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November 8, 2012

Can Technology Companies Be a Model for Working Out Important Differences?


In the wake of the election, people are asking how Republicans and Democrats can work together to address and solve serious problems. Reading a recent news account about how competing interests in the biotechnology industry worked out a compromise, it struck me that there might be some lessons there for Congress.

The issue has to do with biotech seeds that will soon be going off patent. Several companies have developed new, genetically modified (GM) seeds that produce plants that are resistant to herbicides (such as Monsanto’s Roundup), pests or drought, to name a few.

The patents on the first wave of those seeds (e.g., Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy beans) will expire soon, and companies eager to develop and market a generic version wanted a transition process that avoids disruptions in manufacturing, sales and distribution—especially to international markets.

It is in everyone’s interest to come to an agreement, but doing so can be difficult—as the long and often rancorous battle between brand name and generic pharmaceutical manufactures can attest.

But the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) sat down out of the glare of media and over two years worked out their differences and recently announced their Generic Event Marketability and Access Agreement (GEMAA).

They began by meeting with stakeholder groups. Even that wasn’t easy because there are so many interests at play. Innovators have patents and they also have data. And generic companies would like to have access to some of that data so that the generic product can be ready to go when the patent expires.

GEMAA is the first of the organizations’ agreements; they will now try to tackle the issues around data transfer.

It is a very good step, though it’s only a first step. But even more than a good step, it’s a good model for solving problems. Members of Congress haven’t been doing a very good job at that recently. Maybe they and the White House can look at the BIO-ASTA model and glean some ideas about how their own discussions can bear fruit.


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