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New types of plant and animal patents pose threats

The 'No Patents on Seeds' coalition and supporting farmers' organizations issued an alert on 21 October over a new class of patents covering plants and animals and endangering innovation and food security.

Analysis of recent patent applications by the top three global seed companies, Monsanto (US), DuPont (US) and Syngenta (Switzerland) documents an upward trend in patents covering plants and animals derived from conventional breeding. These patents even claim harvests and derived food products such as milk, butter and bread. For example, in only four years, between 2005 and 2009, Monsanto filed nearly 150 patent applications related to plant breeding at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). These applications show a growing tendency to claim exclusive property rights not only on genetically modified plants and animals, but also on existing biodiversity and traditional breeding.

By speaking of ‘Monsantosizing’ the alert warns that the whole chain from seed to food production might be controlled by a few big international companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, leading to a process of oligopolies and increasing concentration, with devastating consequences for farmers' livelihoods and global food security.


The alert was issued the same day as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, presented his new report (A/64/170) to the UN General Assembly, warning that seed patents might increase food crises.
Intellectual property rights have been strengthened significantly over the years, with the vast majority of patents retained by northern-based companies such as Monsanto, and their oligarchic structure was worrisome as it contributes to the risk of farmers' dependency. Moreover, little or no investments are made in other means of food production, whereas a recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report indicated that agro-ecological approaches could significantly improve yields in a sustainable matter.

The article below was published in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6800 and is reproduced here with permission. 

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Lim Li Ching
Third World Network
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[South-North Development Monitor (SUNS), Issue #6800, 26 October 2009]

Development: New types of plant and animal patents pose threats

Geneva, 23 Oct (Riaz K. Tayob) -- A global civil society coalition sent a public warning to the UN General Assembly that a new class of patents covering plants and animals endangers both innovation and food security, echoing the sentiments of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

The "Global alert against Monstantosizing' our food" was released on 21 October by the "No Patents on Seeds" coalition, coinciding with the presentation of similar concerns by the UN Special Rapporteur, Olivier de Schutter, on the Right to Food, at the Third Committee (dealing with Social, Humanitarian and Cultural issues) in New York.

The alert was initiated by the organisations Berne Declaration, Swissaid, Misereor No Patents on Life (Switzerland), Greenpeace and The Development Fund (Norway), supported by farmer organisations from Europe, South America and Asia. They include Coldiretti in Italy, COAG in Spain, dairy farmers from Germany, Federacion Agraria Argentina and Bharat Krishak Samaj, an Indian farmer organisation.

Directed at governments, parliaments and patent offices, the alert warns about a new class of patents covering plants and animals derived from conventional breeding. "These patents even claim harvests and derived food products such as milk, butter and bread," the report revealed.

By speaking of "Monsantosizing", the signatories to the alert warned that the whole chain from seed to food production might be controlled by a few big international corporations like Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, leading to a process of oligopolies and increasing concentration.

"A radical change in both patent legislation and the practice of patent offices is needed to eliminate patents on plants and farm animals," said Francois Meienberg of the Berne Declaration.

"Corporations should not be allowed to continue to misappropriate and monopolise seeds, plants and farm animals via patent law. If they are, these patents will become a major threat to global food security, food sovereignty and innovation."

"The big companies are about to control seed, harvest, trade and even food production," warned Luis Contigiani at Federacion Agraria Argentina.

"We can see how Monsanto tries to license fees on soy production, imposing embargoes on European importers of Argentinean soy and derivatives based on patents that are not valid in our country. This is an example of the consequences when genetic resources are subjected to the logic of monopolisation by patent rights."

The alert quotes from the background report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (A/64/170), de Schutter, which also raises concerns that seed patents might increase food crises. Citing de Schutter, "The oligopolistic structure of the input providers' market may result in poor farmers being deprived of access to seeds, productive resources essential for their livelihoods, and it could raise the price of food, thus making food less affordable for the poorest."

At a press conference in New York prior to appearing before the Third Committee to present his report, de Schutter raised concerns about increased monopolization of seeds through patents, declining biodiversity, speculation in commodity markets, and the ongoing fallout from the global food crisis. A challenge was the impact of intellectual property rights on seed systems and the policies States should adopt to provide access for farmers to the seeds they needed.

It was important to move away from the idea that the right to food was about people being fed to the idea that the right to food was about the ability to produce, he said.

He emphasised that commercial seed varieties could be extremely useful as they improved yields and nutritional values, and were disease-resistant, and at the same time, they could increase farmers' dependency on those seeds and threaten their income. "The top-ten agricultural companies, all based in the North, controlled 67% of the global proprietary seed market," he pointed out.

The vast majority of patents were retained by northern-based companies such as Monsanto and their oligarchic structure was worrisome, as it increased farmers' dependency, de Schutter said.

Those companies, moreover, had no choice but to expand. Legislation to address the issue was taken at the national, rather than global level. Antitrust legislation should be strengthened, also at the regional and international levels.

The commercial seed system might also be a threat to agro-biodiversity. He noted that today, there were barely 150 cultivated crops. Genetic erosion was a source of vulnerability and agro-biodiversity could be a source of resilience against the impacts of climate change.

While the UN has no position on the debate about organic versus genetic-based farming, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report indicated that agro-ecological approaches could significantly improve yields in a sustainable matter, de Schutter said. His concern about intellectual property rights-based agriculture was that no investments were made in other means of food production.

Intellectual property rights had been strengthened significantly over the years, contributing to the risk of farmers' dependency. He therefore advocated that Governments should choose intellectual property (regimes) suited to development needs instead of giving in to incentives.

He also urged adoption of compliance legislation going beyond the minimum requirements of the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. Intellectual property rights might also be an obstacle to further research, even though it was defended as a way for innovation, he said. Research must use pre-existing genetic resources, which were more and more difficult to obtain.

He said that research in breeding rewarded by intellectual property rights was mostly addressing the needs of rich farmers in developed countries. It neglected tropical crops on which many people were dependent. Since most seed companies were situated in the North, intellectual property rights resulted in resource transfers from the South to the North and from food producers to the owners of the patents.

He recommended that States do more to implement the farmers' rights under Article 9 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which would provide for protection of traditional resources and for farmers' participation in decision-making processes on legislation on intellectual property. Further, he said that States should provide funds necessary to support the flourishing of farmers' seed systems.

States should also re-examine their seed regulations in order to make them more hospitable to traditional farmers' rights. They should also develop local seed exchanges. Research should involve farmers at all stages.

De Schutter said that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had indeed called for a 70% increase in food production by 2050 in order to meet increasing demands. The debate was open on how and by whom that increase should be achieved. The promises of scientific developments in that regard had been unfulfilled.

The huge potential in training farmers in agro-ecological techniques such as water-harvesting, agro-forestry, inter-cropping and the use of nitrogen-fixing plants had not been used. Although those techniques were labour intensive, they had the potential for hugely increasing productivity.

It was in principle a good thing that after thirty years, the private sector was again investing in agriculture as a potential source of profit, he continued. There was, however, no real debate about the ownership of agricultural policies and the risk that national policies would not be taken into account when the direction of research and investments was guided by private interests.

Governments should not develop policies dictated by the private sector, de Schutter said.

Financial speculation in the commodity market was a major problem that had not been addressed, he further added. Although he had submitted proposals on this to the Human Rights Council, nothing had been done. States should further re-establish food reserves they had abandoned during the nineties, which could be done at the national and regional levels.

To a question at the press conference, de Schutter said that some progress had been made on regulating the transnational buying of farms, and that the World Bank and the FAO were addressing the issue. A number of Governments now believed it was necessary to develop an international framework on this.

The deeds often unfairly favoured investors and the rights of local and indigenous people were often not protected. Later this year, there would be a West Africa regional meeting where Governments would try to share good practices in that area. West Africa could become a laboratory on the issue, he said.

Asked about funding for implementation of his recommendations at the press conference, he said significant amounts had been pledged over the past months. The recent Group of Eight (G-8) meeting in Pittsburgh had pledged to invest $20 billion over three years to support agriculture in developing countries.

The money pledged by the G-8 would be used in a way that strengthened and increased the incomes of small farmers in developing countries, whose needs were not necessarily the same as those of the large producers with access to global markets. Their productivity could be significantly improved with not very significant investments, he said. The question was however, to do what, and for whom.

[A New York Times editorial dated 22 October stated that "following a decade of unchecked consolidation, it is time for the (US) Justice Department to take a hard look at potentially anti-competitive behaviour" starting with Monsanto which is currently in a dispute with DuPont over genetically engineered soybean genes that are patented by Monsanto.

[The patent disputes among giant agribusiness corporations are increasing, and while these expose the increasing problems with intellectual property rights systems that disproportionately favour private interests, the deep implications for small farmers, especially from developing countries, and for agro-biodiversity and innovation still do not receive sufficient attention.] +

 


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