Recent Australian Claims to Indian and Iranian Chickpeas Countered by NGOs and ICRISAT

Or, how to "invent" a chickpea without really trying

The Australian seed industry has applied for plant breeder's rights (PBR) on two chickpea varieties taken from ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) - an internationally-funded public research centre based in Hyderabad, India. If granted, the Australians will give themselves a 20 year monopoly on the Asian chickpeas, which they propose to market in South Asia and the Middle East. Neither variety, however, is new to farmers. In fact, both are ICRISAT accessions originating in farmer's fields in Iran and India. It's blatant biopiracy," explains Farhad Mazhar of Bangladeshi organization UBINIG and the South Asian Network on Food, Ecology, and Culture, "Australia is privatizing seeds that belong to our farmers, and they plan to sell them back to us with their own self-authorized plant monopoly."

"It is imperative that ICRISAT and the entire Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) send a clear signal to Australia - and the world - that international agricultural research centres, whose mission is increase food security, will not tolerate PBR claims on germplasm the centres hold in trust for the world's farmers," said Pat Mooney, RAFI's Executive Director.

ICRISAT's Director General determined this week that the institute will take strong action to stop the Australian claims. ICRISAT is pursing diplomatic options and contacting Australian government institutions to request the plant breeder's rights applications be withdrawn or rejected. ICRISAT is also withholding its approval - required under a materials transfer agreement - to Australian plans to license the varieties for commercial sale, and has denied repeated Australian requests for approval of the PBR claims, which would violate ICRISAT's policies on research collaboration and intellectual property rights.

Today, RAFI is notifying the Indian and Iranian Governments of the situation. This follows a December letter from RAFI to the Australian PBR office and consultations with ICRISAT requesting action to stop the applications. So far the Australian PBR office has not replied but according to its 2 January summary of its activities, the applications are still pending. In addition, RAFI is requesting concerned governments to bring the issue to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) whose intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture has policy oversight of CGIAR genebanks. "We urge that FAO undertake a full investigation of this and other instances where the FAO-CGIAR Accord on CGIAR germplasm collections may have been violated or needs to be reviewed and strengthened," said Neth DaÒo of the South East Asian Regional Institute for Community Education (SEARICE) in the Philippines.

The question of who benefits from international agricultural research was first raised by RAFI in 1993 when it calculated that the value of CGIAR research activities - to industrialized countries - was in the range of US $5 billion per annum. Given that the annual budget of the CG System - provided by OECD countries through aid programmes - is in the range of US $300 million, RAFI concluded that CGIAR provided an exceptional return on OECD investment.

An excellent case in point is Australia. Since 1974, according to a study funded by Australian and international agricultural research agencies, Australia's wheat industry has gained more than US $3 billion as a result of more than 50 durum wheat varieties provided by CIMMYT - the CG Centre based in Mexico. (1) Between 1972 and 1996, the Australian Government contributed a grand total of US $80.1 million to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. (2)

The foundation of Australia's chickpea industry was established with donations of CGIAR germplasm. ICRISAT and ICARDA (the Syria-based International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas) have contributed no fewer than 16,000 farmers' varieties to Aussie chickpea researchers. In some years, as much as 74% of all chickpea nursery stock has been shipped to OECD countries - notably Israel and Australia. (3)

Background on the Origin of ICRISAT Chickpea Varieties: While the large-scale movement of Asia's crop germplasm to Australia inevitably raises eyebrows, seed industry attempts to "patent" this material and sell it back to its donors raises blood pressure. As early as 1988/89, a quasi-statal Australian "strategic investment body," GRDC (Grains Research and Development Corporation),(4) obtained the ICRISAT chickpea germplasm for testing purposes. Research interest in the two varieties under PBR claim intensified in 1994/95, when GDRC tested ICRISAT's ICCV-88202 variety - derived from a Iranian farmer's variety - along with a second ICRISAT accession - ICC-14880 - a farmers' variety from Andra Pradesh, India.

In early 1996, GRDC reported that the ICRISAT samples had performed exceptionally and that they would be multiplied for commercialization in 1997.(5) In May 1997, Agriculture Western Australia and GRDC applied for plant variety rights for "Sona" (a new name for ICCV-88202) and "Heera" (aka ICC-14880).(6) Two brochures (7) describing the new chickpeas for potential licensees explicitly state that both Sona and Heera were "derived from propagation of a single plant from an accession received from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad, India." In the case of ICCV-88202, the brochure adds, "Sona was derived from the cross PRRI/ICCI made at ICRISAT." According to Agriculture Western Australia the chickpeas "should attract strong demand from buyers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates." (8)

"The chickpea varieties... are named after the natural resources of Western Australia," according to the brochures. Sona and Heera are Hindi/Urdu words meaning, respectively, "gold" and "diamond". The two brochures says that the names, "...should be widely recognized throughout the Indian Sub-Continent and amongst expatriates in the Middle East." Sona has been licensed to Seed Grain and Biotechnology Australia. Heera has been licensed to AgraCorp Pty. Ltd, a subsidiary of the Grain Pool of Western Australia, an Aus $400 million a year farmer's marketing cooperative. AgraCorp says its mission is to "to profitably and ethically trade in grains and pulses internationally and within Australia." (9) It is unclear if AgraCorp knows it is licensing an ICRISAT variety.

At least one - and almost assuredly both - of the varieties have been known to Indian farmers for some time. Indeed, Canadian-sponsored research conducted in 1992 specifically refers to farmer use of one of the varieties in three Indian states (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan). According to a 1997 report by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC), ICCV-88202 (10 )- the ICRISAT germplasm designation, was among the most successful varieties evaluated by farmers. (11)

"If the Australian seed industry wins plant breeder's rights - and if India honours the Australian claims out of respect for the WTO's TRIPS agreement - will these farmers be forced to pay royalties to grow one of their favourite varieties?" asks Mooney. RAFI is requesting IDRC to join with CSOs in an investigation of the impact of intellectual property claims on chickpeas for farmers in the region.

As CGIAR undergoes its first external review in 17 years, the chickpea case also raises much broader concerns. Who really benefits from international agricultural research? ... And should anyone be allowed to lay exclusive monopoly intellectual property claims on plant varieties?

1) Derek E. Tribe, "Feeding and Greening the World - The Role of International Agricultural Research", CAB Intl. and Crawford Fund for Intl. Ag. Research, 1994, p.224.

2) CGIAR, "CGIAR Annual Report - 1996", page 107.

3) ICRISAT data is from CGIAR's CIARL-BRS CD-ROM

4) see http://www.grdc.com.au/

5) GRDC, "Pulse Industry Development", Feb. 1996, 1st Ed.

6) This information was downloaded from the Internet homepage of the Australian Plant Variety Rights Office.

7) The brochures were published by GRDC, Agriculture Western Australia, and Grain Research Committee of Western Australia.

8) http://www.agric.wa.gov.au/whats_new/news/ News97 g_Jul97P/chickpea_var.html-ssi

9) see: http://www.gpwa.com.au/html/agracorp.html

10) J.R. Witcombe and A. Joshi, "The Impact of Farmer Participatory Research on Biodiversity of Crops", IDRC, Ottawa, 5 June 1997.

11) CGIAR genetic resources staff confirm that in genebank records, "ICC" indicates an ICRISAT Chickpea accession and "ICCV" denotes an ICRISAT Chickpea Variety".

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