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Battle for the World's Seed Banks New Scientist 2 July 1994

This article was followed by a deal which actually saw the FAO retain their stewardship, but it illustrates just how fragile negotiations about our major food and medicinal plants can be.

Debora MacKenzie, Brussels

DEVELOPING countries are fighting a bid by the World Bank to take control of laboratories that are vital to world food production. The bank, which is dominated by rich nations, wants to take command of a network of agricultural research centres and their priceless collections of genetic varieties of crops. Most of these varieties come from developing countries, who say control should go to them. The fight centres on the 18 intemational agricultural research centres, which were set up by Western donors in the 1950s (see Map). Since then, the IARCs have been at the forefront of efforts to meet the increasing demand for food. The outcome of the present power struggle could have wide-ranging and profound effects, says Pat Mooney of Rural Advancement Foundation International, a development pressure group. "If the World Bank controls agricultural research, then it controls the shape of world agriculture for the immediate future." He says the bank's backing for economic reforms in developing countries, which tends to favour cash crops over local subsistence, makes that a worrying prospect. The battle has come to a head this week in Nairobi at a meeting of parties to the Biodiversity Convention. This treaty, agreed at the Earth Sunimit in Rio de Janeiro two years ago, lays down principles to govern the international trade in genetic resources. It calls on the IARCs to find a way of placing their genetic resources under the control of govemments. In May, the IARCs signed an agreement with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to give control to the Intergovernmental Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, a body sponsored by the FAO and in which every member country has a vote. Even though this plan received full approval from the FAO, it was rejected at a meeting in Delhi of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, the informal group of donors that funds the IARCS. This body usually exerts minimal control over the IARCS, which are other-wise independent. But in Delhi the group's chairman, Ismail Serageldin, who is also the World Bank's vice-president for sustainable development, proposed establishing centralised committees, headed by the World Bank, to control funding, research and intellectual property rights. In Nairobi last week, Serageldin stated that "a system-wide effort will lead to a more comprehensive approach" to ensure that plant genetic resources are conserved and used. He said he was talking to officials at the GATT world trade organisation about how to assign intellectual property rights to the IARCs' genetic resources. However, developing countries and some European nations in Nairobi backed the agreement to pass control to the FAO. Ulf Stensen, head of the Swedish delegation, said his country favoured the IARCs' agreement with the FAO. Wen Lian Ting, who heads the Malaysian delegation, called Serageldin's plan a "dawn raid" to take control of the world's agricultural resources. The seed collections held by the IARCs are essential for improving crops. Their value will increase further, says Mooney, when genetic engineers routinely move genes from one species to others. At present, the IARCs' material is freely available. Companies profit by using the genetic material to breed new crops, which in tum benefit farmers. Australia says the IARCs' grain varieties have earned it more than $2-2 billion since 1974 in increased yields. Similarly, Italy says durum wheat from the LARCs contributes $300 million a year to its pasta production, while one-fifth of the value of the billion-dollar American rice crop is attributed to genes from the centres. Little of this cash benefits the laboratories or the developing countries that contribute most of the genes. The IARCs hold the genes in trust, and it is not clear who owns them, or who can benefit from intellectual property rights taken out on them or varieties produced from them. Bringing genetic resources under the control of governments was intended to clear up this conftision. Under the deal the LARCs signed with the FAO, the Intergovernmental Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, on which developing countries are in the majority, would decide how the LkRCs and gene donors would be compensated when companies use genes held at the centres.

As an inter-governmental body, the World Bank is also eligible under the Biodiversity Convention to control the IARCs' resources. But World Bank members vote according to their contributions, so the bank is dominatei by rich countries, especially the US. The IARCs might find Serageldin's offer hard to resist. They face a financial crisis. In Delhi, the heads of the IARCs said they expect to receive only $215 million of the $270 million they need for their core research this year. Serageldin said that the bank would increase its funding of the LARCs by $7 million to $40 million a year and wipe out the centres' debts of $5-6 million. He also said the bank would provide an additional $20 million, if other donors gave the IARCs an extra $40 million, and a further $2-5 billion over the next five years for national research programmes carried out in cooperation with the IARCS. It is not clear, says Mooney, whether this future funding will depend on the World Bank gaining the control it wants.

Pay-up Time for Rainforest Raiders

Polly Ghazi addresses the rights of indigenous peoples to payment for the products that the big pharmaceutica companies extract from their forests. Observer.

KAYAPO Indian chief Paulinho Paiakan won intemational renown in 1988 by protesting in the capitals of the West against a huge foreignfinanced dam which would have flooded an area of his native Brazilian rainforest the size of the United Kingdom.

Today he has graduated from direct action campaigning to practising the subtler art of lecturing about big business. The last few weeks have been spent travelling around the isolated Kayapo mud-hut villages of Amazonia explaining to bemused fellow tribesmen how intemational patent laws work and introducing them to the concept that they have intellectual rights over local forest products. Paiakan carries with him an intellectual property covenant drawn up by the Body Shop, which makes a bestselling hair conditioner from Brazil nut oil harvested by two Kayapo communities, AUkre and Pukanuv. The villages have set up the first Indian-run trading companies in Brazil, and the covenant drawn up by Dr Darrell Posey, an Oxford-based ethnobiologist is a pioneering attempt to ensure indigenous communities are compensated for the use of their native knowledge. The controversial issue of intellectual property rights over rainforest products drugs and medicines as well as beauty treatments is coming to a head. British Prime Minister John Major recently announced that Britain had ratified the United Nations treaty on global biodiversity, agreed at the Rio Earth Summit. The treaty, which aims to protect the world's dwindling biological reservoir of wild plants and animals, has made it illegal for drug companies to exploit natural genetic resources without some financial return to the country of origin. The relevant clause was one of the most hotly disputed, with the vast American pharmaceutical industry in particular raising serious objections. As a result, the United States Administration has still failed to ratify the treaty. The multinationals fear, rightly, that the new laws will curtail their freedom to claim rights over products gathered and developed by their scientists in species-rich rainforests. About a quarter of the world's pharmaceutical products, including anaesthetics, anti-leukaemia drugs and contraceptives, owe their origins to wild plants. And the 1990s have seen a resurgence of interest in natural sources. More than 100 research institutes and 70 companies worldwide are now actively investigating the healing potential of plants used for centuries by indigenous peoples. The list includes such industry giants as Smith-Kline Beecham, Glaxo and Merck. Yet Dr Ghillean France, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, says he cannot name a single drug company which is ploughing any benefits back to an indigenous forest community although some have recently begun to make payments to foreign research institutes or governments. And he says that, although the biodiversity treaty means developing countries will have to be compensated in future by multinationals, there is no clause specifying that benefits should be retumed directly to forest dwellers. Kew is now co-operating with two leading British pharmaceutical companies in developing drugs from plants in Latin American and African countries. "If products are developed, benefits will go back to the country of origin," says Prance. "That may be to a research institute who helped develop the drug or, if it came from a shaman's [medicine man's] knowledge, we would want to see that some of the benefits went back to his community." At present only a handful of ethically minded companies plough benefits directly back to indigenous tribes. They include Califomia-based Shaman Pharmaceuticals, which has developed three products from Indian medicinal plants, and the Body Shop. The Kayapo communities are paid $58 a barrel for Brazil nut oil, $25 of which is the market price and $33 to cover intellectual propertv, including the use of the Indians' feather-headdressed images in Body Shop promotional literature. The new Body Shop covenant will apply to any new products developed with indigenous tribes across Latin America and includes royalty payments for products resulting directly from local knowledge. Rainforests are disappearing at the rate of 30 hectares a minute, with an estimated 25,000 flowerng plants on the verge of extinction. Prance believes sustainble harvesting of nuts, rees and flowers for ealth products may prouce a more secure future for many tribal peoples han involvement with rug companies which, nce they have discovred valuable plants, can usually reproduce them to plantations. Marcus Santilli, executive director of Nucleus for Indigenous Rights, a lawyers'group fighting for legal rights for Brazil's 180 indigenous tribes, agrees. He claims American, European and Brazilian companies have all plundered tribal knowledge in recent years with impunity. Products being developed as a result include plant-based, nutrient-rich health pills and an anticoagulant produced from a powerful poison concocted by the lire Eu Wau Wau tribe. Santilli says action by the rulers of developing nations is urgently needed if the benefits of the biodiversity treaty are to trickle down to the tribes in the rainforests. "At the moment no one influential in this country believes there should be compensation for this stolen knowledge," he says. "There is a huge need to protect the forest secrets that indigenous peoples do not want to give away."