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The future control of food

Edited by Tansey & Rajotte
Published by Earthscan
Website: www.earthscan.co.uk
2008, 266pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 429 7 Pb, £19.99

We may live in the Information Age, but who really knows about the complex and far-reaching rules that govern the global food system? The often confusing, murky world of intellectual property (IP) rights - for example, patents, plant breeders' rights, trademarks and copyrights - are all, according to Geoff Tansey and Tasmin Rajotte, legal symbols of control. When combined with myriad international regulations that enforce them, IP represents a formidable obstacle to future food security.

In his introduction, Tansey is not the first, and certainly won't be the last, to observe that the coexistence of 850million undernourished people in some parts of the world with an obesity epidemic afflicting 1billion people in others is indicative of something intrinsically wrong with our food production and distribution systems. But he is one of the few to argue with clarity and conviction the role of IP in this systemic contradiction and failure.

The debate over IP is, accordingly, fierce. Proponents argue that IP provides the necessary incentives, rewards and security for investments in research and development. Others, like Tansey, believe it "creates scarcity where there need be none," and that it would be a "more accurate reflection of reality if we stopped using the term 'intellectual property rights' and instead talked of 'business monopoly (or exclusionary) privileges'."

Take a humble slice of bread. If you eat it, you deprive someone else of the chance to do the same. But sharing the knowledge of how to make bread does not necessarily reduce the amount of bread available to you. Dissemination of knowledge, in the widest possible terms, Tansey contends, is therefore a good way of sharing the benefits of that knowledge. But the prevalence of IP in food production and distribution can obstruct this process, by "transforming knowledge from a shared public good into a private good."

This kind of analogy is indicative of the editors' approach to what is potentially a rather languid subject; they help bring the debate to life and make the nuts-and-bolts of the arguments clear and accessible to all.

Divided into three parts, with contributions from many experts in the field, The Future Control of Food is a comprehensive guide to the international negotiations and rules on IP and the implications for biodiversity and food security. It covers the history, promotion and proliferation of IP, its impact on the sustainability of the global agricultural system, and the responses from civil society to the creeping tide of IP.

The target audience is - in an unpatented nutshell - everyone: the general public, researchers, academics, farmers, corporations and decision-makers worldwide. And Tansey makes the reasons for this wide appeal abundantly clear, since "we are, but should not be, playing a high stakes poker game with the sustainability of agriculture upon which all our lives - directly and indirectly - depend."

Date published: March 2008


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