The project, announced Thursday in Science magazine, will allow universities to share developments on genetically engineered plants with each other, international researchers and governments. Companies may also access the research as long as they use it to help needy countries.
The effort is led by the Rockefeller and McKnight foundations, and by state agriculture universities from California to Florida. Some research institutes also are participating.
The project "provides a mechanism for those researchers in developing countries like Nigeria, and Ghana and Kenya or Ethiopia to get access to technology in the public sector," said Robert Goodman, the chairman of molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Goodman also serves on the McKnight Foundation.
The schools and foundations also will create a database of patented research and regulations and later will make developments available for public use, said Gary Toenniessen, director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation.
"Initially, it's going to be mainly information (sharing)," said Toenniessen. "But in time, it will be perhaps materials and germplasm that would be shared."
For years, developing countries and biotech researchers have cited licensing fees as a barrier to expanding the use of biotech materials and crops to feed people in areas troubled by bad weather or poor soil.
Additionally, research has lagged on small crops like cassava and chickpeas in Africa.
Major biotech firms have focused on engineering the genetic makeup of the biggest market crops — corn, soybeans and wheat — to resist pests or be tolerant to weedkillers.
Besides the Agriculture Department, state agriculture universities lead the public sector in biotech research on plants of all kinds, from corn to potatoes and tomatoes — but they often give up their patented research to private companies.
The report said more than 40 different patents and contracts were involved with golden rice, making it difficult to obtain the right to a product that is genetically packed with vitamin A to prevent blindness in malnourished children.
Such cases prompted biologists at Cornell University last fall to declare that their drought-resistant rice would remain available for study in the public sector.
Bryan Hurley, a spokesman for biotech leader Monsanto, said the company supports the new project and believes it won't interfere with commercial competition.
"Overall, we see that it's a recognition of the importance of biotech and it brings important new resources to ensure that biotechnology continues to develop and the benefits are applied more broadly," Hurley said. Monsanto has donated its work on a virus-resistant sweet potato to researchers in Kenya, he said.
Hunger advocates view the project as a step forward, but still worry that other obstacles to growing crops aren't being addressed.
"It's very much a positive step to make the technology or intellectual property available, but you also have to have the investment in research," said Charles Riemenschneider, director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization of North America. "You've got to have the research taking place at centers in those (developing) countries."