Fifteen Francophone African states, among them some of the poorest countries in the world, are under pressure to sign away the right of more than 20 million small-holder farmers to save and exchange crop seed. The decision to abandon Africa's 12,000-year tradition of seed saving will be finalized at a meeting February 22-25 in the Central African Republic. The 15 governments have been told to adopt draconian intellectual property legislation for plant varieties in order to conform to a provision in the World Trade Organization (WTO) that obliges signatories to protect" plant varieties. The legislation (a kind of legal "Terminator" because it prohibits farmers from replanting "protected" seed) is also known, euphemistically, as "Plant Breeders' Rights". If adopted, the legislation will throw some of Africa's poorest countries into an intellectual property cartel dominated by a handful of OECD states led by the USA, the UK, and Japan.
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The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canadian-based rural advocacy organization, announced today that it has uncovered over three dozen new patents describing a wide range of techniques that can be used for the genetic sterilization of plants and seeds. The patents reveal that engineered seed sterility is not an isolated research agenda - it's the Holy Grail of the ag biotech industry," says Pat Mooney of RAFI. The disclosure follows on the heels of a controversial patent unveiled last year, christened the "Terminator" by RAFI, that continues to generate worldwide protest and debate because it renders farm-saved seed sterile - forcing farmers to return to the commercial seed market every year. The Terminator patent is jointly owned by the US Department of Agriculture and a Monsanto subsidiary, Delta & Pine Land Co.
Rural advocacy organizations learned that Monsanto, arguably the world's least popular biotech multinational, held a high-level meeting yesterday to consider whether or not to abandon its quest for an exclusive license on the Terminator technology , US patent no. 5,723,765 , which its subsidiary, Delta & Pine Land Co., co-owns with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).* The patent covers a system for genetically engineering suicide seeds" that cannot be replanted, thus forcing farmers to return to the commercial seed market every year. Philip Angell, Director of Monsanto's Corporate Communications, confirmed that Monsanto held a meeting to discuss Terminator yesterday and that Monsanto's President, Bob Shapiro, attended. Angell declined to offer details, but he told RAFI that "it's an issue we have to wrestle with."
Under attack for blatant abuses to its Plant Breeders' Rights (intellectual property) legislation and accused of abetting the biopiracy of Farmers' Varieties around the world - including Australian Aboriginal varieties - Canberra's beleaguered PBR Office has issued new regulations intended to prevent piratical plant patents. But will they? What about past abuses? What does it mean for the renegotiation of the WTO's TRIPS" (patent) chapter this December 1-2 (1998)?
The Terminator - and related genetic seed sterilization technology - has been banned from the crop breeding programs of the world's largest international agricultural research network. The strong and unambiguous policy was adopted by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) at a meeting at the World Bank in Washington on Friday, October 30th.
It's a courageous decision. The CGIAR has done the right thing, for the right reasons," says Pat Mooney, Executive Director of RAFI, "a ban on Terminator is a pro-farmer policy in defence of world food security."
The CGIAR is a global network of 16 international agricultural research centres, which collectively form the world's largest public plant breeding effort for resource-poor farmers. The Terminator genetic engineering technique renders farm-saved seed sterile, forcing farmers to return to the commercial seed market every year. The technology is aimed primarily at seed markets in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where over 1.4 billion people depend on farm-saved seed and on-farm plant breeding. If widely adopted, the Terminator would make it impossible for farmers to save seed and breed their own crops.
With more than 70% of the Third World's rice and wheat crops based upon its crop breeding programmes, the world's largest network of agricultural research institutes is vowing not to useTerminator Technology (a biotech-based strategy that prevents seed from regerminating in a secondgrowing season). The decision is a slap-in-the-face to one of its major funders - the US Government, and to Monsanto Corporation - who claim their technology will help feed the hungry.
After 17 years - a 17 day wonder? Now the question is, what next?
In search of vindication and vision, the CGIAR's first Systemwide Review in 17 years is indeed a vociferous defence of the past but its recommendations for the future vacuous and doomed to be discounted. After 18 months and $1.5 million is the System back where it started? How will it recover from its post-harvest losses?
Monsanto appears apoplectic in the face of global criticism over the seed-killing Terminator technology. In recent weeks the company has taken a drubbing across the globe, from India to New Zealand, Zimbabwe, the UK, and even in cyberspace. But so far Monsanto's legendary spinmasters have been unable to counter the criticism and articulate any good reason why the world needs the Terminator. Who, after all, wants a dead seed?
Plant patent" offices in several industrialized countries are knowingly granting plant variety monopolies to plant breeders for cultivars actually bred by farmers in at least 43 Third World countries. RAFI and Heritage Seed Curators Australia (HSCA) today are presenting a roster of 147 "dubious" plant variety claims to challenge the World Trade Organization's edict that countries must grant intellectual property "protection" over living plant varieties. The WTO is meeting in Geneva September 17-18 to discuss procedures for reviewing the controversial clause in 1999. Now, the question shouldn't be "What the WTO is going to do about plant breeders rights?" rather, it is "What are the WTO and the various intergovernmental 'patent' conventions going to do about plant breeders wrongs?"
Europe's answer to the American Home Monster" Terminator Technology is the Verminator, a new chemically activated seed killer. The Verminator kills seeds - in one of the invention's claims - by switching on rodent fat genes that have been bioengineered into crops. Zeneca BioSciences (UK) is vying with the "Monster" (Monsanto) to become Top Cat in the global seed industry even if it means playing cat and mouse with farmers and destroying their age-old practice of saving and breeding crop varieties.
Grameen Rejects Mean The American Home "Monster" is held at bay in Bangladesh - but who is going to monitor the micro-creditors? Since when is "empowerment through indebtedness" a solution for poor farming communities?
On 27 July 1998 Muhammad Yunus, managing director of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh was reported by the BBC to have cancelled the Bank's planned relationship with Monsanto Corporation (often referred to as the American Home Monster" following its announced merger with American Home Products earlier this year). The abandoned arrangement would have given the micro-credit bank U.S.$250,000 to provide loans to poor farmers to buy Monsanto's agro-chemical and biotechnology products. Grameen's capitulation follows a month of intense international pressure that began June 25th when Yunus announced the Monsanto grant together with the Corporation's CSO, Robert Shapiro.
The $33 billion merger between AHP and Monsanto will force the life industry into a race to see who will come out on top. The merger creates a new challenge for anti-trust and anti-monopoly law enforcement in the areas of pharmaceuticals, crop chemicals, plant breeding, human genomics, and livestock.
By the year 2000 - after a 12,000-year history of farming - farmers may no longer be able to save seed or breed improved varieties. The problem is not the Millennium Bug but the Millennium Seed."
As a result of solid NGO pressure, the ominous Terminator Technology" became a topic of substantive discussion and debate at the recent meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP IV) in Bratislava, Slovakia, 4-15 May.
Andean farmers forced Colorado State University to surrender its US patent on 'Apelawa" quinoa. The anti-patent campaign that began 14 months ago (1997) ended on May 1st 1998 when on eof the quinoa 'inventors' admitted that the patent had been abandoned.
RAFI officially launched the latest in a series of civil society protests with an international postcard campaign aimed at Prince Hans Adam II, the Prince of Liechtenstein. The Prince is the chairman of the RiceTec Group, whose Texas-based subsidiary, RiceTec Inc., holds the controversial patent laying claim to Asia's famous aromatic on Basmati rice.
A public row over the notorious US patent on the medicinal plant ayahuasca has broken out between COICA, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples' Organizations of the Amazon Basin, and the US government's Inter-American Foundation (IAF). In correspondence made public on the internet by COICA on March 4th, IAF has demanded COICA disavow a 1996 resolution approved by Amazonian indigenous peoples' organizations from 9 countries, that condemns the US plant patent (#PP5751) held by the International Plant Medicine Corporation (IPMC). IAF has further threatened to withdraw funding from groups that don't heed its command.
Advocates for the newly patented terminator technology" developed jointly by the US Department of Agriculture and Mississippi-based Delta and Pine Land seed company claim that it will not only be an incentive to plant breeding investment but also a boon to food production in the South. This is "nonsense" according to RAFI Research Director, Hope Shand.
After a week of silence on the subject, the USA (a country that is not a Party to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) is lobbying hard to re-write the Friends of the Chair' report on the Terminator - a technology widely condemned by numerous CBD members. Why the sudden spurt of behind the scenes activity? On May 11th, the giant Monsanto Corporation - a company with close White House connections and major multinational muscle - bought control of the Terminator patent. For Governments fighting to protect agricultural biodiversity in the Convention, its now or never.
Monsanto, the world's second largest pesticides corporation, has vaulted from nowhere to become the world's fourth largest seed company. Between mid-1996 and the end of 1997, Monsanto spent roughly US $2 billion in seed-related acquisitions. Its May 11th announcement that the corporation will take over Dekalb and Delta and Pine Land seed companies adds a staggering US $4.3 billion to its merger bill. By way of comparison, if Monsanto's Monday splurge were spent on public sector research, it would fully fund the entire CGIAR system at 1998 levels for over 12 years. But it is not who Monsanto is buying - but what patents it is acquiring - that has observers alarmed. Monsanto now has the Terminator - and maybe much more.
A U.S. rice patent has the potential to make Europe's Hans-Adam II "heir apparent" to South Asia's Basmati rice and its famous name. The Liechtenstein Prince's dreams of empire may be decided in a Texas law court.