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Monday, 3 February, 2003, 08:53 GMT
EU backs poor farmers' seed use
Seed, AP
Saving seed is a traditional practice

The European Union is proposing two far-reaching curbs on the power of the biotechnology industry.

It says companies seeking patents should have to say where they found any natural product they are appropriating.

Sadly the genetic resources of one country or community are often treated as a public common good, owned by nobody, free for all, without property rights

Dr Klaus Toepfer, Unep
The EU also says poor farmers should be free to continue their traditional practice of saving and exchanging seeds, even ones already patented.

The proposals will be discussed by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

They are outlined by the EU trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy, in the magazine Our Planet, published by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep).

The governing council of Unep is meeting at its headquarters here from 3 to 7 February, and will be discussing ways to tackle poverty and environmental destruction by using poor countries' genetic resources to benefit them.

Traditional knowledge

The problem the EU is worried about is bio-piracy - the determination by some companies in developed countries to find and control natural resources or traditional knowledge simply for profit.

The 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) tries to make sure that the benefits are shared between the exploiters and the communities from which they take their resources.

But many countries think the CBD may be fatally damaged by the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (Trips), agreed in 1995.

Mr Lamy says: "Indigenous or local groups in developing countries are right to expect to benefit materially if their traditional knowledge is applied in ways that are shared via commercial initiatives and trade.

"The EU is working on ways of helping developing countries rich in traditional knowledge to identify it and prevent it being undervalued or abused."

Seed exchange

So the EU is contributing a paper to be discussed by the Trips council, exploring its relationship with the CBD.

Rice, Visnews
Aid groups have fought patenting of staple crops
Mr Lamy says: "The key proposal in the paper is a means of obliging applicants for patents who have used the fruits of bio-prospecting [taking knowledge from developing countries] for new products to disclose the geographical origin of any biological material used in biotech inventions.

"At present, there is no such obligation. The paper also supports the idea of providing better protection for traditional knowledge, and recognises the right of subsistence farmers in developing countries to re-use and exchange seeds, even those covered by intellectual property rights, via so-called farmers' exemptions.

"Larger-scale commercial farmers would stay subject to more stringent rules."

If the EU's proposals are accepted, they will mean poor farmers need no longer fear they will be forced to buy fresh seeds annually from bio-tech companies, instead of saving some from the previous crop.

'Common good'

Farmers fear they might have to buy new seeds each year if the ones sold by the companies had been patented and modified to make sure they produce only one harvest.

Acceptance of the proposals could mean traditional communities gaining real benefits from sharing their knowledge and resources.

Unep's executive director, Dr Klaus Toepfer, says in Our Planet the benefit-sharing which the CBD exists to promote "is all too often not working - or working too imperfectly.

"Sadly the genetic resources of one country or community are often treated as a public common good, owned by nobody, free for all, without property rights."

It looks likely that Unep will come out strongly in favour of the sort of approach Mr Lamy has outlined.

Whether the WTO will agree to do so is another story, though - and so is the willingness of some bio-prospectors to honour any agreement that may be reached.

See also:

29 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
16 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
28 Aug 99 | Americas
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