Conflict between developed and less developed countries on plant genetic resources

The following is an exerpt from ‘Intellectual Property in Global Governance: A Development Question’ by Chidi Oguamanam, published by Routledge, 2012.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is the UN specialized agency that “leads international efforts to defeat hunger”. Created in 1945, the same year as the UN, the FAO was critical in the international initiative to address post-war global hunger. The FAO’s functions span the provision of technical, scientific, educational, and research support with the aim of improving conservation of natural resources, global nutrition, food and agricultural practices, and the overall marketing and distribution of food and agricultural products. The FAO functions to influence national and international action toward “the adoption of international policies with respect to agricultural commodity arrangements”. Perhaps more importantly, the FAO is a putatively neutral forum where both less developed and developed nations interact and negotiate and debate policies pertaining to agriculture, food production and global hunger. In this regard, the FAO has been described as “a flashpoint of conflict between developed countries of the northern hemisphere and the developing countries of the southern hemisphere regarding appropriation, exploitation, and proper legal treatment of plant genetic resources”.

The conflict between developed and less developed countries on plant genetic resources is driven by a number of interrelated factors. The first is a shared concern over global genetic erosion and the depletion of agricultural plant genetic resources. In the past century, losses of varieties of several major crops are estimated at 80-90%… The second reason for the north-south conflict over plant genetic resources is the suspicion of the underlying motives of industrialized countries for establishing ex situ gene banks for the conservation of the world’s priciest genetic resources, most of which were from the global south, under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

In regard to the suspicion surrounding CGIAR, there is continued skepticism in less developed countries over the role of the World Bank as CGIAR’s chief sponsor and in regard to the unresolved issue of intellectual property arising from dealings in genetic materials in CGIAR and in other public gene banks. Also, there is an impression in some quarters that CGIAR and other public gene banks were perspicaciously set up by industrialized countries not necessarily as a conservation strategy but as a way to ensure control and a continued flow of the south’s genetic resources to the north, which could not be guaranteed in the postcolonial era… with the decline of the empire system governments lacked the military presence and legal authority to compel [the new] sovereign nations to yield valuable genetic resources. After all, under the colonial arrangement, the funneling of genetic resources was a brazen and, some would argue, “legitimate” activity given that colonial outposts of the south were practical extensions of empire. Under this theory, the formal end of colonialism necessitated the creation of a platform for legitimate funneling of less developed countries’ genetic resources by hitherto colonial interests.

Taking advantage of prevailing intellectual property regimes… seed breeding and allied agro-tech corporations in the North… continued to exploit publicly held plant genetic resources as well as those in CGIAR ex situ seed banks, obtaining intellectual property rights. They are able to effectively exclude natural and original suppliers of those plant genetic resources from benefiting from the resulting innovation… in the supplying communities, there was virtually no mechanism for protecting farmers’ valuable knowledge or for rewarding their contributions in the generation of important plant genetic resources which are the mainstay of modern entrepreneurial agricultural biotechnology.

– Exerpted from ‘Intellectual Property in Global Governance: A Development Question’ by Chidi Oguamanam, published by Routledge, 2012.