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INFORMATION ABOUT INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS No.3
Pirates of Diversity: The Global Threat to the Earth's Seeds
by Karen Lehman
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Each spring, seeds push through the furrowed earth like ships bearing the
cargo of millenia. What they carry within is both an antique and a promise,
the treasure trove of the earth's genetic diversity. Today, these awesome
vessels of power are threatened by a new form of piracy, one which can
destroy diversity itself in the blind rush to capture its fruits.
For centuries, seeds moved freely across the continents on the wind, in
birds' bellies, in traders' caravans, conquerors' pockets, and imigrants'
knapsacks. They were available to all, the sole property of none, the
common heritage of the planet earth.
The common misunderstanding about the world's seeds is that they were
naturally occurring. But behind every food crop seed there was a long line
of farmers who literally created them through a process the Mende people of
Sierra Leone call "hungoo," meaning innovation or invention. Just as the
yucca moth and the yucca cactus have evolved together, so have the world's
people and its grains.
Early on, the forerunners of agribusinesses transplanted bananas and
sugarcane from Asia and coffee from Africa to Latin America and produced
them in heavily policed plantations for export to European countries. The
French outlawed the export of indigo seed from Antigua and the Dutch
destroyed all of the nutmeg and clove trees in the Molucca Islands after
they had established their own plantations. By separating the seed from its
cultural root, the colonizers changed it forever from the living symbol of
a community's history into a commodity.
The United States is known as the breadbasket of the world-yet of the food
and industrial crops so abundantly harvested each fall, only one, the
sunflower, is native to this continent. All 15 U.S. food crops worth $1
billion or more depend on genetic material from other countries: corn,
potatoes, tomatoes and cotton from Latin America; rice and sugar cane from
Indochina; soybeans and oranges from China; wheat, barley, grapes and
apples from West Central Asia.
In the early 1960 s, the United States passed a law granting plant breeders
the rights to patent seeds, thus preventing others from selling the same
variety. Having made billions of dollars on seeds developed by farmers in
other lands, seed companies are now taking the final step to ensure a
neverending source of revenue. They are trying to force all countries to
recognize patents on seeds through a set of trade accords called the
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. If they succeed, farmers will be
forced to pay royalties to companies who hold patents on the genetic
material they or their ancestors helped to shape.
This new form of genetic piracy has an interesting name, "intellectual
property rights," which are defined as the rights to protection of
innovation. Intellectual property rights would only be recognized when they
generated profit, which occurs when a worker pulls a gene out of a seed in
a Boston laboratory, but not when a Mende farmer saves some seeds and
rejects others. Intellectual property rights are also only respected when
the innovation is capable of industrial application. Pioneer Hi-Bred can be
protected when it mass produces seed varieties, but the Indian farmer who
collects and saves seeds for next year's planting cannot.
This means that innovation that took place in communities over centuries,
or even inovation in plant varieties that takes place in the present in a
communal fashion, is not eligible for protection.As more power is
concentrated in the hands to the corporate gene manipulators, the genetic
diversity that has been tended by farmers in millions of fields around the
world is lost.
On October 2, 1993, 500,000 Indian farmers demonstrated against passage of
the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and vowed to protect their right
to produce and protect their own seeds. They created a charter of farmers'
rights, especially the right to conserve, reproduce, and modify seed and
plant material. They speak for the rest of the farmers of the world who
want to continue their partnership of hungoo with the vegetable kingdom.
Resistance to the piracy of the earth's diversity could ensure that for
future generations, seeds will continue to be the fruit of our common
heritage and not the exclusive property of the gene splicers.
This is a condensed version of an article originally published in The
Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre 20th Annual May Day Parade Commerative
Booklet, May 1994, Minneapolis, MN.
One in a series of info sheets on Intellectual Property Rights available
from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. For a complete listing
send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.