WHO WILL OWN THE GENES IN OUR
Keeping free access to the worlds plant genetic resources for food and
ITDG Briefing Paper on the negotiations towards an International
Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
The issues: wouldnt it be
the basic genetic resources which underpin
the worlds food security could always be freely available to anyone
farmers, gardeners, plant breeders that needs them?
the vast range of food crop and vegetable
varieties, and the genes within them, could be used sustainably and conserved
for future generations?
a portion of the money we all spend on
food derived from genetic resources developed mainly in the poor countries of
the world went back to those countries farmers as an incentive to
continue sustainable agriculture?
the smallholder farmers who feed the
world, and conserve and manage these resources, could keep their rights to
save, use, exchange and sell the seeds they grow, even those that have been
Its possible: a once-only window of
There is an international agreement that could
ensure all of those things happen if the worlds governments agree
to it becoming legally-binding upon them.
It is called the International Undertaking on
Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the IU). It has been around
since 1983 as a voluntary agreement to which many countries have
adhered. Now, there is a chance to make it law. The intergovernmental
Commission which is responsible for the IU is currently trying to complete the
negotiations which would make it internationally legally-binding.
What would a legally-binding IU
The International Undertaking is the principal
international agreement which could:
- Protect the rapidly eroding resources which
underpin global food security, and encourage their sustainable use;
- Put pressure on governments to keep these
genetic resources in the public domain, and where patents and other forms of
intellectual property claims on them limit availability, facilitate access to
these resources for current and future generations;
- Ensure that farmers especially the
worlds smallholder farmers on whom the food security of billions of
people rests can save, use, exchange and sell seeds and other
propagating material in their customary manner [Farmers Rights]
- Create benefits to farmers from the commercial
use of these resources, which they have developed and conserved.
There is a detailed negotiating text which is
continually being worked upon. But the negotiations have verged on collapse.
A higher level of pressure and political commitment is required if an IU
with truly binding commitments is to be achieved.
Plant genetic resources for food and
agriculture: what are they and where are they?
The worlds food security depends in large
part on the vast range of plant varieties, and the genes they contain, which
are overwhelmingly sourced from developing countries. Wheat originating from
Mesopotamia, Rice from S E Asia and Maize from Central America provide more
than 50% of the worlds food energy supply. Together with another 6 crops,
also from the South, they account for 75%.
Some of these resources have already been
collected and stored elsewhere. Notably, there are 500,000
accessions stored in a network of genebanks in International
Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs), many of them based in developing
countries. There are other public sector genebanks and private collections.
Together these represent a potential resource for commercial exploitation which
biotechnology and other multinational companies would be keen to develop. At
present there is a limited Accord to keep the IARC resources in the public
domain. Developing countries want the whole genome of these life forms exempted
from intellectual property rights; developed countries say that while the
intact seed should not be available for patenting, material derived from its
genes could be. As the research institutes struggle to maintain public funding,
the temptation to accept private funding is growing.
The vast majority of the plant genetic resources
used for food and agriculture, however, are where one would expect them to be
out in the fields. Most species and varieties are kept alive and
developed by the smallholder farmers of developing countries who provide two
thirds of the worlds people with their food. The plant genetic resources
form one part of the agricultural biodiversity which the Convention
on Biological Diversity, a legally-binding instrument which emerged from the
Rio Earth Summit, aims to protect and conserve. The CBD also aims to ensure
that any benefits arising from their use are fairly and equitably shared. It
cannot achieve these aims without the active involvement of farmers in
sustainable on-farm conservation.
For centuries farmers have developed this
agricultural biodiversity through both their farming practice, and through
their own systems of saving, using, exchanging and selling seeds. Particularly
important to smallholder farmers has been the continual development and
improvement of locally-adapted variants of the main food species, and it is
partly this vast range of locally-adapted varieties which both ensures
successful survival strategies and the maintenance of food security, and
creates the wealth of biodiversity found in farmers fields.
Private versus public property: the
need for a binding international agreement to keep plant genetic resources in
the public domain
The diversity of plant genetic resources for
food and agriculture, and Farmers Rights to use and benefit from them,
are under threat from three major trends.
Loss of agricultural biodiversity
There has been an accelerating rate of species
and variety loss during this century. More than 75% of crop and vegetable
varieties have been lost from farmers fields in the past century with
losses increasing at 2% per year (RAFI).
Among the factors causing loss of agricultural
biodiversity have been: the movement towards industrial farming models,
including mono-cultures and the replacement of local varieties with a small
number of dominant commercial strains; climate change; the marginalisation of
smallholder farmers to less productive land; changes in the nature of the
markets for smallholder farmers produce; and the slim survival margins of
farmers, who are tremendously vulnerable to shocks arising from price changes,
drought and conflict.
Private ownership and control
Intellectual property rights and law, previously
seen to apply to mechanical invention, have been extended to include forms of
life, allowing private companies and research institutes to patent, own and
control them. This has led to biopiracy what many developing
countries see as the theft of their genetic resources by private actors from
developed countries operating on the profit motive. Biopiracy is now one of the
most contentious issues in development and in North-South relations.
Intellectual property rights in this area are
governed by Article 27.3(b) of the World Trade Organisations agreement on
Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS). This has helped to
bring the rules-based system of world trade into fundamental conflict with the
aims of protecting the environment and ensuring food security which are upheld
in other international instruments, particularly the legally-binding
Genetic engineering for food and
The trends above loss of agricultural
biodiversity and the private ownership and control of plant genetic resources
have been given new and dynamic impetus by the advent of modern
biotechnology. The genetic engineering of plant organisms is currently a
private science being developed and controlled by profit-making research
companies and by multinational companies which also own the handful of seed
companies who control most of the worlds commercial seed varieties. These
companies, under a slogan of feeding the world, have a natural
interest both in owning and exploiting plant genetic material derived from
developing countries, and in replacing farmers own local varieties with
commercial genetically engineered products and their associated inputs.
The IU, access and
The International Undertaking can be an
important countervailing force to the threats described above. Although very
detailed negotiations about its exact text are continuing, in broad outline the
- Reduce conflict over WTO/TRIPS. Both the
general rules on agriculture, and the specific article on intellectual property
rights, were due to be reopened in the new round of WTO negotiations which the
Seattle meeting sought to start. The negotiations were halted by international
protest focusing on unfair terms of trade on agriculture and the possibility of
an extension to TRIPS in particular. The IU could pave the way for the
exemption of an entire category - genetic resources for food and agriculture -
from TRIPS, and from other forms of intellectual property claims -- if it
became a legally-binding part of the CBD.
- Ensure access for all. The objective of
the IU is to ensure that plant genetic resources for food and agriculture are
explored, collected, conserved, evaluated, utilized and made
available for plant breeding and scientific purposes based on
the guiding principle that these resources should be "preserved
and freely available for use, for the benefit of present and future
generations". This requires that all who need to, including the
farmers of developing countries (who are the principal plant breeders of the
world), should continue to have access to the germplasm in other words,
that it should remain in the public domain and cannot be privatised [Article
11]. It will then establish a mechanism for multilateral access to the
resources which will reduce biopiracy [Article 13].
- Ensure that farmers reap the benefits.
As noted above, farmers ability to survive and prosper through the
on-farm conservation and management of agricultural biodiversity is extremely
fragile. Article 14 proposes benefits to farmers and others in return for
allowing multilateral access to the resources which they have developed. The
benefits may include returning information and knowledge, and the technology
with which to exploit it, to those who helped originate the resources.
Importantly, however, they also include financial benefits from the
commercial use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. For the
first time this would set up a direct link between the consumption of food
products, and the productive activities of farmers who manage the genetic
resources. Basically, food industries would pay a voluntary levy. If this
extends to include the food retail industries, as the UK would like, then an
additional part of the price paid for food in a Western supermarket would
return to the primary producers and managers of the raw material.
- Protect Farmers Rights.
Farmers Rights, formally backed by the Food and Agriculture
Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) which also facilitates the IU
negotiations, include the right to save, use, exchange their seed.
Farmers centuries-old traditions and practices of communal ownership,
access and exchange to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture depend
on unwritten and customary rules. These require protection from
regimes of intellectual property rights and the IU, if sufficiently
farmer-friendly could provide that protection.
The IU negotiations: whats
There is a negotiating text for the
International Undertaking which is currently being worked on. A Contact Group
of countries has been taking if forward. It achieved substantial progress on a
number of contentious issues regarding access and benefit-sharing at a meeting
However, the negotiating process almost
collapsed at the Contact Groups most recent meeting in Switzerland. A
number of countries the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia -- reneged
on the text agreed in August and sought to re-open it, on the grounds of
interference with WTO/TRIPs. WTO and intellectual property lawyers were called
in to provide clarification, failed to do so, and the meeting ran out of time.
Complete failure was only averted when the Council of the UN Food and
Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which oversees the negotiations instructed the
Contact Group to meet again, probably in February 2001.
If the Contact Group is able to finalise
a basic negotiating text it will then be up to the intergovernmental Commission
on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to convene a final negotiating
conference. This conference was initially due to happen in November 2000 so the
process is becoming significantly delayed now June 2001 at the earliest.
The conference would aim to agree a final text
to be remitted to the FAO Conference in 2001 and thence to the next Conference
of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD/COP VI) in 2002,
for acceptance as a Protocol to the Convention similar to the
recently-adopted Biosafety Protocol.
There remain significant areas of the text which
can be improved to:
- strengthen the benefits to farmers,
- secure exemption from intellectual property
- extend the consumer-producer linkage,
- guarantee Farmers Rights
- agree the list of crops to be included in the
But there is now a bigger issue at stake
achieving the completion of the process. The bottom line position of ITDG and
other pro-farmer organisations, and of developing country negotiators, is that
any legally-binding IU, however imperfect, should be championed as a first,
fundamental and practical step for a positive and more equitable system for
sustaining life on the planet.
Dr Tewolde Debre Egziabher, the Ethiopian
Negotiator and leader of the African Group, said recently: "The IU is a
crucial agreement for us and the majority of the South because it will be
legally binding on all countries and will ensure that none can register
Intellectual Property Rights on our farmers' crop varieties: it will recognise
our Farmers' Rights. It will also facilitate everybodys continued access
to crop varieties the world over and provide us with long overdue benefits from
the commercial use of these varieties in plant breeding, for industry and for
food. We hope that the EU will increase pressure on its OECD allies to secure
What is to be done? The UK and the
Within the IU negotiations, the European Union
acts as a single negotiating bloc on behalf of its member states. In general
the EU can play a highly significant role as an honest broker
between those countries, mainly from the developing world, who are pushing for
the strongest possible agreement, and other countries such as the United States
which try to protect the interests of commercial concerns and the primacy of
intellectual property rights under the WTO.
There is, however, a serious problem. In order
to progress common positions, the EU has tended to move at a speed of its own
which does not match the urgent requirements of this once-only window of
opportunity for an agreement. Ambassador Gerbasi, the chair of the Contact
Group underlined this urgency at the conclusion of the August meeting when he
"impressed upon the group that this was the last chance to move
forward". This was further reinforced at the FAO Council meeting in
November 2000 at which he said that the only way to conclude the negotiations
relatively rapidly will be through political commitment to conclude by a fixed
date, not subject to more changes. Because of this, those countries that
participate in the negotiation process will need to send delegations at a
sufficiently high political level that allows them to take decisions at the
negotiating table itself.
It is therefore crucial that the EU, led by the
Swedish Presidency in 2001, must reinvigorate the process and back a common
position, seeking an agreement that is strong on binding commitments. It should
then give its negotiators political backing, and a mandate to negotiate at the
table without continually returning to their domestic departments and the
Council of Ministers.
The UK government can play a key role in pushing
forwards the EU position and negotiating approach. The UKs involvement is
led by the Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF), in close
liaison with the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(DETR) and the Department for International Development (DFID). While the UK
has adopted some positive positions, it has listened more to industry than to
developing countries, and this balance must be redressed.
Finally, in the UK and in Europe alike, while it
is appropriate that agriculture ministries are leading, this is about
agriculture in its environmental context and environment ministers should line
up strongly behind the process.
ITDG and the International
ITDG is an international charity which
specialises in helping people to use technology for practical answers to
poverty. This is technology which draws on the experience of poor women and
men, and feeds it; which recognises their potential, and releases it; which
respects their environment, and nurtures it; which builds on their past, to
sustain the future.
In ITDGs food production programmes in
three continents of the developing world, we work with the participation of
local communities to develop technologies for sustainable agriculture
based securely on the knowledge and practice of smallholder farmers, mainly
women, and helping them to conserve and manage agricultural
ITDG has therefore engaged strongly with the
international processes which are able to safeguard agricultural biodiversity
and protect Farmers Rights. Most recently, ITDG organised a powerful
lobby at the fifth Conference of the
Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD/COP V) held
in Nairobi in May 2000. The lobby consisted both of non-governmental
organisations, and of our grassroots farmer
partners, who came to the policy table to put their demands
directly to 2 000 delegates from 174 governments.
Partly as a result of pressure from ITDG and
its partners, COP V of the CBD:
- adopted a strengthened programme of work on
agricultural biodiversity which fully recognised smallholder farmers role
in its conservation and sustainable use;
- called upon the FAO and all relevant parties
swiftly to conclude negotiations on a farmer-friendly International
COP V also adopted the Biosafety Protocol,
legally regulating the transfer of GMOs between countries, to which more than
60 countries signed up in Nairobi.
ITDG is now working with its worldwide network
of partner organisations to ensure the IU is completed, and that key sections
are stengthened in the final text. It is also in discussion with the relevant
departments of the UK government with regard to the latters role within
the EU bloc.
ITDGs position with regard to the International
ITDGs position with regard to the IU
negotiations is available in Seeds for All, a joint position paper
with the Berne Declaration which has been widely circulated to NGOs around the
world, together with a Call for Action to mobilise pressure on their
governments around the IU.
In summary, ITDG wants:
- Clear political commitment to complete the IU
negotiations and its subsequent implementation especially from the
European Union, and within it the UK, and the agriculture and environment
- The IU to be the predominant international
agreement on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) -- and as
such to influence changes in WTO rules, where these conflict
- The exemption of PGRFA from all forms of
intellectual property rights meaning not only the intact material, but
also the germplasm and genes it contains once the IU comes into
- An internationally-enforced obligation to
implement Farmers Rights in all countries
- Access arrangements to cover all the varieties
of all the crops covered by the IU including those on farms, in research
institutes, and in public and private collections
- Legally-binding benefit-sharing from the use of
any resources that are currently privatised, and a direct consumer-producer
link through contributions from the food industry
For more information
Patrick Mulvany (contact ITDG)
Tel. +44 1788 661169
Fax. +44 1788 661101
Francois Meieinberg (contact Berne
Tel. +41 1 277 7004
Fax. +41 1 277 7004
Tewolde Berhan Debre Egziabher
Environmental Protection Authority
PO Box 30231
Tel. +251 118 6197
Fax. +251 161 6197
- ITDG, Schumacher Centre for
Technology and Development,
- Bourton, RUGBY
- CV23 9QZ
- Tel: +44 (0)1788 661100