March 14, 1998

Aussies Pirate

International Confusion, Anger Greet Australian Kleptomania of Farmers' Plant Varieties from other Countries.

The agricultural departments of at least four Australian state governments, as well as a bevy of other national public and private research institutes, are routinely pirating the indigenous knowledge of farming communities and international research institutes around the world, according to the Canada-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) - a rural advocacy organization with twenty years experience in the field. Accusing the Aussie agencies of making cowboy claims' on farmer-bred plant varieties from Brazil to India, RAFI's Executive Director, Pat Roy Mooney, says that several dozen plant 'patent' claims listed by Canberra's Plant Breeder's Rights Office are 'a clear rip-off of the genius of others. In most of these cases, the Australians appear to have done nothing more than select and multiply somebody else's seed and then slap a PBR (plant patent) monopoly on them,' Mooney insists.

DUS to DUST: Australia's Plant Breeders' Rights legislation was first passed in 1987 after years of heated controversy during which successive governments promised that Australia's laws would not allow unscrupulous applicants to claim royalties for crop seeds collected abroad. 'Time has proven the lawmakers wrong,' asserts Mooney, 'Any plant meeting the 'DUS' criteria - 'Distinct' 'Uniform', and 'Stable' - seems to be accepted. No questions are asked about where the variety came from or who did the breeding work.' Edward Hammond of RAFI adds, 'Even a cursory glance at the long list of approved and pending forage, tree, and specialty crops suggests that Australia has altered the criteria to 'DUST': Distinct, Uniform, Stable and STolen. There seems to be an epidemic of abusive practices covering some of the most important research bodies in Australia.'

Chickpeas Come Home to Roost: The controversy began in early December at a UN meeting in Rome when RAFI first received unconfirmed reports that two agencies, Agriculture Western Australia and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), had applied for intellectual property monopolies on two chickpea varieties originally from farmers in India and Iran. The varieties were sent by ICRISAT - the internationally-funded research centre in Hyderabad, India. Following further investigation, RAFI contacted ICRISAT and the Centre moved speedily to force the Aussie agencies to drop their claims on January 16.

Third World Reaction: Neth Da o of the Manila-based Southeast Asian Regional Institute for Commmunity Education (SEARICE) concurs, 'The Aussie agencies are acting like kleptomaniacs. Who gave them the right to pirate and patent the genius of farmers from Asia to Africa?' 'Farmers do the work,' adds Da o, 'but the Aussie agencies get the royalties.' Farhad Mazhar of the Bangladsehi organization UBINIG supports Da o: 'We've been in touch with farmers' organizations and governments in South Asia and they are incensed. They want an apology and they want to make sure it doesn't happen again.'

BioPiracy: This is hardly the end says RAFI's researcher Edward Hammond. 'Far from an aberration, it seems that several Australian states and institutes feel they have carte blanche to pirate other peoples' knowledge and seeds.' One possible case in point: 'The Victoria Institute for Drylands Agriculture granted exclusive licenses for three Middle East and Mediterranean lentils,' Hammond explains, 'Victoria had zero legal authority to do this. Each of the varieties had been given to Victoria by ICARDA.' (ICRISAT's sister centre located in Aleppo, Syria.) 'Sadly,' Pat Mooney continues, 'the Lentil Company bought what they were told was the right to sell the seeds in Australia and abroad. The licenses they won mean nothing at all. They have no rights.' Bill Hankin, President of Australia's Heritage Seed Curators Association (HSCA) agrees, 'The Lentil Company is a handful of hard-working farmers trying to make a living. Its far from their fault.' 'The State of Victoria has some explaining to do,' Pat Mooney concludes.

These are not the only examples. The State of Queensland is claiming a forage variety provided by CIAT (the Colombia-based Centre allied to ICRISAT and ICARDA) but originally collected in Panama, while the State of South Australia is claiming a lentil collected from a Jordanian farmer shipped via ICARDA. 'There is no evidence that anyone from Australia did anything more than read the menu,' Edward Hammond emphasizes. Another Australian agency, CLIMA from Western Australia has applied for PBR on two other ICARDA seeds. Again, no homegrown research is evident. 'These four cases are especially provocative,' Pat Mooney notes, 'Each variety is protected by an international trusteeship agreement between the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) - the umbrella body supporting ICRISAT, ICARDA, and CIAT. In effect, the varieties are 'owned' by FAO not the Australians. 'But owned or not,' Mooney insists, 'Australians have no right to pretend they made an intellectual contribution to the development of the varieties. That was done by others - and not in Australia.'

'There are numerous other instances where Australian public and private institutes have laid claim to other people's work,' Bill Hankin of the HSCA insists, 'There are quite a number of other cases: pearl millet from Zambia, forages from Brazil, clovers from North Africa, Italy, Greece, and Turkey.' Still other plants from Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Africa, Cuba, Mexico, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, and Poland are under claim. 'In every case,' says Hankin 'it looks like State agencies and private companies are claiming monopoly rights as the so-called 'inventors' of these varieties.'

Anti-Piracy Action: 'I think its obvious that a government investigation is needed into the operations of the Plant Breeder's Rights Office. They seem to have ignored the intent of the PVR Act of 1987 and the PBR Act of 1994,' Hankin argues. 'In the meantime, all rights on suspect claims should be suspended,' Pat Mooney adds, 'and the PBR Office should review its options with respect to fines for irresponsible claims. Beyond this, the Canberra Government has to deal with the issue of reparations. Some States and enterprises have obtained royalties from illegitimate PBR certificates. Those royalties will have to be refunded to FAO on behalf of the international community.'

Global Concern: According to Neth Da o of SEARICE, the Australian fiasco has to be addressed at the UN level. The FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture will convene in Rome in June and Da o is insistent that Australia's transgressions be on the agenda. 'At this moment, we have to advise national governments that their bilateral agreements with Australian agencies could be abused. Research seeds given to one institute could end up at another under patent. If the Aussies won't act responsibly,' Da o insists, 'poor countries don't have the capacity to police the world's patent offices to protect their farmers. We need to strengthen the multilateral system to make sure that countries aren't ripped off by dishonest corporations and industrialized countries.'

Farhad Mazhar of UBINIG agrees, 'Its only the multilateral system that has defended Farmers' Rights versus Australia,' he points out. RAFI's Hammond supports this view, 'RAFI may have taken the lead in drawing attention to the Australian fiasco, but the moves to correct the abuses have to come from FAO and CGIAR working together under their international trusteeship agreement.' 'Addressing the problems in Australia proves that the international community, working together, can protect Farmers' Rights and national sovereignty,' Pat Mooney concludes, 'Now we need to build on our successes.'

RAFI's researchers do add, however, that Australia's diplomats have been notably aloof from the international process in recent years. Indeed, Australia has distinguished itself in UN fora by opposing Farmers' Rights and defending Plant Breeders' Rights. 'Maybe this experience will help the government rethink its priorities' Mooney suggests.


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