by GRAIN | 25 Oct 1991


In a move intended to facilitate access to increasingly privatised biotechnologies, the Green Revolution Institutes are now contemplating not "whether" but "how best" to start claiming intellectual property rights over seeds collected from farmers ' fields throughout the Third World. GRAIN and many other NGOs and scientists are deeply disturbed by the proposals and urge Seedling readers to present their concerns to the relevant centres.


The Green Revolution Institutes which brought us the "miracle crops" of the 1960s have built their "successes" on for free access to genetic material. For the last three decades they have been collecting, conserving and utilizing genetic resources developed and handed over to them by Third World farmers for free. In turn the new varieties developed by the Centres were made freely available. But now the IARCs want to get hold of the new biotechnologies being developed in the laboratories of the North. These are anything but freely available. The IARCs figure they need to take out patent rights over their own creations, in order to be in a better position to do deals with the companies and universities over biotechnologies. The Centres are so intent on the seizing the "holy grail" of biotechnology, that they are willing to abandon the principles by which they have operated for thirty years. Yet biotechnology offers uncertain benefits. The new technologies may provide specific tools to help overcome some of the technical problems facing agriculture and plant breeding, but real benefits to farmers will only result if the research is relevant to their needs.

The patenting proposal comes at a crucial time for the IARCs. Their centralized approach to agricultural development has come under increasing criticism from those working at the grassroots level who point out the negative effects of the Green Revolution: genetic erosion of the world's major food crops, increased poverty among small farmers, pesticide poisoning, indebtedness and environmental degradation. While some IARC scientists and policy makers are beginning to respond to calls for a more farmer-centred approach, the patenting proposals are more likely to drag the IARCs towards the needs of industry and large markets.

Proposals to patent

Leaders of the IARCs are meeting in Washington this month (October) and will discuss proposals on patenting drawn up at one of their Centres. Last year, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) convened a workshop to look into the whole question of how to deal with intellectual property at the IARCs. The meeting, held in secrecy typical of the IARC system, brought together two main parties: IARC administrators on the one hand, and public and private sector representatives from the industrialised countries on the other. Fourteen people outside of ICRISAT attended, including key IPR zealots like John Duesing of Ciba-Geigy and Josef Straus of the Max Planck Institute. Draped in the report of the meeting is a model proposal on how to develop patenting practices at the IARCs. Since then, the broad thrust of the proposals has been backed by the IARC's Technical Advisory Committee (TAC).

What is probably most striking is that this is the first time we see a proposal to introduce the patenting system without pretending that its purpose is to stimulate innovation. In fact, the ICRISAT documents clearly state that patenting at the IARCs would both introduce delays in publication of scientific research results while patents are being filed or licenses pre-arranged, and de-motivate individual scientists who would have to waiver all their rights over discoveries or inventions made on the IARC payroll to their employer. The ICRISAT documents stress that this de-motivation will have to be compensated for through "special staff incentives". So, now if innovation is not the point, what is?

The assumption is that the IARCs now have to adopt a policy on IPRs because without it they cannot work with "the advanced laboratories" of the universities and corporations in the industrialised countries. Currently, when their scientists go to the US, Australia or Europe to participate in joint research projects, they are asked to waiver their rights to any invention or discovery arising from their work to that university. ICRISAT's proposed solution is to protect the research and genetic materials within the IARC system with their own intellectual property rights.

The group justifies this emphasis on biotechnology by arguing that because private sector research in the developed countries focuses on "commercially important uses", it leaves the IARCs an important role to play in developing biotechnology for Third World agriculture. The IARCs are also worried that if they do not have a stake in the intellectual property rights taken out on new technologies and products, their transfer to the South will be impeded. The IARCs claim that IPRs taken out by them will facilitate transfer of technology to the national programmes of the South.

Another reason to introduce patents is to raise income, but the ICRISAT proposal repeatedly stresses that this should only be considered a secondary purpose of taking out intellectual property. The main reason for them downplaying it is simple. Using public funds to raise private profits will probably cause the donors to deduct royalty gains from their contributions. And as the ICRISAT workshop well admitted, patenting often costs more money than it brings in. However, it is not dismissed, and they claim that the developing countries will somehow get a share of the benefits.

There is one other reason why the IARCs want patents. They claim that it would prevent piracy of scientific innovation. But rapid publication of research results has proved to be a highly effective way of avoiding this problem and it is difficult to see any good reason to change it.

Appropriate biotechnology?

If the main reason for the patenting proposal is to get hold of biotechnology, it is worth examining what benefits may result for farmers. The possible shape of things to come through increased links between the IARCs and transnational companies (TNCs) is illustrated by the following case from the International Potato Centre (CIP) in Peru. Richard Sawyer, former Director-General of CIP has pointed out: "With the rapid growth of fast-food industry into the developing world, major food processors need local potato varieties that will grow well and provide the accepted standard of processed quality in warm tropical areas. (...) Through a collaborative arrangement with some major food processors, we are helping to develop potential varieties that will grow well in the warm tropics and meet rigid quality standards of the fast-food industry." In other words: the priority is tailoring for the needs of MacDonald 's, not for the agronomic and nutritional requirements of farmers.

Sawyer continued with another example of IARC-industry collaboration at his Centre. CIP has identified biological control mechanisms for root knot nematodes which threaten potato production. Traditionally, the IARCs would immediately disseminate such research results to national research programmes in developing countries for further adaptation and improvement. However, according to Sawyer, "We are not in the business of producing, packaging, and marketing such products. We are in the business of making sure that such products are made available by the private sector (...). Thus, we have a collaborative arrangement with a multinational who is exploring the potential of marketing some of these products (...)." This implies a major shift in policy of IARCs. National research programmes no longer seem to be the main concern, as private industry moves in as a new client for their activities.

The legal mess

It is highly questionable that IPRs will facilitate the transfer of technology. In fact they are more likely to do the opposite. Only few countries, mostly developed ones, presently allow the patenting of life forms, and although developing countries are being arm-twisted to do likewise -- through pressure in the world trade talks as well as through trade sanctions -- the issue is far from settled. Even if the Third World countries acquiesce to introduce patent systems, they are likely to hold out against extending them to such vital products as pharmaceuticals and life forms. But the IARCs proposal is based firmly on the prediction that the developing countries will allow patents on life. By jumping the gun in this way they are not only undermining the free access position they have defended up until now, they are likely to land themselves in a legalistic quagmire.

A patent is a national right subject to national jurisdiction. If an IARC wants to take out a patent on its own research results, whose IPR laws would apply? Those of the donor country which financed the research? Those of the host country where the research was carried out? Most Third World countries ' patent laws do not apply to plants, animals, drugs or food products -- to keep these sectors clear of monopolies. There will be costs involved in filing for patents in each and every country which has the appropriate legislation. Added to this will be delays and costs in issuing licences for use of patented products to developing countries. And although the IARCs proposal intends to make the materials available free to those developing countries with which the institute has an agreement, choices will be made and priorities established. Some will win, some will lose. This will introduce major discrepancies among national programmes and exacerbate disparities among "clients". Worse, licensing out patented technologies could be used as a tool for access to national programmes which restrict germplasm exchange. Say a country starts putting conditions on having its germplasm collected by international expeditions. What is easier for an IARC to do than to use their exclusive control on a technology which that country wants, in order to gain unconditional access to its territory? A fair deal or manipulation?

Whose genetic resources?

Patents will be taken out on genes as well as technologies and finished varieties. The IARCs are very explicit about this as the TAC states: "An important implication of this trend towards the protection of intellectual property is the possibility it provides for securing protection of genes identified in the germplasm held in trust by the Centres". The bargaining power of the IARCs against the privatisation of the biotechnologies they want lie in the genes they have amassed from farmers ' fields, village markets and communal forests throughout the Third World -- and which the IARCs hold "in trust" on behalf of the international community. In a world where the exchange of genetic resources is increasingly restricted, this could well form the main bargaining chip to win access to biotechnology. But who are the IARCs to call that material theirs? Farmers, especially in the developing countries, have been conserving, adapting and improving seeds since agriculture began. Their seeds embody a long history of breeding efforts. When collected and stored by scientists and used for further breeding, to whom do they belong?

For over a decade now, a global battle has been raging at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on who owns and controls germplasm and how to best conserve it. This has resulted in a formal and explicit agreement that the rights of farmers arising from their contribution to germplasm management goes unrecognised. In the very midst of this discussion, the IARCs are single-handedly claiming monopoly rights over these freely collected resources. Yet the IARCs have no legitimacy to claim control over these genetic resources at all. The Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), which groups together the 17 IARCs, operates with no formal charter, legal identity or guidelines. Independent of the United Nations, its "legitimacy" solely from the narrow interests of its membership which is dominated heavily by a handful of rich donor countries. As such, the Consultative Group is not accountable to the public, and certainly not to the farmers it professes to serve. Failing to take these issues into account will certainly backfire on their own research efforts, as frustrated Third World farmers, scientists, NGOs and governments are likely to react by limiting access to the germplasm under their control and refusing to cooperate.

Monopoly rights or Farmers ' Rights?

GRAIN shares the profound concerns of those who are worried about the new course of international research that the proposal embodies. Apart from the numerous legalistic problems there is also the risk of aborting the restructuring process which is so desperately needed.

The proposal to patent comes at a time when the Centres are beginning to react to public pressure to re-orientate their proposals. The IARCs are the first to admit that the world will not see "miracle rices" any longer. The original leaps in grain output in the 1960s and early 1970s were achieved by two strategies: reducing plant height, so that more energy is devoted to fruit development, and employing chemical fertilisers and irrigation. By the early 1980s, improved yields could only be further achieved through expanding surface area under optimum production conditions. However, this logic has now reached its plateau. Centralised research systems, by definition, cannot serve the myriad complexities of marginal areas and the extreme heterogeneity that characterises their soil structures, micro-climates, etc. This is exacerbated by the fact that most of the IARCs are "commodity-oriented" with a mandate to serve a very limited range of crops.

This has led to the beginnings of a discussion within the system on how to re-orient research and better integrate farmers in the research process and recognise their critical role in innovation in farming systems. A three-year long dialogue process led under the auspices of the US-based Keystone Centre which brought together representatives from international agricultural research, industry, governments and NGOs, concluded that the "informal sector" should be taken much more seriously into account regarding genetic resources activities. This very encouraging and desperately necessary "perestroika" at the IARCs runs the risk of being aborted at its very inception, if the IARCs decide to go ahead with claiming intellectual property rights on the genetic resources and research results of the Centres. In this framework, the introduction of patenting systems to strengthen collusion with a corporate sector dominated by big-market profits will do little to abate public concern on these issues.

There are alternatives to patenting. If the point is to protect the "intellectual integrity" of IARC scientists working with patent-hungry universities and firms, then they should establish a system of IPR-immunity for the IARCs. If the point is to accelerate transfer of biotechnology, then they should participate in public negotiations through the UN system having asked first what type of biotechnology is needed by Third World farmers in the first place. If the point is to prevent piracy of IARC innovations, then they should publish like mad! And if the purpose is to generate income, then they should talk to the donors first.

Monopoly rights will not help foster appropriate agricultural research nor promote innovation. They will restrict information and germplasm exchange, as we have seen in too many countries already. If any rights are in dire need of recognition and strengthening, it is the rights of farmers. Farmers ' rights should be first and foremost the right to innovate and to control local genetic resources for community development. Related to the IARCs, national programmes and all forms of development cooperation, that means that farmers are the starting point of research, can set the priorities, can evaluate the results and can be empowered through the process.

The 1990s are opening up the challenge to truly restructure international research and open it up to global control, participation, representation and oversight. The IARCs have the choice. Either to unilaterally proclaim intellectual property rights over technologies developed on the backs of the Third World farmers and the genetic resources they have developed and donated, or to recognise, develop and protect the rights of those farmers to have a stronger role in the system. The two options are not compatible.

This article analyses the proposals in: "Managing Intellectual Property Rights at the International Agricultural Research Centres", Summary Report of a Workshop on Consequences of Intellectual Property Rights for the International Agricultural Research Centres, held at ICRISAT Centre, 19-21 November 1990, published for the IARCs by ICRISAT, Patancheru, India, 1991, pp18; and in "Towards a CGIAR Policy on IPRs" (AGR/TAC/:iar/91/17).

Author: GRAIN