by GRAIN | 25 Jul 1991


On 24-30 June, GRAIN hosted the Second European Network Meeting on Genetic Resources and Biotechnology in Barcelona, Spain. The meeting brought together some 70 people from 50 European non-governmental organisations engaged in public information, campaign and practical activities to strengthen local control over genetic diversity and biotechnology. Four days of brainstorming yielded a range of new analyses and priorities for action on key issues in the fields of grassroots conservation, biotechnology, biodiversity and Farmers ' Rights.


The Second European Network Meeting on Genetic Resources and Biotechnology will have an important place in the history of networking among those citizens groups in Europe that are struggling to improve popular management and control of genetic resources and related technologies. Our history so far has been a short but intense one. From the birth of the "seeds issue" in the late 1970s, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have come a long way in learning how to listen and talk to each other, to learn from our differences and to find ways of making our common action more effective and long-lasting.

The early and mid-1980s were a busy period of trying to develop better communication, coordination and network activities amongst groups involved in work relating to the conservation of and control over plant genetic resources. By the latter part of the 1980s, as the implications of new biotechnologies and the push for industrial patent laws on life were creeping into our agendas, the need for stronger cooperation among us was growing apparent. Our programmes were broadening but so was the popular interest and participation.

We organised the First European Network Meeting in Denmark in 1988. It was a first major opportunity to bring together a broad range of NGOs from all over Europe to brainstorm together for four days on key issues in genetic resources and biotechnology and make plans for joint action. Out of that meeting arose a concerted campaign against patenting life forms, the "Gene Fund" campaign to raise awareness and funds for farmer conservation work in the South, and a range of plans to strengthen our work on the impacts of biotechnology and the development of grassroots initiatives in conserving and using local seeds, in Europe and the Third World.

Many of the issues identified and plans adopted at the first network meeting were further developed and implemented over the following years. The patenting campaign went forward full force while the concept of Farmers ' Rights was deeply reviewed and enhanced. The issues surrounding biotechnology, which in 1988 was still somewhat of a high-tech mystery to all, became more familiar and accessible. Much of this was due to the committed information work of NGOs, facilitated by our networking and cooperation capacities. At the same time, participation in the network grew considerably involving more and more farmers ' organisations, church, consumer and environmental groups, scientists, lawyers, development agencies and grassroots NGOs.

It seemed to us at GRAIN that the time was growing ripe to organise a second meeting in order to assess our achievements and plan future activities. The network's response to the idea was quite enthusiastic, resulting in excellent participation at this meeting. Nearly 70 people attended from over 50 public interest groups in 15 European countries. This was the first time we had participants from Belgium, Greece, Turkey and the former German Democratic Republic, as well as an observer from the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources. Spanish participation was also considerably stronger than if we had organised the meeting elsewhere.

The first part of the meeting was devoted to national reports on NGO activities from the different countries. We then held two series of parallel thematic workshops, on five topics, followed by regional workshops, where we broke up into language groups. On the final day, we drew the different conclusions and results together in the framework of immediate and long-term priorities. The five thematic workshops were:

-Biotechnology and the Future of Agriculture : where we looked at the most important trends in the developments of new biotechnologies as they affect access to genetic resources, pest control strategies, food production and environmental safety, both in Europe and in the developing countries;

-Farmers ' Rights / Breeders ' Obligations? : where we aimed to reassess the very sense and scope for implementation of Farmers ' Rights and the limits to be set on monopoly rights holders;

-Grassroots Initiatives from the South : giving us a chance to thoroughly review local experiences in farmer conservation systems in the South and discuss the role of both European project agencies and the international agronomic research system in strengthening the informal sector;

-Grassroots Initiatives from Europe : where we reviewed current activities at the local level in Europe, analysed their strengths and weaknesses, and drew up a series of concrete actions to raise awareness and develop networking; and

-Biodiversity: Beyond 1991 : devoted to an analysis of the governmental negotiations for a Global Convention on Biodiversity and the role of NGOs in extending the agenda beyond the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Brazil, 1992).

The discussions were sometimes arduous, given the different levels at which we work: policy studies, grassroots action, political campaigning, scientific research, journalism and so on. But the results were extremely fruitful: a deeper understanding of the issues, of each other and of our collective force. In the end, we consolidated some plans for immediate and longer-term action but we also consolidated our commitment to increase information exchange and cooperation, which is vital to our effectiveness as a network. Below we highlight the major agreements for action which arose out of our work:

The Gatersleben Appeal

Given the unbearable state of uncertainties about the future of the East German genebank (see the next article in this Seedling), we agreed to send a letter to the German authorities calling for urgent and responsible action. The statement, made on behalf of the participants of the Network Meeting, is a specific response to this major issue and it does not attempt to include all facets of NGO policies and views about the role of genebanks in genetic conservation. The Gatersleben appeal is reproduced on the following page.

European "Save Our Seeds" Emergency Fundraising Campaign

An urgent financial appeal to raise money to regenerate those European NGO genetic resources collections threatened by abandonment for lack of funds was endorsed by the Network Meeting. Several NGOs are on the verge of giving up their important collections of old or rare plant varieties because they simply have no way of getting support for growing out the seeds. To keep these resources from disappearing, cooperating NGOs will set up bank accounts at the national level and get articles into the press to call for contributions from the general public. A steering committee was set up to manage coordination of the income and its distribution to the threatened collections.

European Campaign on Herbicide Resistance

The Network Meeting participants agreed to prepare a coordinated campaign against the research and production of herbicide resistant plants in Europe. Herbicide tolerance is currently a major focus of agricultural biotechnology research and raises profound questions about: future levels and types of chemical use in agriculture; the research bias away from more sustainable farming practices; environmental regulations over biotechnology; and the increasing control of industry over the agricultural sector. The first phase will cover information-gathering on the research programmes, field tests, patent applications and regulatory schemes. GRAIN and the Pesticides Action Network (PAN) will act as clearinghouses for this information. The second stage, which will build upon the research results and develop into a broad public information and lobby campaign, will be elaborated at the forthcoming meeting of PAN Europe in March 1992, where a special workshop will be held on the matter.

Patenting Life

The debate over the proposed European Commission directive on patenting of biotechnological inventions is entering a critical phase and campaigning and lobbying must be stepped up. The European Parliament will most likely vote on the proposal in the autumn. It was agreed that the NGO position should continue to be that the draft directive must be rejected, not amended. We urgently need to put more pressure on our representative in the Parliament. Some of us will work together on a final document to be taken to Brussels in September when the Parliament resumes its debates again. We also agreed to upgrade our information exchange and campaign activities around the negotiations within the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and within the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

A European "Diversity Day"

To raise better awareness about genetic diversity and the food supply in Europe we endorsed the proposal for a Diversity Day in Brussels, to be held in the autumn of 1992. It will be a major media and lobby event to expose consumers, "Euro-crats", and the press to the real merits of traditional varieties and their value to the European food system. It will also be linked to the political momentum to get an EC programme and budget set up for the conservation of genetic resources.

Setting up a Mediterranean Network

High priority was accorded by the group to the development of an integrated Mediterranean Network on Genetic Resources. GEYSER, from southeast France, will organise a meeting in the spring of 1992 to get the main actors together from the formal and informal sectors to explore its possible structure and focus. The Network might be a platform for policy discussion and practical networking among those involved in the conservation and local use of genetic resources in the entire Mediterranean basin. In a long term framework, the Network should serve to strengthen NGO activities in the South of Europe and create a model dynamic for cooperation between Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. (See "From the Network" for more details.)

Developing Farmers ' Rights and promoting grassroots conservation activities in the South

A series of regional meetings will be organised with project agencies in Europe in 1991 and 1992 to assess and promote the role of grassroots organisations in genetic resource management in the South. These meetings will serve to create a more refined understanding of community level conservation and help project NGOs incorporate meaningful strategies for genetic resources work into development projects. This will be an important contribution to the development and implementation of Farmers ' Rights and should be linked to dialogue with the public agricultural research sector and development policy research. However, further elaboration of action plans on Farmers ' Rights and Breeders ' Obligations is required. A meeting to explore what is included within Breeders ' Obligations might be held during the coming year.

The Final Report of the Second European Network Meeting on Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, a 60-page document, is now available from GRAIN. The report contains: a summary of the national activity reports; the full discussion papers to the thematic workshops; an outline of our conclusions; and the participants list. All those who attended the Meeting will receive copies. For those who did not attend but would like a copy, please send your request along with a cheque for US$ 15 ($10 for NGOs) to the GRAIN office in Barcelona. [NO LONGER AVAILABLE]

Author: GRAIN