By 2050, the global population is projected to increase by as much as 35 percent to nearly 10 billion. With much of that growth occurring in the world's developing nations, enormous pressure will be placed on expanding agricultural production capacity, intensifying food as a national security issue in those regions. Increased pressure on the agricultural enterprise will also come from emerging needs to sustainably produce feedstock for conversion into renewable biofuels.
Meeting this grand challenge will require sustainable agricultural techniques and technologies—such as new crop varieties and cropping systems with high-yield potential, reduced need for chemical inputs, and enhanced pest, disease, and stress tolerance—and these technologies must be developed into inexpensive tools accessible to even the world's poorest populations who need them most.
To help promote the transfer of such technologies from the industrialized countries where they are most likely to be developed, the protection of intellectual property rights (IPRs) must be improved. IPRs play a key role in creating a supportive environment to spur innovation and foster technological development. However, its significance to agriculture has been the center of endless and polarized debates worldwide. Some argue that the expansion of IPR in agriculture helps promote research investments and innovation leading to significant economic activity and development in the sector. Others find that IPR elevates inequality across and within countries by mostly benefiting large private companies and rich countries at the expense of small companies and poor countries.
Our recent studies indicate that while the mechanisms for IPR establishment exist in the developing world, they are under-utilized and sometimes poorly understood, thus, rendering them either ineffective or counter-productive. Based on these results, we suggest that IPR is indeed critical to the agricultural development needed to meet the demands of a growing population, but that policy and regulation changes are necessary to efficiently promote such development. Hence, we suggest several paths to support the sensible introduction and diffusion of new agricultural practices and technologies.
Our first suggestion is to encourage enforcement of national laws that comply with TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). The TRIPS Agreement mandates strong patent protections for nearly all inventions across country boundaries, and provides opportunities to contest IPR abuses among member-countries. Importantly, TRIPS contains several principles and flexible provisions such as exclusion of some kinds of inventions from patenting (for example, plants, animals, and other “essentially biological” processes). These exceptions are important as they allow countries to tailor their IPR regimes to their own specific circumstances to allow utilization of local resources, e.g. local crops or crop varieties, without the intervention of IPRs.
Second, proactive access to modern biotechnologies can be facilitated with IP agreements that have clarified terms and provisions. New approaches, such as patent pools and open source licensing, for example, are expediting the deployment of new technologies around the world, while reducing their costs. The patent pool for GoldenRiceTM , a genetically engineered crop that is associated with multiple patent holders, results in reduced transaction costs since institutions in developing countries have to negotiate with a single licensing authority, the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. Even better, open source licensing for alternative transformation techniques to produce genetically enhanced crops, biotech tools, genes, etc. that are not patented and can provide licenses at no cost.
Third, innovation needs collaboration. We should actively nurture the formation of partnerships between the technology suppliers, governments, and private entities that acquire and develop the technology, and the agriculturalists that deploy the technology. Several of these collaborations have enabled access to some important biotechnologies (Golden rice, virus resistant papaya, etc.) and the design of new crop varieties for developing countries (e.g., NERICA rice varieties in Africa). Thus, developing countries must scale up IP management efforts and foster learning on the proper exploitation of IP. Currently, tech transfer is often slowed by the absence of national and institutional policies and systems and limited human and financial resources. A supportive community of IPR practitioners should be identified, trained and encouraged to implement IP management changes in these countries. This may be as simple as consolidating institutional expertise and cost-sharing in global regions or turning to existing technology transfer offices in universities to manage IP portfolios in developing nations. Washington State University, for instance, has helped several national agricultural research institutions in Africa to patent and commercialize their research products in the US market.
Finally, national agricultural research institutions should continue to build their national IP portfolios, which should be composed of local and indigenous innovations, and home-grown improvements on imported technologies to meet their particular agricultural needs, while bringing those products forward using appropriate business models.
The effective use of research and IPR can help drive delivery of innovative and productivity-increasing technologies crucial to agricultural and economic growth and achieving future needs for food security. The key is to match the proper IPR mechanisms with specific conditions, and to manage them effectively and efficiently to promote innovative research, technology transfer, wealth creation, and overall societal benefit.
Howard D. Grimes, Jane Payumo, and Keith Jones are from Washington State University. Grimes is the vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, Payumo is a postdoctoral research associate, and Jones is the director of the Office of Intellectual Property Administration and executive director of WSU Research Foundation. All are actively engaged in helping manage WSU research into economic development opportunities and disseminating the importance of innovation management to the global community.