong! plain and simple! So they take a gene out of a pig and cram it into the DNA of a banana, and now claim that they can patent and own that banana??? Is this not completely insane and also bio-piracy??? I think it is!

    • Actually, you cannot patent food. Patents are granted to novel gene sequences and processes. This has been going on since the advent of patent law. Almost all seeds used by organic farmers are patented hybrids. Hybrid seeds have been patented since the 1930s. It’s the furthest thing from immoral; it’s what drives innovation. Recent Supreme Court decisions on this have been unanimous…Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps you should brush up on history and the law.

    • Actually, the Plant Protection Act became law in 1930. The Plant Variety Protection Act became law in 1970. These predate the new gene technology. Also appreciate that because the research and regulatory approvals cost tens of millions of dollars, companies must legally protect new transgenic events from being replicated without permission. Otherwise, this technology goes away.

          • Probably too complex for your simple brain to grasp, but yes, nations, indigenous communities, cultures etc. that developed and used specific varieties of plants over generations for specific purposes…..don’t need a US/Western-based patent system to prove that those varieties ‘belong’ to them.

            From the article about the GMO banana:

            “The traditional knowledge they have used comes directly from Micronesia and is the heritage of communities across the Asia-Pacific region. The Q-DPI collection from which Dr Dale and his colleagues sourced the Asupina variety should have been a collection held in public trust.”

            You are always quick to defend the right of corporations to ‘recoup’ their millions/billions of dollars in investing in new GM varieties. Where is your defense of indigenous peoples’ effort, time and knowledge that led to the creation of specific, useful varieties of crops that these corporations steal with impunity with no compensation whatsoever to the peoples that developed them?

          • .don’t need a US/Western-based patent system to prove that those varieties ‘belong’ to them.

            They just take a gene or two, the original plants are still around, for the Native peoples to use as they see fit, nothing dies or is destroyed, just like in conventional breeding. , useful varieties of crops that these corporations steal

            There not stealing this or anything else, the original stays the way it has always been.

          • So, if somebody took the gene or genes for, say, glyphosate resistance or Bt -toxin production from GMO crops and put it into some other variety of plant, the GMO corporations would have no problem with that? After all, they still have the original plants, don’t they?

          • The publicly developed seed is still available to anyone who wants it. There is no restrictions or patent infringements with that type of seed.

            The difference is when someone has added a trait (through their investment and research) and patented that technology. The farmer CAN still buy the publicly developed seed, but if he concludes the new trait (could be either GMO or non-GMO) offers a better solution for his farming operation he can purchase that option.

            It really is simple. If someone develops a better(different) mouse trap you DO NOT have to buy it. You can continue to purchase seed the way you always have. But if want to benefit from a product that a company has brought to the marketplace, why should you not have to pay for that service?

            Nothing in life is free.

          • Actually, the patent is expiring on the original glyphosate tolerant traits in soybeans, i.e they will become public domain I believe this year []. The article linked to even talks about an actual case of a new variety incorporating the now public domain ht trait being developed by a public breeding program at the University of Arkansas.

            I have to respectfully disagree with your definition of biopiracy. If you could show me that somehow, indigenous people in SE Asia will no longer be able to grow the fei banana cultivar without paying somebody a royalty, that somebody now owns a patent on the fei cultivar and you cannot plant them unless you get license permission, then I would join you in indignation.

            But I don’t see that happening — the intellectual property is in the innovation of the expression of the beta carotene in other cultivars by the transfer of a genetic sequence borrowed from the fei cultivar. I don’t believe that the fei cultivar or even the beta carotene expressing gene sequence found in the fei is patented. Those still remain public domain, and as public domain, are available to anyone for improving other plant varieties, just as the original soybean glyphosate tolerant trait is now public domain and available to anyone to use.

            Even though I dispute the African banana project is in any legal or ethical sense biopiracy, note my comment above. I would not object to a nation, or village or whatever appropriate governmental or social unit, asserting a public trust intellectual property in indigenous, public domain cultivars or unique traits of these. But even then, I would not see it as a violation of the public trust to not interfere with use of traits for philanthropical, public good purposes elsewhere, as is being done in the project objected to. I also would not see a public trust failure to license use of cultivars or traits for commercial purposes and for the trust entity to extract some manner of royalty provided a) any royalty is returned to social programs beneficial to the population for whom the public trust is established and b) that no licensure granted disrupts the free availability of the indigenous, non commercially improved cultivars to that population.

            But I would not agree that the purpose of any exercise of public trust in indigenous cultivars, whether such trust formally or informally exists, is to confine an indigenous population to only growing public domain varieties of that cultivar — people, yes even subsistence small holder farmers, should have the freedom to access the benefits of public or commercial breeding programs that create improved varieties even if there is intellectual property attached to the improved varieties.

            (edited for grammar and to insert paragraph breaks)

    • Nope- in order to receive a patent, an invention must be novel and not obvious. This right is enshrined in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which allows Congress “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries”.

      Water, air, and other products of nature are by definition not patentable. Only inventions that never existed before are eligible for a patent.

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