Agricultural Research Needs Better Intellectual Property Rules

Consumers and low-income farmers benefit from agricultural innovations

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Prof. Helen Hambly

Feed the world. Combat poverty. Clean up the environment. Those were key goals for a U of G-led international team looking for better ways to manage intellectual property in the fast-changing world of agricultural research, says Prof. Helen Hambly, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD).

Better co-ordination of private research and publicly funded science is critical, says a review conducted this year for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

“We need a clear set of rules to guide public-private partnerships, to ensure the integrity of public research, and to enable innovation and communication of research results to benefit low-income countries,” says Hambly, chair of the review team for the CGIAR Central Advisory Service for Intellectual Property.

Updating intellectual property (IP) rules in global agricultural research will help various groups, she says. Poor farmers and consumers, for instance, look to the benefits of science and innovation to deal with the effects of climate change, growing poverty and rising food prices. “There’s a big risk that the world’s poor will be left behind.”

Consumers in developed countries like Canada also benefit from clear rules and procedures under which the CGIAR’s global research centres study anything from corn and rice to agroforestry and aquaculture, she says.

Established in 1971, the CGIAR runs 15 centres around the world using scientific research to develop new crops and other products and to promote farming practices that support sustainable agriculture and benefit poor people. Those centres hold crop gene banks and study farming systems as well as water, biodiversity, forests, fisheries and land conservation.

U of G researchers have worked with several of those centres, including the International Potato Centre in Peru, the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico.

Says Hambly: “The average consumer may not be aware of how much of the food they eat might have been produced by farmers in poor countries who might have benefited directly or indirectly from international public research.”

Overhauling IP rules is also intended to help integrate research by private companies and by public agencies like the CGIAR as well as its partner universities and other institutions such as producer associations. Hambly says there’s a “delicate balancing act” in ensuring proprietary science offers a return to researchers and companies while protecting publicly-funded research and ensuring technologies meet users’ needs.

“This is about public good for the globe, and intellectual property is at the heart of international public goods,” says the Guelph researcher, noting that global agriculture and food security routinely appear as agenda items for international gatherings from G8 and G20 meetings to climate change talks. “International agricultural research has a responsibility for generating a public good that will help the poorest farmer.”

A major CGIAR restructuring last year prompted a review of its funding and operations. Hambly conducted the review with experts from McMaster University, Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom. Read the review at www.cas-ip.org/review/.

This fall, she discussed her experience with Guelph graduate students looking at the international agricultural research system. She also invited Tyler Whale, a technology transfer manager with U of G’s Business Development Office, to discuss IP management with students.

Within SEDRD’s capacity development and extension program, Hambly has also studied international R&D in low-income countries, and information and communication issues in African rural radio and Ontario broadband access.