Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Echoes of the Empire

February 25th, 2010 · 7 Comments


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.

(Image by Microkhan. The man in the white jumpsuit is Harbans Bariana, one of the main men exploring Watkins’ germplasm.)

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    This is one of the big reasons I’m really glad that some serious germplasm bank projects are ramping up right now. You never know what bit of genetic heritage might come in handy. Given how much agriculture has trended towards monoculture over the last century, we’re also losing a lot of diversity. It’s always good to make sure that you have backup.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Smart policy, for sure. But I worry that nations will become increasingly reluctant to share such resources with the international community. In researching the Ug99 piece, I was amazed to learn that Pakistan refused to share a sample of the pathogen with the U.S., perhaps because it fears that we will patent something useful off the isolate. I have to think there is some way to create a legal framework that will put such fears at ease, and let the lab coats get around to doing their important work.

  • jackal

    Have there been any efforts at a creative-commons-like licensing scheme for agricultural/genetic products? Something like that, which is internationally backed, might be helpful for countries worried about their intellectual property rights vis-a-vis seeds/strains.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @jackal: Interesting idea. The projects I’m aware of have favored more of a lockbox approach–basically donating the germplasm to a U.N.-backed entity, with a guarantee that no one nation will benefit financially from the endeavor. I do, however, think that nations are increasingly intrigued by the prospect of profiting off their genetic “property.” So they may be increasingly unwilling to cooperate in regimes that essentially deny them the ability to make a buck.

    The landscape is much different when it comes to pathogens like Ug99, though. There are a lot of security implications, and very few facilities able to handle isolates in a safe and effective manner. I’ve heard some chatter about establishing an internationally administered lab that would become a repository for the world’s agricultural pathogens. But where would you put it?

  • Jeremy

    Interesting post; I arrived via MetaFilter. As to the whole commons idea, did you take a look at the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Certainly that is promoting a sort of commons for some resources, and setting up a system that ought to share access and benefits. One of the big problems has been the perception that genetic resources translate directly into fabulous wealth, which comes almost entirely from pharmaceuticals. Agriculture really isn’t like that, and it is a great shame that the Convention on Biological Diversity gave countries the idea that they could profit from agricultural genes. The bad things that the CBD did to agriculture for development are very slowly being unravelled.
    Leglly, of course, there are not problems using samples collected by Watkins as the strictures of the CBD apply only to material collected after it came into force. What I don’t know is whether any of “his” samples are also stored under open access terms in the genebanks of the CGIAR, where they are available under the terms of the Treaty. Probably they are.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jeremy: Many thanks for paying a visit, and for the great comment.

    I think you nail the problem–even though there’s been no real proof that agricultural genes can be turned into pharmaceutical products, few governments want to gamble that those genes will never lead to profit. The politics here is tough, because it’s difficult to explain to an electorate (or, in the case of non-democracies, powerful elites) that there’s a substantive upside to participating in sharing schemes.

    I’m not too sure about the legal status of the Watkins collection. I know it’s housed at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, but I’m not sure what the Centre’s arrangement is with CGIAR. Research for another day, hopefully…

  • what_causes_stress

    I have a nasty kind of feeling that all the seed banks are being bought up by the likes of monsanto and in all probability, the original AEW seed genetics have already been plundered by them. This company has a terrible history of patenting genes and then going after farmers who have this gene in their crops through perfectly natural wind/bee-pollination means. I believe the company also has patented a natural pig gene which appears in some rare breed of pig. There was a TV program about them going after a breeder farmer of this rare breed of pig to get compensation for ‘using’ the gene they patented! All this is really going too far.

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