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June 22, 2003 

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Int. organisations oppose patents on life forms

International organisations called for developing countries and least developed countries (LDCs) to reject patents on life forms when meeting their obligations under Section 27(3)(b) of the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. The call was made by Action Aid Bangladesh, Consumers International (CI) and SAWTEE.

Analysing TRRIPS provision
Article 27 (3) (b) of the TRIPS Agreement requires member countries to legislate for the protection of new plant varieties. It requires Mandatory patent protection for micro-organisms, non-biological and microbiological processes. However, it allows member countries to exempt from patenting plants and animals, as well as "essentially biological processes for the production of plants and animals". Where patent protection is not mandatory for plant varieties, some other effective sui generis (one of a kind or specific) system of intellectual property rights protection or a combination of patent and sui generis system must be provided. Under the current text, developing countries and LDCs have an option to enact sui generis legislation for the protection of new plant varieties but they have no option but to provide for patent protection for micro-organisms, non-biological and microbiological processes.
Such patents protection for life forms includes seeds, plant tissues, plant genes, plant genetic sequences, and so on. Patents allow holders the exclusive right to exploit their inventions for up to 20 years. In the area of plant genetic resources, this is extremely critical as it allows corporations, which hold these patent rights monopoly control over the seeds of new varieties. Already, seventy four percent (74%) of biotechnology patents are held by six TNCs Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Dow, Aventis and Grupo Pulsar. Between them, these six corporations hold 1011 patents on food crops, including important staples such as maize, rice, sorghum and soybean.

Corporate control on food
Patenting represents another step towards the corporatisation of the food chain, forcing farmers to purchase both seeds and chemical inputs, and will accelerate the trend towards monoculture, reduce genetic diversity, expand the spread of genetically engineered foods and crops, and strain local ecosystems. Commercial seed accounts for a third of the total value of the seed industry. The other two-thirds are equally shared between farm-saved seed and seed from public institutions. Although more than a third of the value of the seed trade is earned from the OECD countries, African and Asian demand for seed has also been rising.
Transnational seed companies have been consolidating and acquiring seed companies in developing and least developed countries to increase their market share. Governments in developing countries and LDCs must ensure that the farmers and public sector researchers continue to have access to plant genetic resources for breeding and the success of their efforts remain in the public domain. Privatisation of this knowledge through intellectual property laws will cut off access to further research and development and inhibit the free exchange of seed varieties amongst farmers, disrupting traditional practices that form the basis of on-farm diversity and thus food security for the majority of the world's farmers.

Threat to the food security
Action Aid believes that patents on seeds and crops are a threat to the food security and livelihoods of small farmers. According to Action Aid, farming is the main livelihood for seventy-five per cent (75%) of the world's population living in rural areas and 1.4 billion farmers save seed from year to year around the world. "We want a more responsive and balanced international trade regime that adequately addresses the food rights of poor people in developing and least developed countries at national and household levels. There should be no patents on seed, food and crops. The three organisations also call on governments of developing and least developed countries to reject the plant breeders' rights model advocated by the International Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV).
UPOV seeks to grant patent type protection for plant varieties. Established by the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, the convention was adopted in Paris in 1961 and was revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991.
Fifty-one countries are members of UPOV. Most are European and American countries; the only Asian members are China, Japan and South Korea. In Africa, only Kenya and South Africa are members. UPOV is more appropriately designed for large-scale industrialised agriculture, where farmers are a small percentage of the population, farming is commercial, seeds are bought from corporate suppliers and products are sold through commodity markets. In developing countries, millions depend on farming for food, employment and economic security. Consumer International (CI) cautioned governments of developing countries from adopting the UPOV model of sui generis plant variety laws and urged them to resist bi-lateral pressure to do so. "The UPOV model restricts the rights of farmers to save, use, sell, and exchange seeds, thereby inhibiting new seed development. Adopting the UPOV model will increase costs to farmers, create a dependency where previously there was none, and force farmers to pay for what was previously free. Eventually consumers will pay the price of higher food bills and reduced choice", said Dr. Sothi Rachagan, Regional Director of CI's Asia Pacific Office.

Pressure on LDC
Developing countries and LDCs, including Bangladesh, are being pressured to enact UPOV style sui generis legislation and many are caving into the UPOV as well as domestic industry lobby. The EU-Bangladesh Trade and Aid Agreement of 1999 requires Bangladesh to "make every effort" to join UPOV. In addition, bilateral pressure has been applied to achieve TRIPS 'plus' commitments (i.e. beyond what is required under TRIPS) in plant variety protection (PVP) legislation. As a least- developed country (LDC), Bangladesh is not required to implement TRIPS until 2006. Bangladesh is not the only country under pressure to enact UPOV style legislation. The US-Vietnam trade agreement obliges Vietnam to be a member of UPOV. A similar US Trade Agreement with Cambodia obliges it to accede to UPOV. There are at least 23 cases of bilateral or regional treaties between developed and developing countries that are TRIPS plus, affecting 150 countries in the South. SAWTEE rejects patents on life forms and emphasises that legislation recognising farmers' rights must be enacted at local, provincial and federal levels, paying due attention to the vulnerability and threat of marginalisation faced by mountain farmers.

Call for harmonisation
Countries at low levels of human and technological capacity cannot benefit significantly from TRIPS. The experience of developed countries shows that strong patents follow industrial development, not lead it. All three organisations recommended that governments of developing countries and LDCs conduct studies on the local implications of intellectual property protection on plants and other life forms before commencing to enact legislation. A broad-based consultative process must follow before legislation is eventually enacted. Governments must actively sponsor public sector research and development, including collaboration between scientists and farmers to ensure that local plant genetic resources are identified, conserved and improved. Governments must achieve a balance between providing incentives for the development of new plant varieties and the rights of farmers to save, use, exchange and sell seeds through an appropriate sui generis system. Action Aid Bangladesh, Consumers International and SAWTEE also called for harmonisation of Section 27(3)(b) of TRIPS with global agreements to protect biodiversity i.e. the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The three organisations called on governments of developing and least developed countries to: Adopt a sui generis PVP law to protect farmers and community rights; Reject patents on life forms; Call for the review of Section 27(3)(b) of TRIPS to adopt this position; oppose the UPOV model of PVP law; refrain from becoming a member of UPOV; and ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity and International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Courtesy: Consumer International, Malaysia.


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