Implications of Advances in Molecular Genetic Technology for Food Security and Ownership

Chapter 2
Implications of Advances in Molecular Genetic Technology for Food Security and Ownership

Robert J. Henry


Recent rapid advances in DNA sequencing technology and other technology developments have created a revolution in biology that will impact significantly on food production and the underlying crop and animal breeding. These developments will facilitate accelerated exchange of genetic materials and data but will require a streamlined IP environment if we are to realize the improved food security and biodiversity conservation that this technology promises.

Technology Developments

With continued strong growth in demand for food due to population growth and growth in per capita consumption (due to economic development), food security relies on continued and sustained genetic improvement of the organisms (plants, animals and microorganisms) that form the basis of food production.1 We need to double food production from 2000 production levels by 2050 to cope with the around 50 per cent expected growth in population and the greatly increased consumption per person. Significantly, this increase in food production will need to be delivered from the same, or a reduced area of agricultural land, which means that food production will need to double per unit area of land. The threat of climate change puts additional demands on the food system.

Biodiversity conservation also remains crucial to food security. Food production depends on biodiversity as a source of new resources to breed agricultural varieties with the productivity characteristic required. This has historically supplied much of the growth in agricultural productivity. Biodiversity conservation also provides security for the ecosystem services necessary to sustain agriculture and food production.

Technical developments in genetic technology such as advances in DNA sequencing, chemical synthesis of DNA and DNA (gene) transfer between organisms, are providing new tools that could be used to address some of these challenges. The IP system needs to adapt to support the technical opportunities that are emerging with the potential to deliver more sustainable food production that could contribute significantly to meeting the global challenge of food security. In the following pages I provide a scientists’ perspective on IP, and outline some of the key scientific and technological advances relevant for food production; pointing out that, from a scientists’ perspective at least, science and technology raise a number of important issues for IP protection, infringement and enforcement. More specifically, I provide some thoughts on IP and technological development, changes in taxonomy and the implications of science and technology on food security, biodiversity conservation and food labelling. Lastly, I offer some thoughts on IP regimes and laws relevant to access and exchange of genetic resources. For those of us in the laboratory: IP must be ‘streamlined’ to support emerging scientific and technical opportunities.

DNA Sequencing

Rapid and continuing advances in DNA sequencing technology2 have created an explosion of biological information in the last few years.3 These technical advances have exploited advances in nanotechnology and information technology to deliver automated platforms for large-scale DNA sequence data analysis. With the capture of all of the DNA sequence information in an organism it is increasingly possible, and cost effective, as a tool for increasing biological understanding, genetic improvement for food production and even in the enforcement of IP. The new sequencing technologies have been applied in different ways to achieve specific outcomes.4 Whole genome sequencing, for instance, allows all the genetic data of a species or variety to be collected,5 which means that genetic improvement for food production and enforcement of IP is more cost-effective for large numbers of samples. Furthermore, sequencing the gene-rich parts of the genome6 (rather than the entire species or variety) can be achieved by genome enrichment before sequencing complex genomes.7 The functional parts of the genome can be analysed specifically by sequencing the expressed genes.8 Very specific sequencing of genes in particular biochemical pathways9 or areas of metabolism10 can be achieved by amplicon sequencing in very large populations, if necessary, to associate gene sequence with traits. Indeed, the technology is rapidly making conventional gene cloning redundant. The technology is generating protocols for routine and definitive identification of biological samples11 that are much more informative than earlier identification tools based upon the analysis of individual genes.

DNA sequencing raises a number of issues for IP. The protection of genetic IP by genotyping can now provide the ultimate protection of the entire genome sequence. The policing of IP by genetic testing are greatly advanced by these developments. Wild genetic resources provide an important source of diversity for use in crop improvement.12 These new tools allow much better characterization of genetic resources for food production.13 Analysis of diversity in wild populations growing across environmental gradients has been used to examine how wild populations are adapting to climate differences,14 providing important clues to strategies for adaptation of agriculture to climate change.

Synthetic DNA

The ability to chemically synthesis large DNA molecules creates the potential for complete synthesis of living organisms without the use of biological material. Commercial services are now available to produce a DNA molecule with the sequence you supply. This has significant implications for IP issues associated with the plants, animals and microbes used for food production. Perhaps most significantly, the protection of plant varieties may need to be extended to include protection of their DNA sequence data to prevent the production of synthetic copies.

DNA Transfer between Organisms

The technology to move genetic material between organisms continues to improve. Direct and agrobacterium mediated transformation have both been improved for many species. DNA from another organism or completely synthetic DNA based upon data from a biological system or of novel design can be introduced to genetically modify the target organism. IP laws need to recognize this technical advance and the implications for protection of varieties and genes.

Domestication of New Organisms

New sequencing technologies can be applied to identification of genes that need to be selected to achieve domestication for use in agriculture and food production.15 This technology may facilitate the rapid domestication of new species to satisfy the demands of food security.16 New cereal crops better adapted to some production environments would be an example of the potential application of this technology. In terms of IP, new crop species may have different IP constraints than traditional crop species. Many of these species will be outside the scope of IP agreements designed to cover existing domesticated species.

Impact of Changes in Taxonomy

Biologists classify organisms using the system of binomial nomenclature. However taxonomists often reclassify organisms based upon new discoveries or further research. DNA analysis is now a key tool used in supporting these changes. IP agreements or protection of genetic resources needs to keep pace with these developments. The names of the species covered in agreements may change and this may lead to confusion and sometimes a failure to protect IP. For example, the genus name changing could result in the use of a name that was not on the list of species covered by the FAO Plant Treaty or on the lists of endangered species.

Implications for Food Security

Food security relies on the development of technologies to allow food production to keep pace with demand. As noted above, two factors are driving strong growth in food demand globally. First, continued population growth creates more mouths to feed. Secondly, and equally important, is economic development, especially in Asia, resulting in growth in food consumption per capita as living standard rise resulting in a greater ability to afford food.