ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

3 February 2002


"The aim is to separate production from reproduction," said Jean-Pierre Berlan of France's Agricultural Research Institute. "It's the triumph of the law of profit over the laws of nature."
Activists at Brazil forum say traditional farming threatened by intellectual property rules
By TONY SMITH, AP Business Writer
The Associated Press, February 2, 2002

Ask Wilson Campos about intellectual property rights and the Costa Rican will tell you they are designed by multinational companies to make farmers like him dependent on expensive, patented seeds.

Campos and other activists at the World Social Forum, a gathering intended to counter the business elite's World Economic Forum in New York, argued Saturday that the whole international system of patent, copyright and trademark protection favors rich, industrialized nations and their corporations over the globe's poor.

The plight of the poor is the driving force of the Porto Alegre gathering, which has drawn tens of thousands of activists who feel wealthy nations dominate the downtrodden. Demonstrations were held Saturday to voice support for the Palestinians, women's rights and Argentina, whose economic collapse is blamed here on open-market policies imposed by industrial nations. Intellectual property rules were adopted in 1995 by the World Trade Organization, an international treaty system that governs trade relations among most countries.

The rules give patent-holders - mainly large corporations ­ temporary monopolies for their inventions, which include varieties of plants they develop. The argument for the rules is that patent protection allows companies to recoup investment in research on better products, such as hardier plants, thus spurring innovation.

But the development group Oxfam International contends the rules are being tightened to the detriment of farmers. "The rules are a crucial issue because they affect people's access to medicines, seeds and educational materials," such as computer software, Oxfam says.

While plant species are not covered by patent rules, plant varieties - defined by their genes - are. That means companies can genetically modify plants from a certain country and register "ownership" of those varieties.

For Campos, who grows beans, corn and fruit on a 12-acre collective farm in San Rafael de Guatuso, it means being steamrollered into using genetically modified seeds that are monopolized by multinational corporations.

He said banks in developing countries often make loans to small farmers conditional on them buying seeds from a specific company. The banks argue that better seeds mean healthier crops and a better chances for the farmers to pay back loans.

Farmers are most worried about the use of "terminator" genes to engineer plants to block reproduction, which would force farmers to buy a fresh supply of seeds every year.

"Under the rules, we should buy seeds from companies and should not exchange seeds amongst us, as is our tradition," said Campos. "With terminator seeds, you can't even replant them, because they are designed to die."

According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, as many as 1.4 billion farmers in the Southern Hemisphere depend heavily on sowing seeds they save from harvested crops or seeds exchanged with farm neighbors.

The U.S. Agriculture Department, which developed terminator technology, contends agribusiness must be allowed to protect investment in new varieties of seeds if research is to continue developing crops that are hardier, more nutritious and less dependent on pesticides.

"The aim is to separate production from reproduction," said Jean-Pierre Berlan of France's Agricultural Research Institute. "It's the triumph of the law of profit over the laws of nature."

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