'Terminator Technology' - One Step Too Far?

By Senthil Ratnasabapathy

BRATISLAVA (PANOS) - If multinational agri-business companies have been testing the patience of developing countries with their indiscriminate patenting plans, they may have gone a little too far by coming up with the so-called 'Terminator Technology.'

This new technology is designed to genetically switch off a plant's ability to germinate a second time - forcing farmers to buy a fresh supply of seeds every year. It was forcefully condemned by many delegates from developing countries at a recent meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Bratislava.

Developed jointly by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Delta & Pine Land, the world's largest cottonseed company, it has been patented in the US and is awaiting patents-approval in 78 other countries - from Armenia to Brazil and Uganda.

"The need was there to come up with a system that allowed you to self-police your technology, other than by trying to put up laws and legal barriers to farmers saving seeds" says Melvin Oliver, a USDA scientist.

But developing countries fear that if the applications for patents are successful, other multinationals will also begin developing similar technologies.

"It's terribly dangerous," said Hope Shand, research director of the Canadian non governmental organisation, Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). "Half the world's farmers are poor. They provide food for more than one billion people but they can't afford to buy seeds every growing season. Seed collection is vital for them."

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), up to 1.4 billion farmers in the South depend heavily on farm-saved seed and seeds exchanged with farm neighbours. Additionally, most North American wheat farmers rely on farm-saved seeds and return to the commercial market once every four or five years, says RAFI.

Terminator Technology is just one - but probably the starkest - example of an increasing trend toward the commercialisation and individualisation of what used to be collective property. Many farmers groups from developing countries say this move to put a monetary value on life through patents, intellectual property rights and plant breeder rights violates the principle which communities have used to survive and conserve diversity for centuries.

Many Northern groups agree. Communities' rights to their local biodiversity are being "undermined by industry's hunger to exploit and deplete biodiversity and claim exclusive ownership over life forms," say the London-based NGOs Gaia Foundation and Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN).

The CBD, a legally-binding document, was created in 1993 in order to stop the destruction of biological diversity and secure its conservation and sustainable use. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, over 150 countries signed up to the convention, which also aims to promote the "fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources."

But less than a year after the Convention came into force, the World Trade Organisation was established with a totally different agenda. Its role was to run a global trading system, "much of which is founded on the private monopoly rights of transnational corporations over biodiversity," Gaia and GRAIN in a report.

In January 1995, the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement - or TRIPS - came into force. This agreement excludes plants and animals from being patented, but not plant varieties. "Because of this provision, biodiversity falls firmly under the legal regime of TRIPS," say GRAIN and Gaia.

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Developing countries worry that agreements such as TRIPS will further facilitate the patenting of modified plants which have been taken from their country of origin - a process dubbed 'biopiracy.' A growing number of campaigners from both developed and developing countries say this is nothing short of theft. An Ethiopian delegate, Tewolde, told the CBD meeting that multinationals modified plants, patented them and then sold them back to the countries the plants originated from - mainly developing countries.

Exploiting loopholes in international rules governing property rights, companies and researchers have claimed patent rights for a number of plant varieties which they have modified little, if at all.

For example, research by RAFI and the Australian-based Heritage Seed Curators Association (HSCA) shows that Australian institutions have taken part in dubious plant patent claims, including claims on grass varieties from Kenya, Tanzania, India, Pakistan, Brazil and Venezuela.

In each case, the NGOs say, there was no evidence that any plant breeding had occurred. And there are examples that the so-called breeders grabbed plants from a farmer's field, made for the airport, selected the best seeds, and applied for a patent.

A second form of biopiracy - equally worrying - is the use of seeds lying in a network of 16 seed and gene banks worldwide.

The 600,000 seeds currently lying in these gene banks are held 'in trust', through FAO on behalf of the international community. The trust agreement does not allow the seeds to be patented by third parties, but in some cases this agreement has been violated.

The absence of laws clarifying who should own and benefit from these banks is a crucial issue for developing countries.

Last year it was revealed that Australian government agencies had tried to patent two kinds of chickpeas, originating in India and Iran. This was despite an agreement not to do so, signed with the Indian institute that had collected the seeds. The Australian agencies had not done any breeding and, after much pressure, the patent claims were dropped.

RAFI and HSCA have found that similar agreements have been violated in at least 118 seed varieties originating in more than 30 countries.

Developing countries and NGOs propose a two-tiered approach to stop biopiracy.

Countries should catalogue the biodiversity existing within their borders and create a legal framework to protect it. This legislation should stipulate that permission must be given by the national government and/or local community before any genetic resource is taken out.

NGOs also say that contradictions between the CBD and TRIPS needs to be sorted out. The Convention defines natural resources as being the property of countries whereas TRIPS emphasises individual rights.

But any move to resolve this contradiction and allow the CBD to take precedence over TRIPS is set to invite opposition from the West - the European Union, for example, claimed in Bratislava that there is no contradiction between the two treaties.

"It is clear to governments that if they (developing countries) lose this (the battle between CBD and TRIPS), they do not have a chance of survival," says Vandana Shiva of India's Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, an NGO based in India.

As Klaus Topfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, warns:" Competition over dwindling biological resources threatens to become a major source of national and international strife in the decades ahead." /PANOS

30 May 1998 1,135 words