Genetic Origin In Food And Agriculture Difficult To Identify, Say Seed Treaty Officials

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Global food security lies in the capacity to access and contribute to a wide pool of genetic material, the chair of the United Nations treaty on plant genetic material said on the margin of this week’s World Intellectual Property Organization meeting on the protection of genetic resources. But the origin of this genetic material is often impossible to determine, particularly for crops, the treaty secretary said.

The International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) held a side event to give an overview of progresses made in the context of the ITPGRFA on 8 February. The event was held at the 23rd session of the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC), taking place from 4-8 February.

Javad Mozafari Hashjin, current chair of the ITPGRFA Governing Body, said it is probable that plant genetic resources is the most important asset the world has to face the combined problems of a growing population and the new challenges posed by climate change.

“There is a tendency to treasure what we have,” but it is not going to be useful to guard jealously our genetic resources and try to build a boundary around them, Mozafari said.

“We need to look at genetic resources as a common pool,” and the ITPGRFA is the first binding instrument that “makes a peace” between conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources, and the sovereign rights of nations over their genetic resources, he said.

Shakeel Bhatti, secretary of the ITPGRFA, said the current gene pool of genetic resources in food and agriculture was the outcome of millennia of traditional open exchanges of genetic material between farmers and farmer communities, citing as example the potato and tubers originating from the Andes region in Latin America and now cultivated worldwide.

Bhatti: Identifying Country of Origin Almost Impossible

Genetic resources in food and agriculture have been shared and exchanged over thousands of years and “therefore it is hardly possible to identify a single country of origin, at least with some crops” according to Bhatti. This “has implications when you deal with questions of disclosure of the country of origin of genetic resources that are utilised in an invention that is claimed in a patent application,” he added.

The mandatory disclosure of the country of origin in patent applications is one of the burning issues in the current IGC negotiations (IPW, WIPO, 1 February 2013). There, developing countries are hoping to reach an international legally binding instrument to prevent misappropriation of genetic resources by third parties.

The fact that for crop genetic resources it is “very often not possible” to identify country of origin means that specific tailored-made solutions could or should be built into those requirements so the requirements can recognise the specific features of plant genetic resources, he said.

Countries and regions are entirely interdependent, as “no country is self-sufficient for feeding its own population only on crops that originate in its own territory,” he added.

Growing Use of Multilateral System

The ITPGRFA gene pool currently holds 1.6 million samples of documented plant genetic materials, according to Bhatti, and large volumes of genetic material are being transferred on a daily basis between agricultural research centres and breeding programmes worldwide, he said. Bhatti estimated the number of samples transferred daily to be between 600 and 800.

Following a recommendation of the ITPGRFA governing body at its last meeting in Bali in 2011, contracting parties were required to explore innovative solutions for implementing non-monetary benefit mechanisms, he said.

Article 13 of the treaty, on the benefit-sharing mechanism, specifies monetary and non-monetary benefit sharing options. Non-monetary benefit sharing include the exchange of information, access to and transfer of technology, and capacity building.

The request of the governing body was also confirmed at United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, in June 2012, which adopted the Rio six-point Action Plan [pdf] for the treaty. The action plan requires that the ITPGRFA “establish a Platform for the Co-Development and Transfer of Technologies, within the context of non-monetary benefit-sharing under the Treaty.”

According to Bhatti, there are currently no technology transfer platforms dedicated to plant genetic resources in food and agriculture. Existing platforms or initiatives, he said, have either a regional or an agroecological zoning-based scope but are rarely interregional or global in scale. There are a number of regions in the treaty where there is no articulated technology transfer effort for plant genetic resources and countries have expressed the need to implement and develop such an initiative, Bhatti said. The platform was discussed in a workshop [pdf] in Brasilia, on 7-8 August 2012.

Private Sector Interest in Treaty

Swiss biotech company Syngenta last month launched an e-licensing platform called TraitAbility (IPW, Education/R&D/Innovation, 18 January 2013). A representative told Intellectual Property Watch that in 2011 the company launched a pilot e-license platform which included only patented native traits in commercial vegetable varieties.

“To welcome parties to try our pilot platform, we pledged to donate 20 percent of the total royalty income for ‘basic’ native traits from any licensee signing up within the first five months to the International Treaty for the entire lifetime of the patent,” Leo Melchers, head of licensing said in written comments. “No licenses were taken in this time and therefore we have not yet made a donation to the treaty.”

“Syngenta believes the International Treaty is an important organisation to ensure international cooperation and open exchange of genetic resources to collectively improve plant breeding and food security,” he said.

Up to now, large biotech companies such as Monsanto have displayed little interest in the instrument, Mozafari said at the side event.

Bhatti also said that the ITPGRFA had been consulted by the CGIAR (former Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) during the revision of the management of their intellectual assets.

According to the CGIAR, the Principles on the Management of Intellectual Assets were approved in April 2012. The establishment of those principles answered a need to create greater transparency in relation “to the uses of publicly funded research,” while an increasing number of partnerships with a diverse range of partners led to intellectual property taking a more prominent role in recent years. The adopted principles currently govern the use of intellectual assets throughout CGIAR.

Researcher Tiphaine Nunzia Caulier contributed to this story.

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

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