IntroductionOscar Forero explores Cesagen's work on food security
During the last two decades Development Studies, Political Ecology and STS have developed a critique of the way technology and innovation for food and agriculture develops. A frequently highlighted concern is that whilst implementation of property rights seems to be fully supported by governments in developed and developing countries, the same effort is not displayed with respect to implementation of Human Rights, particularly the right to adequate food. It has been argued that technological innovation for food and agriculture is ‘supply driven’. By ‘supply driven’ it is meant that the most prestigious research institutions and powerful corporations, which are mainly owned and located in the developed world, focus on programmes and develop research aimed at increasing their own economic benefits at the expense of those suffering from food insecurities. In the process they disregard the interests and knowledge practices of producers and those involved in the food chain located in the developing world.
If the critique were correct no major shifts in research paths would have occurred in the last two decades and significant concentration of research around some species would continue to occur. One way to corroborate this hypothesis is to look at patent documents, particularly at patent claims. At the ESRC Centre for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cesagen), a digital methods unit has been doing just that. We were lucky enough to have access to Lancaster University’s High End Computing facility and were able to cross-reference the entire records of the US patent office against species names to produce what we call the Access and Benefit Sharing Patent Index. The results revealed a high concentration of research around a few species (Oldham, Hall & Forero, forthcoming). Dr Paul Oldham presented the results of this major work to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the World Intellectual Property Organisation in the summer of 2011 and as a result the FAO Plant Treaty has solicited collaboration from us to use our methods and tools to improve monitoring of patent activity in relation to genetic resources for food species protected under the multilateral benefit-sharing system established under the Treaty.
The Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilised Species based in Germany has produced a list of 815 neglected food species. These are species that have been utilised in the past for food and medicinal purposes and which are not currently being used with the same intensity or are now completely neglected. We decided to cross-reference that list against the entire database of US patent documents to test if patent activity reflected interest in these species. We found out that only 325 of these species occurred in some part of the claims section, but we also found out that there is extreme concentration of research with just two species, Aloe Vera and Morinda Citrifolia figuring prominently in frequency occurrence in the patent claims section (See Food Security Diagram). A first glimpse at these results seems to corroborate the view that the identified underutilised species continue to receive little attention from research and development institutions and therefore receive little if any consideration when defining food security strategies. A second stage of these initial investigations would focus in identifying the research institutions and corporations involved in the patent claims for these underutilised species. Therefore interested publics can be better informed on the scale of the problem of ‘supply driven innovation’ for food and agriculture.
Our team at Cesagen’s digital methods unit is concerned not only with the development of methods to monitor and track patent activity that relates to use of biodiversity, but also with the types of responses required at local, regional and global levels. We have been collaborating with grassroots’ organisations in the developing countries to build capacity in the use of digital technologies among indigenous and peasant communities so that they can improve and develop natural resources use, enhance ecosystem services and advance political aims, which often include improving food security and the pursuit of ‘food sovereignty’. At the international level we are working closely with the CBD, the Nagoya Protocol and the Plant Treaty, to develop methods and protocols that facilitate monitoring of the use of genetic resources and evidence based approaches to property rights issues. In the realm of food security our longer term ambition is to contribute to addressing the problem of ‘supply driven innovation’ for food and agriculture on the global scale.