February 17, 1998
Moratorium on Patenting Seeds
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research
(CGIAR) has called for a moratorium on intellectual property
claims on seeds held in trust in the collections of CGIAR
agricultural research centers around the world. The CGIAR
holds the world's largest international ex situ* collection
of plant genetic resources -- more than 500,000 accessions
that are vital for crop improvement worldwide.
The seeds in question are plant genetic resources held "in
trust for the benefit of the international community, in
particular developing countries," and subject to conditions
contained in agreements signed by the Centers and the UN Food
and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1994. These agreements
specify that neither the CGIAR Centers nor recipients of
designated germplasm will seek any intellectual property
rights (such as patents) over that germplasm or related
information. Designated germplasm includes farmers' varieties
and landraces, obsolete varieties, modern varieties, advanced
lines, genetic stocks and wild species. In announcing the
call for the moratorium, CGIAR Chairman Dr. Ismail Serageldin
reiterated the CGIAR's "strong and unequivocal support" for
the 1994 agreements, which seek to guarantee that access to
these resources will not be restricted.
Recently, research by the Rural Advancement Foundation
International (RAFI) revealed that a small number of
organizations have sought intellectual property rights on
materials obtained directly from CGIAR Centers. The biopiracy
scandal first broke in early January 1997, when RAFI
announced that two Western Australian research institutes
were improperly claiming monopoly rights on two chickpea
varieties obtained from ICRISAT (International Crops Research
Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Hyderabad, India. One
of the two varieties challenged was part of ICRISAT's
germplasm trust agreement with FAO. While this particular
problem resolved itself quickly when ICRISAT demanded that
the claims be dropped -- and the Australians hastily complied
-- RAFI's researchers then reported another two dozen similar
claims by Australian breeders on varieties held in trust by
CGIAR centers in Colombia and Syria. As the Syrian center and
the Australians scrambled to justify the claims, RAFI and the
Australian Heritage Seed Curators Association revealed at the
beginning of this month that at least 47 plant varieties
under Plant Breeder's Rights claim in Australia had been
taken from other countries.
"RAFI warmly supports the moratorium idea," Pat Mooney,
RAFI's Executive Director, states. "Not only will it bring an
immediate halt to 'patent' rip-offs, but it also sends a very
sharp message to national patent offices that there are
fundamental problems with the way industrialized countries
are managing their intellectual property."
According to the Australian Heritage Seed Curators
Association, the Australian Plant Breeder's Rights Office had
no authority to grant certificates for plant varieties that
clearly had not been bred by the Australian applicants. In
many cases, the varieties were bred by Third World farmers.
In other cases, the varieties were just pulled from the
ground in the Mediterranean region, and claimed in Australia.
CGIAR Chairman Dr. Serageldin called upon all recipients of
designated material to honor the spirit of the agreements
with FAO and to refrain from applying for intellectual
property rights. "We are grateful to RAFI for bringing to our
attention reports that some organizations are claiming rights
to designated germplasm from CGIAR Centers," he said.
CGIAR is sponsored by the FAO, UN Development Programme, UN
Environment Programme and World Bank. Members include
developed and developing countries, private foundations and
international and regional organizations.
RAFI is a non-profit international civil society organization
headquartered in Canada. For more than twenty years, RAFI has
worked on the social and economic impact of new technologies
as they impact rural societies.
* Ex situ conservation refers to maintaining organisms
outside their original habitats in facilities such as
genebanks, field genebanks or botanical gardens.
Sources: RAFI News Release, February 9, 1998. CGIAR Press
Release, February 11, 1998.
Contact: RAFI, 110 Osborne St., Suite 202, Winnipeg MB R3L
1Y5 Canada; phone (204) 453-5259; fax (204) 925-8034; email
CGIAR Secretariat, 1818 H Street NW, Washington DC 20433;
phone (202) 473-8951; fax (202) 473-8110; email
CGIAR@cgnet.com or CGIAR@worldbank.org
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