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New plant resource treaty could mean departure from some plant patenting

(Nov. 8, 2001 -- CropChoice opinion) -- The following is a Monsanto press release in which the biotechnology-chemical company brags about its plans to use traits from exotic and wild soybeans for commercial purposes. Of course, Monsanto likely would patent the resulting transgenic varieties. Or, maybe it wouldn't, especially if a new international treaty on plant resources disallows such a move. After reading the Monsanto missive, check out what the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has to say about this International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Monsanto develops new technology to enhance commercial soybeans technology could lead to improvements in other crops

October 31, 2001

ST. LOUIS-- A new technology developed by Monsanto researchers enables scientists to identify and utilize valuable genetic information from unadapted wild or exotic soybean varieties. Information from these varieties, which are otherwise unusable for modern farming or breeding, could lead to increased yield and other improvements in commercial soybean and other crops.

"Breeders around the world will now be able to benefit from exotic plant varieties as a source of genetic improvement for commercial soybean varieties because many of the traits can now be identified and applied," said Xavier Delannay, Director of Discovery for the Monsanto Molecular Breeding group.

"Monsanto examined thousands of genes from exotic varieties in order to develop this technology and to identify a set of molecular markers that could result in economic and environmental benefits for growers and consumers around the world," he said.

A higher yielding soybean could result in increased economic and environmental benefits, including increased production efficiency for farmers. New soybean varieties could lead to increased oil and protein production per acre of land farmed, as well as enhanced food security wherever soybeans are grown.

The potential introduction of these new benefits into soybeans reflects Monsanto's commitment to developing technologies that deliver environmental and commercial benefits to farmers. This commitment is a tenet of the New Monsanto Pledge, a description of the company's policies for products developed through biotechnology.

"At Monsanto we are committed to providing growers with improved technologies that make their farms more efficient, their crops more productive, and the environment better protected," said Delannay. "Our new technology aimed at improving the productivity of commercial soybeans should lead to new and enhanced products that benefit farmers throughout the world."

Monsanto is pursuing a patent for the technology only in the United States, but researchers throughout the world will be able to apply this technology to soybeans and other crops.

"It is our hope that this data will facilitate and encourage additional crop research," said Delannay. "These crops could include sorghum and millet, two foods a recent report by the United Nations singled out as being a priority for additional research in developing countries."

Monsanto acquired the genetic information for its invention from a public germplasm collection maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Monsanto believes using this data, which is accessible and used by researchers from around the world, demonstrates the value of genetic germplasm banks to help preserve genetic diversity and encourage the development of better crops.

"Discoveries of valuable traits like the increased yield markers identified by Monsanto prove the viability of germplasm banks and hopefully encourage continued support from governments, academia and industry to preserve those valuable resources," said Delannay.

And now we get the viewpoint of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy on the newest international treaty. CropChoice figures that Monsanto is getting a little squirrelly over the provision that protects a farmer's rights to save seed.

New international treaty calls for public access to seeds; challenges patent rights and WTO TRIPS agreement

Kristin Dawkins
(w) 612-870-3410 kdawkins@iatp.org

On Saturday, November 3, the world's newest international treaty was adopted in Rome by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) by a vote of 116-0 with two abstentions - the United States and Japan. The "International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture" establishes a multilateral system providing access to seeds and germplasm for much of the world's food supply, as well as fair and equitable sharing of the benefits. It also includes a provision on farmers' rights to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed.

Upon the conclusion of the negotiations, U.S. negotiators indicated the U.S. Senate was unlikely to ratify the new treaty, which will enter into force 90 days after 40 nations approve it under their domestic legal systems.

"This treaty represents a major step forward for farmers around the world by improving their access to seeds," said Kristin Dawkins, Vice President of International Programs at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "It is also a blow to the biotech industry, which may no longer patent the raw material of food crops in countries that sign on to the treaty."

The most contentious provision states that farmers, researchers and others using the system "shall not claim any intellectual property or other rights that limit the facilitated access to the plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, or their genetic parts or components, in the form received from the Multilateral System." Shortly before finalizing the new treaty, a U.S. proposal to delete this provision altogether lost by a vote of 97-10.

The U.S. delegation supported deleting this clause despite a letter dated November 1 from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle urging Barbara Tobias of the State Department "to do all that you and the U.S. delegation can to oppose any provision that limits farmers' rights" to the use of agricultural seed." Senator Daschle's letter concludes, "In sum, I believe, like many of my colleagues in the Congress, that agricultural research and resulting products of processes funded by and conducted in the public domain should remain in the public domain."

Another hotly debated paragraph relates the new treaty to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its "TRIPs" agreement on "Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights." Under international law, the terms of newer treaties normally trump those of older ones unless the new one specifically states otherwise. In this case, the preamble to the new genetic resources treaty says "nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as implying in any way a change in the rights and obligations of the Contracting Parties under other international agreements" and it "is not intended to create a hierarchy between this Treaty and other international agreements." Because this clause is in the preamble, however, some lawyers may argue it is not legally binding.

Ultimately, conflicts over attempts to patent seeds or genes received through the multilateral system may end up in the dispute settlement system of either the WTO or the genetic resources treaty or both. Under the new treaty, disputes that cannot be settled through negotiation, mediation or arbitration may be referred to the International Court of Justice.

Jacques Diouf, Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) responsible for the negotiations, was ebullient at the achievement of the genetic resources treaty. Founded in 1945, the FAO 's mandate is to raise levels of nutrition and standards of living, to improve agricultural productivity, and to better the condition of rural populations. Of the 10,000 species that have been used for human food and agriculture, just 12 provide over 70 percent of food, while four -- rice, maize, wheat and potatoes -- make up over 50 per cent of the food supply.

"Obviously," said Jose Esquinas-Alcazar, the FAO's secretary for these negotiations, "we are not taking full advantage of the available resources. In spite of their vital importance for human survival, genetic resources are being lost at an alarming rate due to the lack of incentives to continue developing and conserving them."

Non-governmental groups monitoring the negotiations in Rome welcomed this "historic" treaty while, at the same time, expressing grave reservations. Their November 3 statement, can be read at: http://www.ukabc.org/iu2.htm#e. "Despite these shortcomings," the statement continues, "only an international convention of this type can begin to address the deterioration in the flow of genetic resources." They urged speedy ratification, so the new Governing Body for the treaty can go to work on the next steps including implementation of Farmers' Rights, interpretation of the access and intellectual property rights clauses, and clarification of the integrity and autonomy of the treaty in relation with other agreements. The NGOs praised the Venezuelan chairman of the negotiations Fernando Gerbasi and FAO staff for steering the talks through twenty years of contention and recognized "most importantly, the unsung heroes of all genetic resource conservation and sustainable use - the farmers."

Editor's note: To read more about how this treaty might relate to others, see BRIDGES Weekly, 8 February 2000; http://www.ictsd.org/html/weekly/story4.08-02-00.htm.