The shape of things to come
Over the past couple of decades, agricultural research has seen increasing involvement of the private sector in what was almost exclusively the preserve of public-funded institutions. With research taking place in the public sector, there was no problem with sharing technology. The spread of the Green Revolution technology is a testimony to this fact. The growing presence of the private sector has, however, changed this situation. The controversy surrounding Syngenta's reservations about publishing its research (on the partial decoding of a rice variety genome) in GenBank is an example. This is one of the fallouts of privatisation coupled with strengthening of intellectual property rights (iprs), and one with far-reaching implications for food security.
The big issue today is: how does the human race get access to better technologies so we can address the hunger and deprivation that looms large in many parts of the world. Take India as an example: food production levels are stagnating in many regions. We need new inputs, specifically, improved seed varieties. If the price is prohibitive, farmers will not be able to purchase those seeds. Agricultural technology is useless if our farmers cannot access it.
It is also important to remember that the new technology comes as a package. Besides the price of the seed, there are also other complementary inputs. The Green Revolution technology, for example, was one in which the so-called high yielding varieties (hyvs) of seeds had to be used together with chemical fertilisers and other inputs in order to maximise yields. The government was able to spread Green Revolution technology to a considerable extent by using large doses of subsidies. Today, the scenario has changed completely. The government does not have the resources required to liberally subsidise agricultural inputs the way it had in the past. This means that small and marginal farmers in developing countries could be deprived of the benefits of technological breakthroughs simply because they do not have the resources to pay for the new technologies.
The trend towards privatisation and a stronger regime of intellectual property protection thus threatens to put enormous burden on the farming communities. In the us, in particular, companies have shown an increasing tendency to use patents to protect new varieties of plants, in spite of the fact that there is a specific convention that deals with the protection of plant varieties, viz. the upov Convention (International Convention for Protection of New Varieties of Plants). This is a somewhat softer system of intellectual property protection than patents. It allows farmers to reuse seeds for non-commercial purposes. However, the farmer would have to pay royalty to the plant breeder (read seed companies) for re-using protected varieties of seeds in case he exchanges the seeds with his farm neighbour or is interested in selling even a part of his output in the market.
In light of the above, it may be argued that in a country like India, where subsistence agriculture dominates, the restriction imposed by the upov Convention on the farmers' rights to re-use seeds would not matter much. One must firmly reject this argument. Once a variety goes through a protection regime, the price goes up. This is, of course, the biggest incentive for seeking protection. In India, the focus of our attention should be the small and marginal farmers. These farmers do interact with the market, however marginally. Whereas today they re-use seeds for a few years and then renew them (buy fresh seeds from the market), patent or upov protection of plant varieties would force them to buy seeds every year. This apart, the system could get really messy because of the amount of policing required. Besides, farmers will fight only losing battles, as was the experience of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser against Monsanto.
Privatisation of databanks is next. At present, there is copyright protection for original databases. There is a move now to protect non-original databases compiled by corporations. The us and eu suggest protection for up to 25 years. This protection can be extended for another 25 years if the database is changed. In practice, though, even an update of the database would count as a change, and copyright protection on the information could well continue in perpetuity.
This could lead to a system where all information is closed in, and companies use it only to increase profits. This, then, is the worrying and inequitable shape of things to come.
Biswajit Dhar is senior fellow, Research and Information System for the Non-Aligned and other Developing Countries
(Based on a conversation with Biswajit Dhar)