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
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
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-
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
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