Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Taro plant, ancestor of Hawaiians, not for patenting or genetic modification

After a fight led by Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte, Jr., the University of Hawaii has given up all rights and royalties on patents of three disease-resistant varieties of taro. Controversy arose when it was discovered that researchers at the university were doing genetic modification to produce a better taro plant. The taro is considered sacred by some Hawaiians because they believe that the taro is the ancestor of the Hawaiian people. There doesn't seem to be objection to breeding new varieties of taro, but genetic engineering is upsetting:
Kahakalau and Ritte said that using genetic-engineering techniques to insert foreign genes into the taro plant is wrong. "You can't change our ancestors without our permission," Ritte said.
They also objected to the possibility that farmers might have to pay a royalty to use the patented breeds of taro. The three patents in question are plant patents PP12,772, PP12,361, PP12,342 obtained by Eduardo Trujillo throughout 2002 for taro plant varieties named Pa'akala, Pa'lehua, and Pauakea. His intention was to produce disease resistant higher yielding taro as a food plant for Pacific islanders who grow it natively.

You can decide for yourself the ethics of patenting and owning a plant variety and then licensing and requiring royalties for its use. There seems to be a sharp distinction drawn by the parties in the conflict between cross-breeding and genetic engineering. I wonder if technique is everything in this conflict. My knowledge of plant patent law is weak, but I think you can patent a plant variety that was just bred for specific characteristics and not genetically engineered. Would the activists have objected to a patented plant produced by breeding? The excuse given pits science and economics against a religious belief, and muddies the issue of genetically engineering or even asking for a royalty for a "sacred" plant.

Patents serve a useful purpose. Patents provide a limited monopoly so that there is an incentive to produce new products such as disease resistant taro. It cost the university $300,000 to develop the variety. Patents are limited and published so that before they expire others are forced to innovate around them to produce new inventions and that benefits society, and that after they expire the knowledge is available to all.

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