March 14, 1998

Toward a Global Moratorium on Plant Monopolies

UN FAO, CGIAR Move to Defend Farmers' Rights, Crop Germplasm; Call for Plant "Patent" Moratorium on CG Seeds

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) are moving quickly, and in concert to address abuses of their trust agreements covering several hundred thousand invaluable crop seed accessions, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). It's really very impressive," RAFI's Executive Director, Pat Mooney, says, "the two bodies are diplomatically advising agricultural research institutions and Plant Breeder's Rights ("patent") offices that there should be an immediate freeze on intellectual property claims on seeds held in trust through FAO. We understand that there have been meetings in Rome between the two organizations and that a joint task-force has been established to monitor the situation and to make recommendations when FAO's genetic resources commission convenes in June."

RAFI notes that it has not been privy to the discussions. "But, it's obvious that the plant piracy gambit will be halted," Mooney confirms, "the UN and CGIAR are in contact with the governments involved as well as with ICARDA and the other CGIAR Centres. I would be very surprised if the Australian PBR Office approves any new claims on CG germplasm." Hope Shand, RAFI's Research Director agrees, "It's our understanding that the CGIAR's Chair, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, has proposed a voluntary moratorium on any intellectual property claims concerning germplasm held in trust. We expect FAO to share this initiative with its member governments within a few days and then it will be discussed in the June Commission."

"RAFI warmly supports the moratorium idea," Pat Mooney adds, "not only will it bring an immediate halt to 'patent' rip-offs but it also sends a very sharp message to national patent offices that there are fundamental problems with the way industrialized countries are managing their intellectual property." "The moratorium also allows Australia to back down with a semblance of decorum," Shand agrees.

The BioPiracy scandal first broke at the beginning of January when RAFI accused two Western Australian research institutes of improperly claiming monopoly rights on two chickpea varieties from ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Hyderabad, India. One of the two varieties challenged was part of ICRISAT's germplasm trust agreement with FAO. While this problem resolved itself quickly when ICRISAT demanded that the claims be dropped - and the Australians hastily complied, RAFI's researchers then reported another two dozen similar claims by Australian breeders on varieties held in trust by ICARDA and another CGIAR centre in Colombia. As ICARDA and the Australians scrambled to explain away the claims, RAFI and the Australian Heritage Seed Curators Association (HSCA) revealed at the beginning of February that at least 47 plant varieties under PBR claim in Australia had been taken from other countries. Almost every Australian state and public agricultural research body seemed to be implicated.

"There are two problems here," Bill Hankin, President of the HSCA argues. "First, under Australian law, the national Plant Breeder's Rights Office had no authority to grant certificates for plant varieties that had clearly not been bred by the Australian applicants. In many cases, the varieties were bred by Third World farmers. In other cases, the varieties were obviously just pulled from the ground in the Mediterranean region, for example, and claimed in Australia." Hankin adds, "The second problem is that some of the varieties are protected by a legally-binding trust agreement whereby authority over the germplasm rests with FAO. ICARDA - and other international centres have no right to allow others to take out intellectual property on material they are simply holding for FAO on behalf of the international community." HSCA has written the Australian PBR Office calling for a full investigation of more than fifty plant claims. Where the applicants can't satisfy authorities that the varieties were really bred by them, HSCA wants the government to cancel the claims.

"This is the biggest scandal ever faced concerning intellectual property over plant varieties. Before it is over, many more plant "patents" in many more countries could be affected," Pat Mooney of RAFI concludes. "Had it not been for the trust agreements and the prompt diplomacy of FAO and CGIAR working together - the Australians might have succeeded in the wholesale BioPiracy of farmers' varieties." When the FAO Commission meets in mid-June, RAFI will work with governments to complete international negotiations leading to a legally-binding intergovernmental protocol on the exchange of genetic resources for food and agriculture. "A strong multilateral system is the only way to police the pirates," says Hope Shand."

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