FAO Conference Draws Ire From Civil Society; Industry Satisfied By Event 09/03/2010 by Catherine Saez, Intellectual Property Watch 5 Comments Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)A recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conference on the benefits of agricultural biotechnologies in Guadalajara, Mexico, sparked strong reactions from peasant organisations and civil society. Biotechnologies should serve poor farmers in poor countries and not only farmers from the North, said the FAO in a press release at the start of the conference which took place from 1-4 March. But civil society organisations hotly protested what they considered as a biased conference toward the biotech industry. Meanwhile, industry viewed the event as a positive step towards access to biotechnology for farmers, an industry representative on the conference steering committee said after the meeting. The conference was co-sponsored by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a specialised UN agency. Major partners were: the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, and the World Bank. The event aimed at bringing together different stakeholders to review past successes and failures in developing countries. About 300 people from 68 countries attended the conference, among which were experts, policymakers and representatives of civil society and international organisations, according to a 4 March FAO press release. According to FAO, the conference “agreed on the key elements necessary to put agricultural biotechnologies at the service of the developing world: increased investments, international cooperation and effective and enabling national policies and regulatory frameworks.” The conference report has been published. FAO said the conference focused on the need to include small farmers and producers in the decision-making process. Although the conference was described by FAO as a gathering with a wide range of stakeholders, some civil society representatives complained about being underrepresented at the event. In Peru, after a meeting on 25 February congregating Peruvian indigenous organisations, local government bodies and civil society organisations, an open letter (in Spanish) was drafted to protest against what was perceived as a push for an increased use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The letter, which was addressed to the FAO and to the Peruvian representatives at the conference, called for FAO in particular to oppose GMOs, promoted by private interests, and to take into account the fact that seed diversity is crucial for indigenous and farming communities, sustainable agriculture and adaptation processes. The letter also called for a reorientation of research and the recognition of traditional knowledge, “practices and systems of innovation supported by participatory methods.” In a 1 March press release, the FAO said that the conference was not on GMOs and “often, there is emphasis on GMOs only, which overshadows all other biotechnologies.” Other technologies include genetic characterisation and conservation of genetic resources, plant or animal disease diagnostic vaccine development, and improvement of feeds, according to a preparatory document issued by the FAO. This emphasis on GMOs is preventing the full exploitation of biotechnologies, according to the FAO. Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, a Canada-based civil society organisation working on sustainable development and “socially responsible developments of technologies useful to the poor,” was on the steering committee of the conference until 23 February, at which date he resigned from the committee, according to an ETC release. His comments on the draft versions of the preparatory documents to the conference were ignored, he said, adding that “The overwhelming thrust of the guiding documents for the meeting are hopelessly biased in favour of biotechnology and skewed to persuade developing countries that they have no option but to climb on the biotech bandwagon. It’s unacceptable that a supposedly neutral inter-governmental body like FAO would allow itself to be turned into a billboard for Big Biotech.” He was invited back to the steering committee after the start of the conference, but he declined, he told Intellectual Property Watch in an interview. The steering committee “is embarrassingly useless from start to finish,” he said, adding that inviting civil society to the conference is very different from including it in the process. Via Campesina, an international peasants organisation, said the venue for the conference was ill-chosen as, according to a press release, there is intense discussion in Mexico about GM maize. They also claim that only one representative of the organisation was invited and credentialed as an “observer” by the FAO although the conference was convened “for the benefit of peasants.” There was only a handful of civil society organisations and farmers at the conference, said Ditdit Pelegrina, executive director of the Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE), a regional organisation promoting sustainable use of plant genetic resources in Bhutan, Lao PDR, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Those present at the conference raised the issues of IP rights, corporate concentration and structural problems, Pelegrina told Intellectual Property Watch. “Developing countries delegates appeared to be grappling with the issues surrounding the technology, especially so since capacity building for developing countries on biotech is limited to risk assessments,” she said, adding that there is a lack of socio-economic and environmental risk assessment. In particular SEARICE talked about the results of Bt corn – which is genetically modified – in the Philippines, which according to the organisation’s study, did not meet the anticipated results. After four years of commercialisation, only three percent of farmers adopted the technology. Local farmers said Bt corn did not address rat infestation which was their main problem and found seeds to be expensive, said Pelegrina. Hunger Strike at Food Conference Isidore Ancog, area management team coordinator for Pakisama, a confederation of small farmers from the Philippines, and member of the Asian Farmers Association for Rural Development, started a hunger strike on the second day of the conference to protest against GMOs and asked that his statements about GMOs be included in the final conference report. Ancog, who defines himself as a poor farmer in a remote province, said in his first intervention that “small scale men and women farmers and fishers, who form the majority of the poor in this world” were underrepresented at the conference. “We are targeted, we are not involved in processes,” he added. According to him, GMOs prevent the free use, ownership, discovery and exchange of seeds. “The hunger strike achieved only very little,” Ancog told Intellectual Property Watch. However, a sentence should be added to the final conference report mentioning that GMOs should not be imposed on farmers in developing countries, said Ancog after stopping his hunger strike on the last day of the four-day conference. “For us, small farmers, influencing delegates of that nature is already a great achievement,” he said. FAO: IP Rights Need Country Tailoring; Industry Backs IP According to one of the background documents [pdf] produced by the FAO for the conference, entitled “policy options for agricultural biotechnologies in developing countries,” IP rights are part of an “enabling environment” for biotechnologies transfer, development and diffusion. However, given the proprietary rights that multinational seed corporations have in the form of patents on many of the basic research tools, “all countries should develop IP policies that carefully balance their needs to generate and access the basic tools, techniques, breeding lines and varieties for both research and the production of seeds and other tangible products, while promoting diffusion of these products to small-scale” farmers. In most developing countries, small-scale farming is providing most of the crop seeds through “farmers’ systems of selection, improvement, multiplication and diffusion,” according to the document. Only 7 percent of wheat seed and 13 percent of rice seed in India come from the formal sector, either public or private, and it is estimated about 80 percent of seed needed by farmers in many parts of Africa and Asia also come from outside of the formal sector, it said. IP systems should be tailored to each country’s goals and needs, said the document. “Realistic projections about the future role of biotechnologies” should be done, and “maximum use of the flexibility inherent in internationally agreed rules” should be achieved. For example, the flexibilities offered by the WTO agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). IP rights were discussed during the conference, and the World Intellectual Property Organization organised a parallel session on IP rights, said an FAO spokesperson. For Denise Dewar, executive director for plant biotechnology for CropLife International and member of the conference steering committee, “industry believes that agricultural biotechnologies can play an important role in addressing food shortages and poverty in developing countries,” she told Intellectual Property Watch at the close of the conference. The conference provided “an opportunity to begin a global dialogue about the potential of agricultural biotechnologies for the world’s poorest communities,” Dewar said, adding that the conference also allowed delegations to “learn about options for developing policies, communication strategies and science-based, transparent, and workable regulatory framework.” Dewar said IP rights played an important role in promoting innovation by “protecting research investments as well as costs related to regulatory reviews.” Some of the conclusions from the conference highlighted the need for strong partnerships between countries, regions and public-private research. Also, the lack of policies and regulatory mechanisms were noted, as well as “overly stringent regulations” hindering development and access to biotechnologies, she said. For Pelegrina, proprietary claims, monopoly and corporate concentration are cutting farmers from access and control over technology and the technology development process. On 2 March, the European Commission approved five decisions on GMOs but announced an upcoming proposal to let member states chose if they wish to cultivate or not GMOs. The decisions concerned the genetically modified Amflora potato and genetically modified maize products for food and feed uses, according to the Commission release. The decisions are based on safety assessments provided by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), according to the Commission. The authorisations are valid for 10 years. Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) Related Catherine Saez may be reached at email@example.com."FAO Conference Draws Ire From Civil Society; Industry Satisfied By Event" by Intellectual Property Watch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.