Monday, 11 April 2011

Bananas are great -- but what about wilt-free patents too?

"Fighting Africa's food deficit" is the title of this piece published online today in the World Intellectual Property Organization's WIPO Magazine for April 2011. Written by Alhaji Tejan-Cole (Legal Counsel for the African Agricultural Technology Foundation -- AATF), this article explains what the AATF is doing to help farmers in Africa increase productivity, profitability and sustainability to reverse the continent’s food deficit.

Regarding IP and research, the author writes:
"The Foundation is currently implementing five major projects, with several others in the pipeline. One of these is a project to control striga in maize. Also known as witchweed, striga is a parasitic weed that sucks nutrients from maize, reducing yields by up to 80 percent. AATF is promoting imazapyr-resistant (IR) (StrigAway®) non-transgenic maize seed, which has been shown to be effective against the weed, among farmers in East and Central Africa. The Striga Control Project is in its deployment stage, and AATF is working with key partners and a wide range of stakeholders to encourage farmers to test and adopt the technology. ...

The use of IR maize technology to control Striga leads to yields 38 to 82 percent higher than those currently obtained from traditional maize varieties. In Kenya, a conservative estimate indicates that, when adopted, the proposed technology will lead to an extra 62,000 tons of maize in Western Province alone. This translates into US$5.3 million per year using 2002 estimates of farm-gate prices for maize in Kenya.

AATF is also developing maruca-resistant cowpea varieties - which are currently being field tested under controlled conditions - to tackle the pod borer (maruca vitrata). This pest inflicts severe damage on crops of cowpea in farmers’ fields, resulting in yield losses of between 70 to 80 percent. Due to high prices, farmers cannot afford insecticide spraying, and those that do spray are often exposed to serious health hazards. By facilitating development of transgenic cowpea varieties resistant to the maruca pest, AATF hopes to minimize insecticide use and its harmful effects on health and the environment.

The Foundation has accessed, through a royalty-free patent licence, a gene conferring resistance to the maruca pod borer in cowpea, and is facilitating strict bio-safety regulatory compliance for its development and deployment in West Africa.

Yet another project seeks to improve the resistance of banana crops to bacterial wilt disease. Bananas and plantains are an important food source for over 100 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the East African highlands and most of the Great Lakes region, bananas are a major staple food and a source of income for over 50 million smallholder farmers.

With an annual output of some 16.4 million metric tons, the region produces about one-fifth of the world’s bananas, but many biotic and abiotic factors still greatly reduce productivity. In 2001, an outbreak of banana bacterial wilt in Uganda caused economic loss of some US$200 million.

Another initiative is the development of improved rice varieties. AATF has negotiated a patent licence for the technology with Arcadia Biosciences, which will perform plant transformation, greenhouse trials and field trials in the United States, then work with AATF-contracted researchers in Africa to transfer and adapt the technology.

The varieties developed will be nitrogen-efficient and salt-tolerant. They will accommodate the needs of farmers growing rice in the poorer highland soils with limited resources for fertilizers, as well as those growing rice in more saline lowland soils".
Says Afro Leo, while the rest of the world will be eagerly watching to see if these projects deliver their promised results -- and we fervently hope they will -- a small dedicated group of IP folk will be watching equally anxiously to see how AATF handles both IP which it licenses in and that which it creates and licenses out. Will its IP turn out to be as sustainable, renewable, generally beneficial and profitable as we hope? Is AATF getting the right sort of IP help and support, and enough of it, to make its work a success at all levels? Who is auditing its IP policy to make sure that all works out well? Can anyone let us know?

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