The ongoing attempts to strengthen intellectual property protection regimes through the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, are choking knowledge transfers from the industrialised world to developing countries. And with private companies seeking control and monopoly over genes and cell lines, the world is fast moving towards scientific apartheid against the Third World
PIPRA: An attempt to hoodwink the Third World
The ongoing attempts to strengthen intellectual property protection regimes through the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (trips) agreement, are choking knowledge transfers from the industrialised world to developing countries. And with private companies seeking control and monopoly over genes and cell lines, the world is fast moving towards scientific apartheid against the Third World.
Amidst these developments has come the Public Sector Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (pipra) -- an initiative floated by some us-based scientific institutions with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the McKnight Foundation. Its stated objective is "to explore the feasibility of assembling key complementary agricultural technologies that might help public sector research." Actually, pipra is an attempt to provide a human face to the inequity perpetrated by the trips agreement. In no way is it concerned with minimising threats, posed by biotechnology patents, to research in the developing world. It also not bothered about complaints from the Third World about rampant biopiracy in American universities and research institutes.
Let us consider a few recent examples. In May 2003, the European Patent Office (epo) upheld a controversial patent granted to Agracetus, then a subsidiary of the us-based transnational, W R Gray. Agracetus was subsequently bought by Monsanto. The multinational thus acquired exclusive control over all genetically modified varieties of soyabean. The patent also covers all other plants that use the same technology for crop improvement.
Such broad patents are grave impediments to developing country scientists in accessing new crop technologies. The Rockefeller Foundation, which supports pipra, has never challenged such absurd patents and for obvious reasons. The international scientific community has also maintained a studied silence over such unscientific patents.
A few weeks after it secured the soyabean patent, Monsanto was awarded another patent by the epo: ep 445 929. This gave it monopoly rights over inherent traits of an Indian wheat variety: Nap Hal. All that Monsanto had done was to cross Nap-Hal with another wheat variety to develop 'an improved variety' that has 'special baking qualities.' The patent covers biscuits and dough produced from this wheat, as well as the plant itself. It extends to the European Union, Japan, Canada and Australia.
That the Nap Hal germplasm was procured from a uk-based gene bank raises questions about the relevance of laws regarding equitable access to knowledge. Monsanto has simply used existing traditional knowledge to breed an improved variety, thereby blocking any further development and commercial application of the Indian wheat landrace. Although, India's sui generis legislation -- the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001 -- recognises rights of farmers and communities over plant varieties, it is helpless when a patent is granted outside the country. National systems cannot by themselves protect traditional knowledge. Will pipra ever talk of raising concerns that can bring true benefits to developing countries?
The initiative comes when scientists and scientific institutions in developing countries are beginning to argue that the trips agreement will end up rendering them jobless. pipra is an attempt to convince them that all is not lost. A similar initiative -- International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application (isaa) -- was launched some years back. Its professed objectives were remarkably lofty: contributing towards poverty alleviation in the Third World, increasing the crop productivity of small farmers there and promoting sustainable development. Nothing like this has happened; isaa has become a mouthpiece of the biotechnology industry. pipra is a similar attempt to hoodwink the scientific community in the developing world.
The future of science and technology in developing countries is not linked to such efforts. What the Third World needs is a system that allows free sharing of knowledge (much of it comes from the Third World anyway). Also, scientists will have to take a sincere look at the time-tested technologies of small and marginal farmers and work at improving them.
Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst
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