More than 150 governments gathered in Rome yesterday for what many see as a make-or-break meeting which will determine whether the genes of the world's major crops remain in the public sector or are allowed to be further patented.
The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), most EU governments, many G77 developing nations, and grassroots non-governmental groups and farmers' networks are concerned about "bio-piracy", in which commercial companies patent germ plasm - the part of the germ cell that contains hereditary material - and privatize gene banks.
They are pressing for a binding global agreement that will govern the use of the crop seed varieties and genetic resources which underpin global food security.
It is urgently required, they say, because of the rapid loss of these seed varieties - more than 75% in the past century - and because of the increasing use of intellectual property rights to claim sole ownership.
The agreement would cover 30 major food crops to ensure that their genetic material is preserved and available for present and future researchers.
It would also recognize the farmers' rights to access and use seeds, a controversial area following the introduction of GM crops.
The dissenting countries are principally the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Brazil and Colombia are expected to try to hold out for a better deal, allowing them to make individual deals with other countries.
The US has argued throughout the six years of negotiations that there should be no restrictions on the "right" to patent genetic resources.
The issues, the Americans say, should be a matter for the World Trade Organization, which they say has legal primacy, rather than the UN. They are believed to have persuaded the global seed industry to withdraw its support for an international agreement, to the chagrin of the non-government groups.
"Biopiracy is rife. Intellectual property rights regimes create private ownership rights which remove locally adapted varieties from communal ownership and exchange, threatening future development of these varieties," Patrick Mulvany, of the international development group ITDG, said yesterday. "These resources are our 'life insurance' against future adversity, be it from climate change, war, industrial developments or ecosystem collapse."
The negotiations will continue next week at the FAO.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001