Friday, November 15, 2013

Who Owns Our Genetic Wealth ?

Suman Sahai

There was a recent news report that ICRISAT, an international organisation and part of the CGIAR ( Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) consortium, had entered into an agreement with Gubba Cold Storage Ltd. to set up a private seed bank, the first of its kind in India. No details were available of the terms and conditions under which the genetic material from the ICRISAT gene bank would be placed in the physical possession of  a private company. ICRISAT holds thousands of varieties of chickpea, pigeon pea, groundnut, sorghum, pearl millet and small millets collected from farmers’ fields across the world.

What makes the ICRISAT varieties particularly valuable to plant breeders and seed companies is the fact that almost the entire collection has been characterized so that the properties of each variety are known. This information along with the huge choice of genetic material  (over 120,000 varieties) is a veritable gold mine for seed companies.Access to crop varieties characterized for important properties like disease and pest resistance, drought and salinity tolerance, adaptability to soil types and weather conditions, yield traits etc., can be rapidly converted into lucrative crop varieties for the market, earning themcrores of rupees. 

The disconcerting thing about the ICRISAT deal with Gubba Cold Storage is that public material held in trust by ICRISAT has been at least physically transferred to a private company. It is not clear under what terms the material will be stored in Gubba cold storages. Who will be able to access the material? How will unauthorized use be prevented? What will be the monitoring process? How will violations be dealt with ?In the Svalbard Seed Vault, which is permafrost gene bank in the frozen mountains of Norway, where countries are depositing genetic material, all collections are stored under “black box” conditions. This means that the germplasm is coded and sealed in boxes before being deposited in the Seed Vault. The so called black box is under the control of the country or agency that deposits the material. Only the said country or agency can open the box and add or remove material from it. Despite this being a bank in the public sector, supported and monitored by the Norwegian government, widespread concerns have been expressed over the integrity of the collections and the possibility of theft and unauthorized use of valuable genetic material. How much more is the cause for concern when public material is handed over to an unknown private company for storage ?

We must remember that all the material in Gene/Seed Banks anywhere, is the property of the farmers from whose fields the seeds were collected. It is not the property of the Bank in which it is kept, nor of the countries where such banks are located. For instance , the thousands of traditional rice  samples in Gene Campaign’s village level Zero Energy Gene-Seed Banks are not Gene Campaign’s property. Ownership over the varieties and the community bank in which they are conserved, rests solely with the local community. Similarly the collection of over 4 lakh varieties in the National Gene Bank in Delhi, is not the property of the National Gene Bank but of the several hundred thousand farmers who have maintained these varieties for generations in their fields and who have developed them with their genius and diligence. These farmers have given their seeds to be held in trust by the National Gene Bank to be used for the benefit of all mankind, not for private seed companies to make huge profits.
The international community acknowledges the ownership of rural and tribal communities over the genetic wealth they have created in different parts of the world. Well defined procedures have been laid down if someone wants to access such publicly owned material.  These include Prior Informed Consent (PIC) , Material Transfer Agreements (MTA) and Benefit Sharing agreements. The last says that if any profit is derived from the use of the community’s genetic wealth, they are entitled to a share of the profits. 

All this does not mean that access to genetic resources , along with PIC, MTA and Benefit Sharing agreements, has to be given. Communities have the right to refuse access if they feel this would better serve their interests. These internationally agreed conditions are binding as much on ICRISAT, the National Gene Bank and local efforts like Community Gene-Seed banks of the kind that Gene Campaign has set up.   

A central point in all questions relating to access to genetic resources is that of Intellectual Property Rights. The Indian law , the Protection of Plant varieties and Farmers Rights Act does not allow the grant of patents on plant varieties. Only a Breeders Right can be granted if a variety is developed using varieties accessed from public collections. If IPRs are to be granted, they have to be subject to conditions mentioned earlier and should include preferential access to farmers to the newly developed varieties. These are all features that have not yet been operationalized.

We have no idea how they will be worked out in dealings with the private sector. We do not know what ICRISAT has negotiated with Gubba.  What kind of IPRs can be claimed in other countries on varieties developed from germplasm from farmer’s fields?  The CGIAR has tried to walk a ( sometimes fudgy ) line between multinational corporations and their demands for patents on materials they develop from public gene banks and the pressure from civil society that this would be unethical and tantamount to piracy. ICRISAT must make public the terms and conditions under which it has placed public genetic material into the hands of a private company.
Not just ICRISAT, the ICAR system too is preparing to throw open the national collections to the private sector. 

The Depty Director General (DDG) of ICAR, Dr Swapan Datta  is on record  saying that  the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR)  would offer multinational seed companies its massive national collection of germplasm in exchange for expertise and a share of the profits. The DDG has no locus standito take such decisions, especially when India is moving towards increased participatory decision making. In this climate when law and policy making is sought to being made more open and democratic, it is antediluvian for a small committee of the  National Advisory Board for Management of Genetic Resources, to take a decision on behalf of communities to make available their crop varieties to MNCs. Any decision on giving seed companies access to public genetic material can only be taken after public consultations and then following the due process of Prior Informed Consent, Material Transfer Agreements and Benefit Sharing agreements.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist and chairperson of Gene Campaign, working on food and nutrition. She can be reached

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