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4-Patents: New bill a threat to Kenyan national food security

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TITLE:  New bill a threat to Kenyan national food security
SOURCE: The Nation, Nairobi, Kenya, by Gichinga Ndirangu
DATE:   May 27, 1999

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New bill a threat to Kenyan national food security

Nairobi - The Industrial Property Bill 1999, Kenya's attempt to
domesticate an agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual
Property Rights, is unwittingly skewed in favour of foreign
control over local genetic resources. Small-scale farmers'
ability to grow food through seed saving could be severely
curtailed due to failure to protect traditional knowledge
systems, warns GICHINGA NDIRANGU. A month ago, Parliament went
through the first reading of the Industrial Property Bill 1999.
Few MPs took notice of this innocuous-sounding piece of
legislation whose title camouflages what it bodes for Kenya's
food sub-sector. While the Bill does address industrial
development issues from a tangent, it is its possible serious
implications on national food security that explain the concern
it is already generating. For the MPs representing the rural
populations, the Bill's implications call for more than a bare
fleeting glance. In particular, small-scale farmers' ability to
grow food through seed saving could be severely curtailed due to
failure to protect indigenous and traditional knowledge systems.

On the contrary, the Bill - which is Kenya's response in
domesticating the agreement on Trade-related Aspects of
Intellectual Property Rights brokered by the World Trade
Organisation - is unwittingly skewed in favour of advancing
foreign corporate control over local genetic resources. Yet, this
places Parliament at a legal crossroads because by undermining
traditional and indigenous knowledge systems, the Bill
contradicts Kenya's obligations under the Convention on
Biological Diversity (CBD) which calls for the protection of
farmers' and community rights over biodiversity. Parliament must
ensure that the Bill is reconciled to the obligations created by
the TRIPS agreement and the CBD - both of which are
internationally binding and already ratified by Kenya. What is
more disturbing is that the Bill relegates Kenya's domestic
priorities to the periphery in favour of foreign corporate
control over genetic resources.

A Nairobi university law lecturer has already cautioned that the
Bill would undermine rather than promote domestic concerns
emphasising caution over domesticating international legal
obligations with little or no regard to the local environment. Dr
James Otieno Odek, who heads the department of public law at the
University of Nairobi, told a media symposium last week that "the
salient provisions of the Bill do not reflect domestic concerns."
He added: "Unless the issues at stake are understood at the
national level, input at the global level will be insignificant
and the legal framework created will be a superstructure with no
relevance at the grassroots level". If passed in its present
form, the Bill will enhance the leverage of biotechnology
transnationals to introduce genetically modified seeds.

This at a time of growing international censure against biotech
transnationals, especially in Asia over the threat posed by these
seeds to small-scale farming and the environment in the absence
of a clear legal regulatory framework. Yet, in the face of this
growing censure - most pronounced in Brazil, India, Thailand and
Bangladesh - American transnationals who dominate the biotech
industry, have continued to exert pressure for stronger patent
protection for seeds in developing countries. With 1.4 billion
mouths to feed, the seed market in these countries makes the food
sector a lucrative chip for corporate profit. Before November,
most developing countries are expected to have put in place
strong domestic laws protecting patent rights. While this demand
ostensibly comes from the WTO, the real push is from the agro
based transnational corporations keen on raking in high profits
and controlling the world's food supply.

It is a complex matrix under which, national food policies are
becoming increasingly irrelevant at the threshold of the next
millennium as private corporate influence becomes more entrenched
in world trade. With the rapid growth of biotechnology in the
world's seed sector, the utility of strong patent laws in the
North is proving to be of limited value to transnationals unless
matched by parallel legislation in developing countries. Hence
the corporate push on the WTO to harmonise patent legislation
across different countries. Besides securing global reach,
uniform patent legislation is expected to provide transnationals
with greater economic control in new markets by enhancing the
protection of royalties and controlling access to seeds. Yet, in
most developing countries where small-scale farmers dominate food
production, such strong patent legislation will constrain food
security. Kenya's Industrial Property Bill 1999 opens up this
gruesome possibility. Parliament's singular duty must be to
protect food production by small-scale farmers by specifically
excluding food and farming resources from patenting. National
food security is too important to be subordinated to
international agreements that further enhance the inequity of the
North-South divide.

By providing scope for grant of patent rights over genetically
modified seeds, the Bill is a telling example of the extent to
which national priorities are being undermined by international
corporate demands. Action Aid country director Thomas Joseph last
week urged Parliament to adopt a sense of caution in debating the
Bill. "We are not convinced that the Industrial Property Bill
safeguards the interests of our small-scale farmers", he
cautioned. "In opening up scope for patenting products of
biotechnological processes, the Bill opens the doors to biotech
transnational corporations to exercise patent rights over seeds
which will increase farmers' dependence on the corporations and
increase the cost of food production already under pressure from
a lack of domestic subsidy support", he added. It is not an idle
nor preposterous concern. Poor farmers, who produce 80 percent of
Kenya's food will be further marginalised given their inability
to afford expensive seeds while they lose out their inability to
save seed on account of patent rights secured by transnationals.
By easing the acquisition of patents over Kenya's genes and crops
by foreign agro-based transnationals, the farmers' local
knowledge of farm systems will be severely undermined.
Ultimately, the inequities of the international trade system that
underpin both hunger and poverty among the rural poor will be
further accentuated as local control over germplasm is
increasingly ceded to foreign biotech transnationals. It is this
gruesome prospect that underlines the need for Parliament to vote
against patent rights over food and farming resources under
section 26(a) of the Bill to secure the national interest.

There is also need to legislate against the introduction of the
'terminator seed' whose genetic composition allows only a single
reproductive cycle to increase farmers' dependence on
transnationals. The terminator seed poses a clear threat to
natural crops through cross-pollination which could severely
undermine food production. While certain countries have already
banned field growing of the terminator alongside other
genetically engineered seeds, Parliament must take cue in
debating the Bill. Most importantly, the Bill must assert control
over natural resources by seeking benefit sharing between foreign
transnationals and local communities from whom genetic resources
are sourced for industrial exploitation.

-| Hartmut Meyer
-| Co-ordinator
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
-| Reinhaeuser Landstr. 51
-| D - 37083 Goettingen
-| Germany
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