This will be our last Ug99-related post, we promise. But before we ended our brief run of bonus material related to “The Red Menace”, we thought we’d shout out one of the potential heroes of this story: the late A.E. Watkins, a British botanist who spent much of the 1930s roaming the globe in search of wheat varieties. The desiccated seeds of these wheats are now stored at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England.
Of what possible interest to science could samples of archaic Cypriot, Syrian, and Armenian wheats be to today’s scientists? As it turns out, one of Watkins’ prizes could hold the genetic key to defeating Ug99.
If that does end up being the case, though, it will raise an interesting ethical dilemma. A man like Watkins could not possibly embark on his collecting project today. Germplasms are widely considered part of a sovereign nation’s heritage, and thus can’t be carted away be foreign interlopers. During the height of the British Empire, of course, Watkins was faced with no such legal hurdles.
This is not to imply that countries should allow every Tom, Dick, and A.E. to tramp through their fields at will. But there is something to be said about sharing genetic resources for the good of all mankind. The key is making sure there are safeguards in place so that no one profits financially from such generosity. We certainly wouldn’t want a foreign company to patent something off of one of our treasured crops.