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UN's FAO Votes for Broad Limits on Crop Patents
Published on Tuesday, November 6, 2001 by Inter Press Service
Going Forward
UN's FAO Votes for Broad Limits on Crop Patents
by Jorge Piña
ROME - The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Conference has approved an international treaty that largely bans the patenting of non-genetically modified crops, a step aimed at protecting plant diversity as a tool for eradicating world hunger.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is intended to preserve the diversity of food and agriculture and the ''fair and equitable sharing of the benefits.''

The treaty was finalized at the biennial conference of the FAO, under way in the Italian capital and ending Nov 13, with 116 votes in favor, two abstentions, and no votes against.

The accord, the result of seven years of contentious multilateral negotiations pitting environmentalists and poor countries against transnational corporations and the industrialized North, will foment the sustainable preservation of all plant genetic resources by the FAO member countries.

FAO director-general Jacques Diouf called the treaty approved Sunday an ''historic event'' and a ''milestone in international cooperation. It is the successful outcome of lengthy negotiations which started in November 1994 among FAO's member states,'' which now number 183 after four new countries were admitted last Friday.

The treaty ''is at the crossroads where agriculture, environment and trade meet. It is a major international instrument reflecting the significance of access and benefit sharing as the bases for continued and sustainable utilization of plant genetic resources,'' stated Diouf.

Fernando Gerbasi, chairman of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, in a conversation with IPS, explained that 90 percent of plant genetic resources are freely accessible, ''and one could not apply for intellectual property rights over them.''

Until now, ''it was permitted to patent genetic resources that had not been modified in any way,'' said the Venezuelan diplomat.

The treaty therefore fills a void, which is crucial for global food security, not only for current generations, but even more so for future generations because it ensures the sustainable use of genetic resources, he said.

Plant breeders developing new crop varieties and seeking intellectual property rights over them will have to contribute to a fund that will finance programs for agricultural improvement, conservation, development and training in poor countries, said Gerbasi.

The secretary of the Commission on Genetic Resources, José Esquinas-Alcázar, said that despite the approval of the treaty, ''an enormous task still lies ahead to implement the provisions of the treaty,'' given the great erosion of genetic resources for food and agriculture.

Among these challenges, he stressed the ''need to ensure that the genetic resources and local technologies developed by generations of farmers are complemented and enhanced by the new genetic technologies, and not threatened or replaced by them.''

Traditional and modern technologies alike must be developed in service of humanity, particularly to eradicate hunger and to promote sustainable development in the South, where more than 800 million people continue to suffer malnutrition, said Esquinas- Alcázar.

The principal aim of the treaty is to speed up agricultural research, especially efforts towards ensuring that small farmers have access to greater agricultural resources, said Josep Garí, an adviser to the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources.

The international treaty establishes that patent rights on agricultural resources may only be obtained for those that are the outcome of research that results in true genetic modifications.

Nobody will be able to obtain intellectual property rights on naturally occurring resources that are available, without restrictions, to those who seek to use them, said Garí.

This is one attempt to put an end to what has been dubbed ''bio- piracy'' of plant and genetic resources in the countries of the developing South, as practiced by some multinational companies.

Over the last 10 years, for example, the US-based chemical giant DuPont has filed approximately 150 applications for patents on genetic resources with the European Patent Office.

The new international accord, which will be legally binding in the countries that ratify it, will enter into force when the parliaments of at least 40 of the signatory states do so.

Italian activist Antonio Onorati, head of a network of environment-related non-governmental organizations, said the treaty leaves many unanswered questions as far as private property rights over genetic resources, which must be resolved as soon as possible.

The future outcomes of the treaty will depend to great extent on the negotiating power of small farmers, he said.

But he acknowledged that the international agreement is a step in the right direction because previous laws aimed at protecting small farmers did not go nearly this far.

Copyright © 2001 IPS-Inter Press Service


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