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Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property (IP) stimulates defensive arguments from both sides of the fence. On one side, the research community maintain that it is very necessary to stimulate scientific enterprise and innovation and to ensure that new ideas are constantly coming forward to the long term benefit of all. The other camp is those who object to money-making organisations holding the 'key' - in the form of a patent - to food crops when there is so much hunger in the world. They fear the day when smallholder farmers will be sued by multinational corporations, for simply saving seed, a practice which was previously encouraged, but which now breaks patent law if the seed was originally bought from one of these multinational biotechnology giants. Here we encapsulate the Points of View of some of those who defend or reject IP in agriculture.

Giving power to the powerful?

It is estimated that there are already over 900 patents on the five crops that amount to over three-quarters of the world food supply, with only four transnational companies holding over half of this number. Almost all of these patents are controlled by industrialised countries... TRIPS continues to intensify the monopolisation of knowledge and increase the differences between the rich and poor because it favours the interests of large companies at the expense of the public interest. While millions of people are excluded their basic rights to health, food and education, knowledge is increasingly privatised, directed toward corporate interests and designed for the rich consumer market.
Oxfam in Make Trade Fair in the Americas

Many opponents of patenting on lifeforms see this as an inappropriate extension of private ownership rights to resources that should be or were previously held in common... Patent law represents the balance that society has struck between the principle of rewarding inventiveness in a competitive commercial culture and the principle of knowledge gained from research being freely available. However as a result of increasing privatisation, scientific research seems to be shifting away from its traditional values of openness and discussion towards confidentiality and secrecy. As a result, there are concerns that with the growing power of the corporate sector, the extension of patents to lifeforms will tip an already unequal balance and strengthen the power of corporate interests while further marginalising questions of human welfare and social justice.
Geoff Tansey, Quaker Peace & Service, London, Trade, Intellectual Property, Food and Biodiversity - a discussion paper

[Patents and plant variety protection systems] represent a balance between the public interest and the private interest of the holder.
Bill Whitmore, Commissioner of Plant Variety Rights, New Zealand and author of Intellectual Property Rights and Plant Variety Protection in Relation to Demands of the World Trade Organization and Farmers in Asia and the Pacific

Supporting or inhibiting innovation...

Syngenta believes that patents are vital to encourage innovation and openness in scientific research.
Syngenta website

Intellectual property rights play an important role in the area of genetic resources and agriculture as a stimulus to research and innovation.
Clare Short (ex secretary of state for international development in the UK) and Patricia Hewitt (UK's secretary of state for trade and industry), in "Integrating Intellectual Property Rights and Development Policy"

For most of this century, plant diversity has been treated as the 'common heritage' of humankind, freely available to anyone who can collect it and use it, with proprietary ownership only granted, via patent or variety protection law, to individuals who demonstrate that they possess trade secrets about a plant or have uniquely improved a cultivated variety. Without the principle of common heritage, it is unlikely that agricultural research programmes could have realised the genetic improvements - and thus the astounding productivity gains - in wheat, rice, and other staple crops this century.
John Tuxill, author of Nature's Cornucopia: Our stake in Plant Diversity

Contrary to corporate propaganda, there is no positive correlation between the availability of IPR protection and the scope of research and development across countries. The Chinese have been the most advanced breeders in rice without PVP. In the US, only two crops were affected by PVP in terms of increased breeding programmes.
GRAIN and Gaia authors of Global Trade and Biodiversity in Conflict, Issue 2

...in developing countries?

There is much less evidence from developing countries indicating that IPR systems are a key stimulus for innovation. Indeed, for most developing countries with weak technological capacity, the evidence on trade, foreign investment and growth suggests IP protection will have little impact. Nor is it likely that the benefits of IP protection will outweigh the costs in the foreseeable future.
UK Government Commission on Intellectual Property Rights report

This concern about current developing-country access to essential intellectual property is exaggerated and largely misdirected. The relationship between IPRs and agricultural research in developing countries is poorly understood. International and national agricultural research centres currently have far greater freedom to operate-the ability to practice or use an innovation-in agricultural research on food crops for the developing world than is commonly perceived.
Philip G. Pardey, Brian D. Wright, Carol Nottenburg, Eran Binenbaum, and Patricia Zambrano, authors of Intellectual property and developing countries: freedom to operate in agricultural biotechnology, 2003, in Biotechnology and Genetic Resource Policies Brief 3, IFPRI

Bad news for farmers?

Legal protection of IPR based on patents is much too restrictive as it gives the holder the right to prevent anyone from using his invention for any purpose, including research and reproduction unless royalties are paid. Farmers who use patented seeds do not therefore have the right to keep a part of their harvest for replanting during the next season unless they pay a fee. They cannot even cross a patented plant with another plant in order to improve it.
Robert Ali Brac de la Perriere and Franck Seuret authors of Brave New Seeds, published by Zed Books

Farmers in developing countries have evolved complex, cheap and effective systems to save, exchange and use seeds from one harvest to the next. Patented GM seeds threaten to erode these rights and practices, to displace or contaminate seed supplies, and to increase farmers' dependence on private monopolized agricultural resources.
Liz Orton, Action Aid, in the report "Going against the grain", May 2003

The use of patents threatens to restrict the ability of small producers to conserve, use and sell seeds, which would seriously impact on their means of survival.
Oxfam, in Make Trade Fair in the Americas

By providing an incentive to breeders, plant variety protection encourages investment and effort into plant breeding within the country. It also opens that country's door to overseas varieties which would not be released by their breeders without the protection of the law. New varieties of plants giving a higher yield or providing resistance to plant pests, diseases, etc are an essential factor in increasing productivity and product quality in agriculture, horticulture and forestry. As a consequence the benefits of plant variety protection go not only to breeders, but flow on to farmers, horticultural producers and home gardeners and to the national economy generally.
Bill Whitmore, Commissioner of Plant Variety Rights, New Zealand and author of Intellectual Property Rights and Plant Variety Protection in Relation to Demands of the World Trade Organization and Farmers in Asia and the Pacific

And for welfare?

Theory is of limited value in predicting the welfare effects of IPR as there is no clear presumption stronger rights will always be welfare-enhancing (Winter, 1989). The analysis becomes particularly complex, and the results ambiguous, when country size is considered. For example, for small countries (those whose R&D expenditures do not affect world levels) stronger IPR increase welfare when enhancing access to products not otherwise available. Too strong protection in countries with limited R&D capacity, protection which reduces local production of 'pirate' products, would reduce welfare due to higher prices and job loss. But if the small country has both production and innovation capacity, welfare results are indeterminate. Analysis of effects on large countries must further consider the general equilibrium effects of R&D spending. In general, determinate results are possible only on a country-by-country basis and then when strong assumptions are made.
W. Lesser, Cornell University author of The Effects of TRIPS-Mandated Intellectual Property Rights on Economic Activities in Developing Countries

IPR in the Future?

If the private companies could relax their restrictions just a little, creating more general openness to the further development and use of genetic modification, they could be persuaded that the patents system is too sweeping in its protection of their rights in developing countries...Another requirement, is for multinationals to acknowledge that they can get by with less than patenting and can cover themselves with the solid guarantees of the PVP system, which has up to now ensured excellent profits for the seed producers.
Per Pinstrup-Anderson and Ebbe Schioler, authors of Seeds of Contention published by the Johns Hopkins University Press

If we must extend intellectual property rights to living organisms, then we need a legal form designed specifically for them. Such a system might resemble the current plant variety protection system, although it too suffers from an insistence on distinctness, uniformity, and homogeneity, which are qualities that may be of little value outside the legal arena. A better system would focus on agronomic characteristics, food quality, and nutritional value, and permit the unrestricted use of protected material in research.
Lawrence Busch, Professor of Sociology at Michigan Sate University, USA; see Eight Reasons Why Patents Should Not Be Extended to Plants and Animals

Intellectual property rules must remain outside of the FTAA and other bilateral and regional trade agreements, since they will only result in maintaining the interests of pharmaceutical and agribusinesses to the detriment of public health objectives and the right of developing countries to guarantee food security and protect biodiversity.
Oxfam, in Make Trade Fair in the Americas

Date published: January 2004

 

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