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Monday, September 6, 1999 Published at 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK


Sci/Tech

Charity warns against GM seeds

ActionAid: Farmers could become dependent on seed firms

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Genetically-modified (GM) crops and the patents to protect them are a threat to millions of poor farmers, a prominent UK development charity says.

ActionAid believes that powerful firms are in a position to exploit workers in the developing world.

Food under the microscope
Its warning comes as leaders of the international seed industry meet in Cambridge at the start of the World Seed Conference.

The three-day meeting has been organised by the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA) and is being opened by the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown.

ActionAid says the conference will set the scene for confrontation between the developed north and the impoverished south.

Changes

The organisers clearly recognise the potential for disagreement.

"You are aware of the many changes under way in the seed sector, including those due to globalisation of the economy, development of new techniques, regulatory evolution, and the increasing impact of environmental concerns," a letter to delegates says.

"What were seen as merely technical issues now have a political dimension. Irrespective of technical merits, promising innovations can prompt suspicion."

ActionAid says farmers in the developing world have good reason to worry about the direction the industry is taking, because it holds the key to their food security.

Patent-chasing

"The seed market is now dominated by a few giant transnational corporations, all competing to take out patents which claim the right to own and exploit crops such as a variety of Basmati rice, grown for many years by third world farmers," the charity says.

"But these patents are just the beginning. For the agrochemical and seed industry, genetically engineered crops are a way to access the developing countries' market, where 80% of farmers now save their best seed every year to plant the following year's harvest."

ActionAid says having these farmers buying seed each year would bolster seed companies' profits, and it fears that aggressive marketing could force the farmers onto "an expensive treadmill of dependence on the firms' seeds and chemicals".

"This would mean increased costs and chemicals, but less biodiversity," it says.

ActionAid is urging conference delegates to listen to the developing world's concerns about the need to preserve biodiversity through sustainable agriculture.

Poor 'will lose out'

It is also urging the British Government to oppose the opening up of international patent laws to cover plant varieties.

Cindy Baxter, a campaigner with the charity, said: "It is clear that crop patents benefit big industry and not the poor farmer.

"The existence of patents allows a partnership between industry and scientific development which promises rich dividends at the expense of the poor."

Also involved with the conference are the International Seed Trade Federation (FIS), the International Association of Plant Breeders for the Protection of Plant Varieties (ASSINSEL), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV).



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