In a bid to protect poor farmers in developing countries, the European Union is implementing two far-reaching proposals that are designed to curb the power of the biotechnology industry.
The EU wants poor farmers to get a share of the profits
The European Union is set to get tough with companies in its member states that wish to exploit the natural resources and "traditional knowledge" of indigenous farmers in poorer countries. The EU is concerned about the long-term effects of bio-piracy - the term given to the practice of some companies in developed countries to find and control natural resources simply for profit.
In the first of two steps announced by the EU trade commissioner Pascal Lamy in Our Planet magazine, a publication of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), companies seeking patents will be required to give exact information on any natural products used, where they were obtained and who provided them. It is hoped that this directive will help farmers benefit from the profits of those biotechnology firms who use their raw materials and techniques.
The proposals for tackling bio-piracy will be discussed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) while the governing council of UNEP will address the two-step plan at its headquarters in Nairobi this week where they will be discussing ways to tackle poverty and environmental destruction by using poor countries' genetic resources to benefit them.
Revealing sources to ensure distribution of wealth
EU Commissioner for Trade Pascal Lamy
Writing in Our Planet magazine, Lamy says: "Indigenous or local groups in developing countries are right to expect to benefit materially if their traditional knowledge is applied in ways that are shared via commercial initiatives and trade. The EU is working on ways of helping developing countries rich in traditional knowledge to identify it and prevent it being undervalued or abused."
In the second step, poor farmers engaged in the traditional practice of saving and exchanging seeds will be allowed to continue doing so. There have been concerns that companies would force the farmers to buy newly modified and patented seeds, capable of only one harvest, every year if unchecked.
Seed exchange program protected
If the EU's proposals are accepted, they will mean poor farmers need no longer fear they will be forced to buy fresh seeds annually from bio-tech companies, instead of saving some from the previous crop.
Maize farmer in Central America
But there are problems. One major sticking point is likely to be the conflicting stance of two previously agreed acts that address both sides of the argument. The 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was designed to make sure that the benefits are shared between the exploiting and the communities from which they take their resources.
However, many countries think the CBD's power was reduced by the 1995 Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (Trips) that passed the initiative to those with patents. In an attempt to strike a balance between the CBD and Trips agreement, the EU is sending a paper to the Trips council, explaining how the two agreements can work together.
EU attempts consolidation of agreements
In Our Planet, Lamy says: "The key proposal in the paper is a means of obliging applicants for patents who have used the fruits of bio-prospecting (taking knowledge from developing countries) for new products to disclose the geographical origin of any biological material used in biotech inventions."
"At present, there is no such obligation. The paper also supports the idea of providing better protection for traditional knowledge, and recognizes the right of subsistence farmers in developing countries to re-use and exchange seeds, even those covered by intellectual property rights, via so-called farmers' exemptions. Larger-scale commercial farmers would stay subject to more stringent rules."
German Klaus Töpfer, Executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Dr Klaus Töpfer, UNEP's executive director, says in Our Planet that the benefit-sharing which the CBD exists to promote is all too often not working - or working too imperfectly. "Sadly the genetic resources of one country or community are often treated as a public common good, owned by nobody, free for all, without property rights."
Lamy's approach to the issue is expected to be strongly supported by UNEP but whether the WTO will be as enthusiastic is another story. It is also unlikely that many bio-prospectors will be willing to honor any agreement that may be reached.