Serageldin: IPR Adaptation Needed To Help Innovation Reach Small Farmers

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The director of the Library of Alexandria, Egypt, invited to speak about innovation and food security at the World Intellectual Property Organization last week, said science should reach small farmers in order face the challenge of global food security and increase agricultural yields. He also called for the IP regime to be tailored to serve that purpose.

The WIPO Global Challenges Seminar Series “serves as an informal forum for sharing ideas, expertise and information on meeting global challenges,” according to the WIPO website. On 16 November, the theme was Innovation, Food Security and Rural Development: Collaboration and Partnerships.

For this topic, WIPO invited Ismail Serageldin, the embattled (IPW, Developing Country Policy, 6 November 2011) director of the Library of Alexandria, a former chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and World Bank vice-president, to give a presentation.

This is the third session of the series, following sessions on climate change and public health (IPW, WIPO, 28 June 2012).

Serageldin told the meeting that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) “are not doing too well” on the reduction of global hunger. Among the factors hindering hunger reduction is climate change, with increased floods and droughts, but the primary cause of hunger is extreme poverty, he said.

Bringing the prices of food down means that agricultural productivity should be increased, but in a sustainable manner, and innovation is one of the key to solving the problem, he said. In the face of the growing global population, food production will have to increase by 70 percent by 2050, using the same amount of water, he said.

The focus should be on small farmers in developing countries, he said, noting that “practically all rural poor” still buy their food. There is a need to transform the production function in rural areas, and improve the nutritional content of food. In order to reduce prices without harming poor farmers, productivity has to increase faster than the decline of prices, and at the same time market access has to be improved and post-harvest losses reduced, he said, adding, “We need a new green revolution.”

However, research cannot be “kept locked up” in Monsanto and other multinational corporations, he said. Science should be brought to small farmers and not only to the “enormous soya fields of Brazil.”

Serageldin also stressed that one key factor to address the issue was to realise the gender dimension, and the need to address the “enormous discrimination against women,” who in Africa “produce about 80 percent of food, receive 10 percent of the wages and own 1 percent of the land,” although those figures have been contested, he said.

The United States and the European Union “have done a criminal act” with the first generation of biofuels, he said, impacting corn and maize production. “It is wrong to burn the food of the poor to drive the cars of the rich,” he said. So shifting to a second generation of biofuels is necessary, and science must be mobilised and partnerships encouraged, he said.

On average, developing countries invest 220 times less resources in research than developed countries, he said, and if nothing is done, this will equal a scientific apartheid, he added. The so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s transformed production, he said, produced more food using less land, saving forest and biodiversity.

Biotech neither a Silver Bullet, Nor a Demon

Today, Serageldin said, there is a need to go to more genetically diverse crops, reduce the use of chemicals, rely more on natural pest control, integrate land and water management, take into account the gender dimension, promote alternatives to “slash and burn” ground clearing, and reduce post-harvest losses.

In order to close the yield gap and find out what is causing losses, it is necessary to help farmers, “preferably by biological control rather than pesticides, working with nature rather than working against it,” he said. Biotechnology raises issues but despite controversy, it holds “enormous promise,” he said, as it can do things that could not be achieved by conventional breeding, like getting vitamin A into rice, referring to what is commonly known as golden rice.

[Update:] Golden rice, which after a decade of research is expected to reach markets this year, according to sources, has long been at the centre of a controversy, with some civil society claiming doubtful nutritional results and a wrong answer to malnutrition, such as GMWatch in 2011, or the recent Foodwatch report 2012 titled “Golden Lies,” [pdf] which alleges poor risk assessment. Any risks posed by the cultivation or consumption of Golden Rice have been largely ignored, it said.

Issues in biotechnology involve intellectual property, ethics and safety, he said, but these are issues that are not insurmountable. Biotechnology “is neither a silver bullet nor a demon,” and scientists are the most able to produce the innovation required. This is where collaboration and partnerships are needed, he said.

“What WIPO can do is really help in the patent regime to facilitate collaboration with developing countries’ scientists,” he said. If the IP regime, “which is driven by large corporations in the United States, for farming in particular,” can be made to be more compatible, he said, “we will be able to transform global agriculture.”

“We should dare to dream,” he concluded. Hunger can be abolished and “the world must move beyond the wild capitalism that exists today.”

Catherine Saez may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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