17 June 2010
The hunt for agrofuel and drought tolerant crops has propelled a huge commercial interest in sorghum, including a spate of patent claims over different components of the sorghum genome.
Patent claims have been lodged by US companies, Ceres and Edenspace as well as the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University (Texas A&M) and Rutgers University. Key sought after traits include sorghum flowering, plant growth (biomass), sugar content and cold and salt tolerance. Patent claims are designed to control a set of promoter genes and other genetic components of sorghum to create sorghum cultivars. According to author, Edward Hammond “This move is the contemporary biotech equivalent of an 18th century European explorer planting his flag on a little understood foreign land and claiming it for himself or his sovereign, as if by divine right subordinating all other interests in the territory.”
The paper also points to the rapid consolidation of the sorghum industry in the US, as a result of the demand from agrofuel refineries and the importance of drought tolerant crops. Africa‘s traditional sorghum saving and sharing will face extinction if commercial/agrofuel sorghum projects take root on the continent.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) is not addressing the problem of sorghum privatization, despite some of the patent claims being held ‘in trust’ for the world’s farmers and originating in Parties to the Treaty. Indeed according to Mariam Mayet, Director of the ACB, “the ‘trust’ status of tens of thousands of African sorghum varieties appears to be totally meaningless.”
Mariam Mayet, Director at 083 269 4309 and Edward Hammond at + 1 512 217 1416
1 See Africa‘s Granary Plundered: Privatisation of Tanzanian Sorghum Protected by the Seed Treaty by Edward Hammond for the ACB; and African Sorghum for Agrofuels: the Race is On also by Edward Hammond for the ACB.