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Patent debate
Patrick Mulvany and Professor Vivian Moses disagree on intellectual property rights
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Monday, 25 June, 2001, 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK
World food 'under threat'
Field BBC
Food security depends on relatively few crops
Environmental groups said on Monday that patenting by multinational corporations threatened food security and access by farmers to vital genetic resources.

And they argued US efforts to block a new worldwide treaty on plant genetics would be every bit as damaging to life on Earth as Washington's refusal to implement the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

The criticisms were made in Rome where representatives from 160 governments are trying to get a binding global agreement that will govern the use of crop seed varieties and genetic resources.

The number of crop varieties grown by farmers has plummeted by more than 75% over the past 100 years, as super strains have come to dominate the global market.

WTO rules

This has increased the vulnerability of modern crops to major outbreaks of pests and diseases, which in turn has made the genetic diversity offered by older breeds highly valuable.

A meeting of the Commission for Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, part of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), is discussing a proposal to safeguard this gene pool for the future, by making seeds in seed banks available to all who need them.

The proposed treaty would give credit to peasant farmers who developed the crops in the first place and force firms using genetic material from the seed banks to pay a levy to promote crop diversity in developing countries.

Most nations support the treaty, but the US is voicing strong opposition, along with Canada and Australia. Opponents believe there should be no restrictions on the "right" to patent genetic resources and that, in any case, this whole area should come under the World Trade Organisation and not the UN.

Patent progress

Patrick Mulvany, who advises the charity the Intermediate Technology Development Group, said: "This treaty will safeguard the materials that underpin food security.

"There are about 100 crops that provide this security and what we believe - environment and development organisations and farmers' organisations - is that there are a few countries that want to undermine this treaty that would keep these crops free from intellectual property rights and in the public domain for perpetuity."

Professor Vivian Moses, who chairs the UK probiotech group CropGen, said the environmentalists had once again overstated their case.

"One ought to recognise that patents are a very important way of making progress and patents can only be applied to novelties, to new products which are new inventions which are useful and are workable.

"And remember that you have to disclose any information about a new patent - so any advantage that you may have had by keeping the information secret is lost when you patent. Anyone else can then use that information for their own developments that may outflank your patent."

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