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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

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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 
food rights.

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 
promotes biodiversity.

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-
diversity damage.

"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.


BAD TRIPS

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 
Earth Summit.

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, 
they say.

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 
cheaper medicines.

"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 
it."


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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