Jargon-Busters Cut Through Thicket Around Food

A new book helps make sense of the complexities and controversies surrounding agriculture-related intellectual property rights.

By Kelly Haggart

A new book helps make sense of the complexities and controversies surrounding agriculture-related intellectual property rights.

The acronym TRIPS does trip off the tongue, but try pronouncing ITPGRFA. And although UPOV, WIPO, and CBD may be easier to say, what do any of these mean?

Intellectual property rights have expanded in recent years into agriculture, with companies now able to patent genetically modified plants and animals at the heart of the global food system. However, the complexity of the international rule-making, with negotiations proceeding in a bewildering number of forums, makes it difficult for weaker players such as smaller developing countries and farmers’ groups to take part.

“There’s an enormous democratic deficit in creating the global rules,” says British author and agriculturalist Geoff Tansey. As the acronyms and actors multiply, the resulting confusion is used against the people and the countries most adversely affected by the changes, allowing a few vested interests to dominate the rule-making, he says.

One method powerful countries and interests employ is “forum shopping.” Unable to get the level of intellectual property protection they seek from a particular organization or treaty, they shift to another.


Tansey, who has worked as a writer and consultant on agriculture, food, and development for more than 30 years, recently helped produce a book that maps out this maze – The Future Control of Food: A Guide to International Negotiations and Rules on Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Food Security.

He co-edited the volume with Tasmin Rajotte, who works on agriculture-related intellectual property rights with the Quaker International Affairs Programme in Ottawa. Since 2001, this Quaker initiative has sought to clarify these issues, facilitate dialogue among all the parties involved, and ensure that a variety of voices are heard when critical decisions are made in international negotiations.

The Future Control of Food is a co-publication of Earthscan and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), which has supported work in this area for many years.

IDRC helped convene the two Crucible Groups – dozens of international experts who gathered in 1993 and 1998 to hammer out recommendations on the use and ownership of genetic resources. Their findings were published in the landmark People, Plants and Patents (1994) and the two-volume follow-up, Seeding Solutions (2000/2001).


The introduction of intellectual property rights into agriculture emerged as a by-product of the past half-century of modern biotechnology. “Now we have the capacity to mix genes from any species with another, leading to the redesign of living organisms for a wide variety of ends,” Tansey says.

In the United States, rules making it possible to patent some new varieties of plants have been in place since 1930. But in 1980, a US Supreme Court decision allowed the patenting of micro-organisms, and patentability was extended to genetically altered animals in 1988. Companies now had the legal tools to control access to genetically modified seeds, plants, and animals, and profitable new opportunities opened up.

“You had major firms involved in the chemical industry, which were used to the patent system, now looking at how they could begin to use this new technology to restructure their businesses and move into the production of the basis of the food system – the plants and animals we eat,” Tansey says.

He boils the issue down to four words: risks, benefits, power, and control. “In looking at how these varying and increasingly complex rules affect people, the key words to look at are who will bear the risks and who will get the benefits from changes, who is empowered or disempowered, and whose capacity to control is enhanced or reduced?”


The importance of power and control in agriculture has been underscored in recent months by the mounting world food crisis, with soaring prices and declining supplies prompting mass protests in many countries. The World Bank has estimated that the cost of staple foods such as rice and wheat has risen 80% in the past three years, with 33 countries facing potential social unrest as a result.

“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,” Tansey writes in The Future Control of Food. “It would be ironic – and potentially tragic – if just as other sectors are turning to and seeing the value of open source, informally networked means for innovation … farming and food, which has been based on such systems for millennia, moves in the opposite direction.”

Tansey and Rajotte hope their guide, which is freely available as an e-book on the IDRC website, will be useful not only for government negotiators and policy-makers, but also for farmers’ and indigenous groups, small business associations, non-governmental organizations, researchers, and academics. Above all, they hope the book will help the discussion and rule-making on intellectual property, biodiversity, and food security become “more informed and lead to fairer outcomes for all.”

Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University and former Executive Director of the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, is among the internationally respected experts who have welcomed the book. He calls it “an excellent collection of guideposts for perplexed students and scholars, and a handbook for the seasoned diplomat seeking to make the world a better place.”

Kelly Haggart is a senior writer at IDRC.


ABCs of the acronyms


* International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants [UPOV is the French acronym: Union internationale pour la protection des obtentions végétales]
* Intergovernmental organization with headquarters in Geneva
* UPOV agreement, called the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, adopted in Paris in 1961; entered into force 1968; revised in 1972, 1978, and 1991
* European response to the US patenting of life; aims to protect new varieties of plants with an intellectual property (IP) right called plant breeders’ rights.


* World Intellectual Property Organization
* Geneva-based United Nations agency established in 1967 to promote the protection of IP rights around the world
* Currently administers 24 multilateral treaties
* In recent years, much of the IP standard-setting has shifted out of WIPO and into the World Trade Organization (WTO).


* Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
* Incorporated into the 1994 agreement establishing the WTO
* Introduced IP law into the international trading system for the first time; extended the reach of IP into new countries and sectors, including agriculture
* All WTO members must provide some form of IP protection for plant varieties.


* Convention on Biological Diversity
* Signed by more than 150 countries at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992; came into force in 1993
* CBD Secretariat, based in Montréal, operates under the United Nations Environment Programme
* A response to concerns about the destruction and piracy of biological diversity in developing countries, the treaty formally recognizes the role of local and indigenous communities in conserving biodiversity.


* International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
* Adopted at United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization conference in 2001; came into force in 2004
* Defines and maintains a commons within which members provide free (or almost free) access to each other’s plant genetic resources for research, breeding, conservation and training.

Source: The Future Control of Food; organizations' websites

Published: 30 Jul 2008

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