November 19, 2000

Seedy Squabble in Switzerland

As Washington tries to sort out what a 'plant' is, world food security is iced in Switzerland. Industry, Europe, Japan, and the G77 (developing) countries look on in amazement.

What 'grows' but doesn't 'move'? If you're an agronomist, the standard answer is a 'plant'. In Neuchatel, Switzerland last week (November 2000) however, at a tactically critical food security negotiation, the running joke was 'Washington trade policy'. As world seed and biotech industries, governments of Europe and Japan, and G77 (developing) countries watched in consternation, U.S. Government representatives tied themselves in knots trying to explain the difference to uninterested patent and trade lawyers back in their capitol, between plant genetic resources in agriculture from other industrial technologies. The U.S. delegation continuously raised what appeared to other delegations, to be nonsensical conflicts between the World Trade Organization (WTO) and an agreement being revised by governments in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to safeguard the flow of crop germplasm for scientific research and international food security.

Plant plots?: Biocrats (bureaucrats in the interrelated agro, biotech, and biodiversity arena) from 40 governments met in Neuchatel Nov.12-17 to update and make legally-binding an International Undertaking that would guarantee a continuing flow of scientific breeding material between countries, and ensure the conservation and development of the plant genetic resources for future generations. At stake were several million seed samples - mostly contributed by poor farmers in developing countries. Despite (some say because of) advances in biotechnology, farmers' traditional seeds form the backbone of plant breeding to fend off new diseases and to allow world agriculture to adjust to global warming. As always, one of the stumbling blocks in negotiations, begun in 1994, is money. Who's going to finance an international network of gene banks to hold the endangered seeds and how will the South (developing countries) benefit from the donation of their invaluable seeds?


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