Published: The Financial Express, April 01, 2004,

By Pradeep S Mehta

A few weeks ago, FE carried a report about R A Mashelkar joining a new World Health Organisation (WHO) committee to look into the implementation of WTO’s TRIPs and public health deal. Someone commented that WHO’s recommendations need not be accepted by WTO. Indeed, the WTO is about mercantilist relations between member countries and thus it is not required to accept any other organisations’ brief.

The concern for public health under TRIPs has always been in the limelight and a final deal on it was, perhaps, the only good thing to happen at the Cancun ministerial. However, if WHO has desired to follow it up, then it is welcome. Whether or not the WTO heeds it, the talks will maintain a moral pressure on the WTO.

TRIPs is a rent-extracting accord that has been forced on the poor world. However, the issue of public health is but a small one, and eclipses the more vital issue of food security. The public health deal was the result of the AIDS pandemic, especially in the context of the treatment. It had an emotional appeal as well. On the other hand, the links between TRIPs and food are not so sensational. It will not produce pictures of hungry and starving farmers, who have been tricked by US agribusinesses.

Food security is essential for developing countries who have millions of mouths to feed and for whom agriculture is the mainstay. Agriculture is one of the most highly-protected sectors in world trade. It has the maximum tariff and non-tariff barriers. But the bigger issue here, besides subsidies and tariffs, is seed patents.

Powerful organisations in US and Canada have created a monopoly in the area of seed patenting. The same corporations are incestuous when it comes to licensing. They just grant each other the license to produce and will not entertain anybody else. By 2001, just six corporations — Aventis, Dow, Du Pont, Mitsui, Monsanto and Syngenta — controlled 98 per cent of the global market for patented GM crops, 70 per cent of the global pesticide market and 30 per cent of the global seed market. The six corporations owned 60.8 per cent of patents granted on rice, 70.8 per cent of patents granted on wheat, 71 per cent of patents granted on maize, 76 per cent of patents granted on soybean and 46.7 per cent of patents granted on sorghum. These are all staples that supply most of the calories for the poor.

Farmers in developing countries have over time developed many varieties of the world’s staple food crops. However, TRIPS and patents on life are facilitating the corporate ‘take-over’ of agriculture. The impact is far worse in the South, where majority of the people are dependent on agriculture for a livelihood.

TRIPs allows those who develop or innovate a product to get patent protection for up to 20 years and offers no guarantee that the owner will share the benefits. An artificial distinction has also been made between plants and animals, and micro-organisms, for which there is no scientific basis. Furthermore, this indistinctiveness has allowed worldwide patenting of genes and micro-organisms, as well as genetically engineered organisms, including modified plants and animals. This is a distortion of patent law, because it confers monopoly rights over life forms and life itself for commercial exploitation. Genetic engineering has greatly increased the opportunities for patenting of living organisms. Some scientists argue that patents on transgenic processes should not be allowed, as it hardly qualifies as a technology, much less an invention.

An important class of transgenic process patents is on Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTS), the most notorious of which is ‘Terminator Technology’. Terminator technology refers to plants that have been genetically modified to produce sterile seed; it is designed to prevent farmers from saving and re-planting their seed, forcing them to buy new seeds every year. In 1999, due to mounting opposition to Terminator seeds, both Monsanto (now Pharmacia) and AstraZeneca (now Syngenta) vowed not to commercialise genetic seed sterilisation technology.

Big agribusinesses accuse farmers of growing unlicensed GM crop and demand large sums of money or threaten legal action. Even non-GM farmers whose crops become contaminated can be sued. The accusations have far-reaching effect with company inspectors taking crop samples, and then demanding payment. Since the agribusinesses are powerful contributors to both Democrats and Republicans, no regulatory and balanced mechanism has been put in place to deal with malpractices.

Imagine the future scenario in the developing world, which will soon enter into full obligations under the TRIPs agreement. In developing countries, farmers still procure seeds by re-sowing and informal exchange. With the advent of patents and technologies such as Terminator, this will no longer be possible. The issue of food security will pale in comparison. Thus, Dr Mashelkar and others need to develop future scenarios of the impact of TRIPs on food security, and start a solid debate from now itself.