UC Davis to help promote biotech crops

May 5, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Mike Lee, Sacramento Bee, 04/30/04: UC Davis will lead a nationwide effort to bring the benefits of future biotech crops to developing countries and to farmers who don't attract much interest from big companies.

Starting in July, the University of California, Davis, becomes home to an initiative called the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture. PIPRA is a collection of about 20 universities and philanthropic groups that united last summer to overcome the legal barriers that slow development of biotech crops.

PIPRA is funded by the McKnight Foundation of Minneapolis, Minn., and the Rockefeller Foundation of New York. The cost for the first three to five years of PIPRA is pegged at approximately $1 million.

The UC Davis role, made public Thursday, boosts its already considerable status in the world of ag biotechnology, and campus leaders quickly embraced PIPRA as an important part of UCD's educational and research mission.

"We felt we had a public responsibility to this particular program because it would benefit the entire world," said Lynne Chronister, associate vice chancellor for research administration at UC Davis.

UC Davis was chosen from among four possible sites because it offered space, computers and administrative support for the infant operation, along with biotech expertise, said Rex Raimond, who helped manage the site-selection process as part of the consulting group Meridian Institute. The campus' startup contribution is $75,000.

Alan Bennett, a UC intellectual property guru, was tapped to lead PIPRA during its first year.

"It's a high-profile organization, and the campus takes some pride in hosting it," he said. "It's seen as an organization that can solve problems and really address the issues that have been out there."

In addition to the national PIPRA executive committee, a newly formed PIPRA advisory board at UC Davis includes Gurdev Khush, one of the world's foremost rice breeders; Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center on campus; and Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the UC systemwide biotech program housed at Davis.

Despite PIPRA's humanitarian goals, biotech crops are rejected in spots around the world because of potential environmental or human health concerns that come with moving genes around in ways not possible in nature. For instance, Mendocino County banned the growing of genetically engineered crops in March.

PIPRA was formed last summer by some of the nation's leading academics to address legal barriers that have emerged over the past two decades. Private companies have patented huge volumes of genes and licensed fundamental tools for creating biotech crops.

The net effect, wrote PIPRA founders, is this: "Although many significant discoveries and technologies have been generated with public funding, these discoveries are no longer accessible as 'public goods.' "

The formation of PIPRA underscores interest in developing biotech crops important in poor countries, where companies have little incentive to operate, and in places like California, where biotech companies have blocked the use of their technology for specialty crops.

Said Bennett: "With the level of genomics research that is going on, there are going to be a large number of new discoveries, and PIPRA wants to be positioned and available to work with those technologies as they emerge."

In coming months, there is a more modest goal: cataloging publicly owned biotech tools for university researchers. A one-stop shop also will benefit companies by making it easier to find who owns specific inventions they might want to use.

Bennett also aims to broaden university participation and to integrate more intellectual property issues into the UC Davis curriculum.

Source: http://www.sacbee.com/content/business/story/9118133p-10043746c.html

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