The ongoing attempt to harmonise and strengthen the intellectual property protection regimes worldwide, as part of the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement, is choking the knowledge spillovers from the industrialized to the developing countries by way of benefit sharing and adversely affecting technology transfer. With the IPR control tightening, and with the private companies seeking control and monopoly over genes and cell lines, the world is fast moving into an era of scientific apartheid against the Third World.
Knowing that TRIPs is an evil force, and refusing to stand up and call for some radical changes in the injudicious agreement, the international scientific community has now come up with the idea of setting up yet another charity this time for intellectual property. Public Sector Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA), is an initiative being floated by some scientific institutions and with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the McKnight Foundation, in the United States. The objective being to explore the feasibility of assembling key complementary agricultural technologies that might help the public sector research. In simple terms, it is aimed at ensuring that the private companies effort to stall the march of genetic engineering through a stricter patenting regime, already faced with increasing public resistance in the developed countries, does not block the efforts to push the unwanted technology on the developing countries.
Fighting broad-spectrum patents
Aggressive protection to new inventions, including technological processes, by the western universities and research institutions has already marred future prospects for any meaningful technological growth in the majority world. Take the case of the controversial golden rice. Some 16 patents and 71 potential intellectual property barriers had come in the way of its development. This is not to say that a potential technology (golden rice is merely a public relations showcase for the biotechnology industry) has any useful advantage for the developing countries, but it surely amplifies the threat that exists in blocking public sector research and development in the developed as well as the developing countries.
More recently, and at a time when the WTOs TRIPs Council is still engaged in reviewing Article 27.3 (b) of the TRIPs Agreement, dealing with biological materials, traditional knowledge and folklore, the European Patent Office in May 2003 upheld a controversial patent granted to Agracetus (subsequently bought by the multinational giant Monsanto) for a particle bombardment (biolistic) method of transforming soybeans. In simple words, this broad-spectrum patent grants Monsanto exclusive control over all genetically modified varieties of soyabean. The patent also covers all other plants that use the same GM technology for crop improvement
Seed multinationals Syngenta and De Kalb had also opposed the patent on the grounds that it provides Monsanto with a monopoly control over a commonly used scientific process. Interestingly, before acquiring Agracetus, Monsanto too had opposed the same patent. Such broad patents are a grave impediment to the developing country scientists to access new crop technologies as well as to breed new crop varieties using the frontiers of new technology. Rockefeller Foundation, which supports the PIPRA initiative, has never challenged or launched collaborative efforts that expose such absurd patents and for obvious reasons. Nor has the international scientific community, despite their loud claims of technologies for the poor, ever challenged such unscientific patents.
A few weeks later, the EPO granted another patent to Monsanto (EP # 445 929) allowing monopoly rights over traditional characteristics of an Indian wheat accession Nap Hal. All that Monsanto had done was to cross Nap-Hal, a traditional durum wheat cultivar, with another wheat variety to develop an improved variety with special baking qualities. The patent covers biscuits and dough produced from this wheat, as well as the plants themselves. Monsantos wheat patent extends to European Union, and in addition to Japan, Canada and Australia where the company sees its maximum commercial utility. The wheat germplasm Nap Hal landrace was procured from a UK-based gene bank, and thus raises questions about the relevance of the laws on access and equitable benefit sharing.
Monsanto has only used the existing traditional knowledge to breed an improved variety and thereby block any further use and application of the Indian wheat landrace. Although, Indias unique sui generis legislation -- the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act 2001, does recognize the rights of farmers and communities in respect of their contribution in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources for the development of new plant varieties, it remains helpless when a patent is granted outside the country. National systems cannot by themselves protect traditional knowledge. Will PIPRA ever talk of raising these concerns that can bring true benefits to the developing countries in the long run?
Earlier too, a similar initiative --- International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) was launched with the pious objective of contributing to poverty alleviation, by increasing crop productivity and income generation, particularly for resource-poor farmers, and to bring about a safer environment and more sustainable agricultural development. While nothing like this happened, ISAAA has ended up as a mouthpiece for the biotechnology industry. If the humanitarian intentions are for poverty alleviation, scientists will have to make a sincere effort to look for time-tested technologies that the small and marginal farmers have been using all these years. The need is to improve these technologies, and reduce the dependence on external inputs.
PIPRA is merely a charity in the name of the poor and food security. The future of science and technology in the developing world is not linked to such charity efforts. What the developing countries need is a system that allows free sharing of knowledge (much of it in anyway coming from the Third World) rather than privatizing and monopolizing what was known to be in the public good.