4-Patents: Do patents threaten food security?
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TITLE: Do patents threaten food security?
SOURCE: Reuters, by Karen Iley
DATE: November 15, 2001
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
FEATURE - Do patents threaten food security?
GENEVA - Global food security is under threat from "bio-pirates" who take
plants from developing countries, change them slightly then patent the new
varieties, according to anti-poverty groups and activists. "Today's pirates
are cheating the poor and are now emerging as a threat to people's right to
food," ActionAid, an international development agency campaigning against
the causes of poverty, said its recent "Crops and Robbers" report. "The
ability of farmers to put food on the table to feed their families is being
undermined by patents and the patent system which is agreed and supported
by mainly western countries," said Zoe Elford, an ActionAid campaigner on
Groups like ActionAid accuse companies of stealing the natural resources of
developing countries. They say putting intellectual property rights (IPR)
on crops creates unfair profit potential. "It's unacceptable for a
corporation to take the genetic resources that farmers have developed and
conserved, do some tweaking and then claim a private monopoly on the
material," said Renee Vellve at GRAIN, a non-governmental body which
The increasing use of genetic modification only exacerbates the problem,
says Lorenzo Consoli, GMO advisor at Greenpeace. He says rich companies
find themselves in a "win-win-win" situation: They have the copyright on
the seed, they sell seed to the farmers - usually every year because they
forbid the farmers to store it - and invariably the farmers are obliged to
use the pesticides produced and sold by the very same firm.
"Genetically modified crops have been conceived by the companies with a
view to getting control of the world's food supply," said Consoli, who has
deep fears about the potential environmental, socio-economic and bio-
"Taking resources or imposing a new agricultural system on the south while
all the time the money is going back to the western corporations...is
damaging bio-diversity and food security," agreed ActionAid's Elford.
The anger of these groups is directed mainly at the World Trade
Organisation's (WTO) controversial 1994 pact on trade-related property
issues, TRIPS, which they say flies in the face of the Convention on
Biological Diversity (CBD), concluded in 1992 at the United Nations' Rio
TRIPS allows those who develop or innovate a product to get patent
protection for up to 20 years, whereas the convention recognises national
sovereignty over all genetic resources and argues that access to, and
sharing of, benefits from the commercialisation of these resources is vital
to maintain the world's biodiversity. TRIPS, however, offers no guarantee
that the owner will share the benefits and be able to exploit the patent,
The issue is a hot topic at the WTO's ministerial conference in Qatar, but
food security has been overshadowed by the pharmaceutical strand of the
intellectual property debate. Delegates from more than 140 member states
reached a tentative agreement late on Monday on a pact that would ease the
way for poor countries to skirt patent laws on drugs, giving them access to
"This is recognition that TRIPS is a big problem for health and it is still
a big problem for food security," said Alex Wijeratna, food rights campaign
coordinator at ActionAid. "What we are scared of is that food security
problems with TRIPS are being overlooked or traded away when the problem
has clearly not gone away," he said.
GRAIN's Vellve said developing countries felt "anger and resentment" about
how their positions on this issue were not reflected in the draft texts for
discussion at the Qatar meeting. "In terms of TRIPS and its implications
for food security, the WTO has completely ignored the proposals from
developing countries which have repeatedly argued - for over two years now -
that the WTO must clarify that life forms, such as crop seeds and
livestock breeds, are not patentable," she said. "If this issue is absent
from the debates in Qatar, it is simply because those who stand to gain
from such patents - the industrialised countries - don't want to discuss
PATENTS NEEDED FOR RESEARCH
Companies, however, argue that patents are in fact an efficient way of
encouraging new technologies to conserve dwindling natural resources and
promote world food security. Willy de Greef, head of regulatory affairs for
Syngenta Seeds, says taking away patents would stop firms from carrying out
valuable research. "You do not make 10, 15, 20 years of investment if you
don't have some expectation that you can protect the results of that work
and pay back that investment," he said.
And the profit motive was not necessarily in conflict with the needs of
developing nations, de Greef said. "A company that works in agriculture has
a long-term vested interest in a sustainable - in both in environmental and
social terms - and successful farming system," he said. "It is in our
interests that farmers see a long-term place for themselves within a
sustainable agricultural system. We sell to these people, they are our
customers. It is in our interests to ensure their future is secure."
Thu-Lang Tran Wasescha, a councillor in the IP division at the WTO, says
TRIPS attempts to strike a balance between the interests of society at
large on one side and the inventors and creators on the other. "It's a
constant effort to keep the balance," she said. "It's like a pendulum. You
have to correct it constantly in favour of either the owner or the consumer.
"If the interest of one party is allowed to prevail too much, there are in-
built safeguards within TRIPS. The real problems are not caused by
intellectual property itself but because people don't use these safeguards
properly," she said, referring to such measures as parallel imports,
compulsory licensing and licensing against anti-trust practices. "TRIPS
intervenes only when there is a request for protection, because there is
something new and useful - whether that is because of manual manipulation
or very sophisticated technology such as GMO," she said.
Advocates who back intellectual property rights say a completely free
system would simply result in everyone stealing everyone else's ideas and
there would be no development. "Poor countries also need a safety net,"
said one Geneva source who declined to be named. "If everything was free,
rich countries would continue to be rich and poor countries would continue
to be poor. We have to give poor countries the choice too."
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