Rolling the Die in 'Sin City'

Self-proclaimed 'heroes' in Monte Carlo, the world's seed companies have bowed to U.S. pressure in Sun City, South Africa.

The world's leading seed trade association, ASSINSEL (International Association of Plant Breeders for the Protection of Plant Varieties, Nyon, Switzerland) may have succumbed to political pressure from the USA and four other OECD governments. The trade group has reversed its position in support of a new global treaty to safeguard the exchange of research seed for food security. The policy turnabout apparently came during the trade group's annual meeting in Sun City (popularly known as 'Sin City' because of its casinos). ASSINSEL is expected to tell governments at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome next Monday (June 25th, 2001) that it, '...does not support the current IU [International Undertaking, the treaty] text...'. The statement will come as a shock to European governments and to diplomats from Africa, Asia, and Latin America attending the Undertaking's final negotiating round June 25-30.

Card tricks: 'In 1998 at the industry's annual bash in Monte Carlo, seed companies agreed that they should pay a proportion of their intellectual property royalties into a common fund for global seed conservation,' Patrick Mulvany of ITDG (UK) recalls, 'the fund is to be managed by the treaty's intergovernmental body. While the move was a ploy to entice poor countries into accepting the North's patent regimes, some South countries see it as a tax on corporate seed .' Developing nations took the industry proposal as 'admission that the South has been 'ripped off' but now the companies are prepared to pay,' Mulvany adds. 'Rightly or wrongly, it represents a moral victory of sorts for some delegations. Taking their bid off the table in Sun City is an attempt to scuttle the treaty.'

Governments in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) adopted a non-binding International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources in 1983. Since then, the expansion of intellectual property regimes to encompass plant varieties and breeding material, combined with globalization and the ratification of patent rules in the WTO in 1995 have led to a crisis in the scientific exchange of agricultural breeding material between countries. In 1995, FAO's Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture began the politically complex task of turning the 1983 Undertaking into a legally enforceable treaty. Its primary objectives are to facilitate access to research seed; to safeguard the world's major genebank (seed) collections held by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research; and to guarantee that in a world of rampant privatization, the several million seed samples donated by farmers as the basis for today's plant breeding will stay in the public domain.

Cards under the table: Civil society organizations have been notifying European and South governments of the industry flip-flop. 'I talked with several governments,' Susanne Gura of the German NGO Forum on Environment and Development (Bonn, Germany) confirms, 'all are stunned by the explicit industry rejection of the draft text. The prevailing opinion is that the companies have been double-dealing. They had ample opportunity to express their views during the negotiations. They did not.'

In 1998, after almost three years of fractious wrangling, the Chair of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture moved the debate to a 41-country Contact Group. Industry and civil society are allowed one representative each in the closed-door encounters. ASSINSEL represented the companies and RAFI (Winnipeg, Canada) observed on behalf of CSOs. 'The seed industry made its move at the Tehran Contact Group last August,' RAFI's Pat Mooney remembers, 'The proposal was modified by Norway and Japan and accepted by all the governments. Since then, the Contact Group - with ASSINSEL in attendance - has met three additional times with the last round concluding at the end of April. It was clear that ASSINSEL's deal rang belated alarm bells in Washington as well as in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. France and Switzerland were also jittery about establishing a global tax precedent of a conflict with the WTO but the Europeans all agreed to stick together backing the tax. Industry reps were adamant in defending the proposal. Now - on the eve of the last negotiating round - the companies are changing their game.'

What happened? 'Canada and the USA asked for a meeting with ASSINSEL in April,' Pat Mooney says. 'At that meeting, both governments pressured them to come out against the draft text since it had been modified by Norway and Japan. The French Government also approached their seed industry to withdraw support for the royalty tax.' Intense lobbying by the U.S. and Canada - especially Canada according to insiders - has caused confusion and panic within some national trade associations not intimately familiar with the treaty process. Some companies have complained that the language around intellectual property issues is ambiguous, 'We have the same complaint from an entirely different political perspective,' Pat Mooney notes, ' but the text is still under negotiation. Now is not the time to launch torpedoes. These are the same companies that pushed for the TRIPS (intellectual property) chapter in the WTO. TRIPS is a legally binding text - which they support - that couldn't be more ambiguous for plant varieties. Now they are pretending that ambiguity is a problem.'

Stacking the deck: Not only have Canada and the USA been trying to reverse industry's position, but the USA may also be working with two dissident Latin American governments to conjure up a fall-back or alternative to the treaty. Susanne Gura and Silvia Ribeiro (of RAFI in Mexico) attended a meeting of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR, Washington DC, USA) in Durban, South Africa just before the ASSINSEL casino caper in Sun City. A subset of that meeting was called by the USA, Brazil, and Colombia to discuss the possible development of a global endowment fund for major agricultural seed banks. The three governments clearly see the endowment proposal - obviously a good idea from almost any perspective - as an end-run around the International Undertaking. The seed industry also likes the endowment. Several European governments are now alarmed that the USA, Colombia, and Brazil - perhaps with Canada and Australia - are not only trying to derail the treaty but present a global genebank fund as a viable alternative to an intergovernmental agreement. On this, Pat Mooney is emphatic, 'An endowment fund for the world's most important regional and international gene banks is long overdue,' he says, 'but it won't work outside of a legally binding intergovernmental Undertaking. To clear up this confusion, CGIAR should announce next week that the endowment if it comes into being, must be placed under an intergovernmental umbrella. If CGIAR refuses to make such a public statement, alarm bells will really start ringing.'

Rolling the die: Civil Society observers are concerned that the two initiatives amount to a political pincer movement to cut the solidarity of Europe with the Group of 77 (South) countries. 'The only good news,' Pat Mooney suggests, 'is that the industry move is so gauche that it will backfire. They are being manipulated by Canada and the USA. Europe and the South will likely just carry on while the United States drops out. When ASSINSEL rolled the die in Monte Carlo, they scored a PR success,' Mooney concedes, 'In Sun City, they played Russian roulette and lost. Maybe next time they should pick a venue other than a casino!'

This is a joint news release issued simultaneously by:

- IATP (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis), USA
- ITDG (Intermediate Technology Development Group), UK
- GAIA Foundation (London, UK)
- German NGO Forum on Environment and Development, Bonn, Germany
- GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International), Barcelona, Spain
- RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International), Winnipeg, Canada

 

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