Plants and Patents

In Gene­va this week, nego­tia­tors are try­ing to bridge some wide rifts on the sub­ject of agri­cul­tur­al mar­ket reforms before the nego­ti­a­tions effec­tive­ly pause for the US elec­tions until some­time in the first quar­ter of 2005. Offi­cials are work­ing on a ‘frame­work’ for an even­tu­al agree­ment on agri­cul­ture that focus­es on the big issues of mar­ket access, export sub­si­dies etc. But there are many oth­er item on the Doha Round agen­da—even items impor­tant to agri­cul­ture—that are far from agreed. One of these con­cerns the patentabilty of plant vari­eties. Back in 1995 when they signed an Agree­ment on Trade Relat­ed Intel­lec­tu­al Prop­er­ty Rights (TRIPS), the mem­ber gov­ern­ments of WTO real­ized that they would have to revis­it some of the most con­tro­ver­sial aspects of that Agree­ment. So they told their offi­cials to take a sec­ond look at the Agree­ment as a whole and in par­tic­u­lar a clause deal­ing with the oblig­a­tion to patent inven­tions of plants or ani­mals. This is what that clause—Article 27.3(b)—says, in part: bq. Mem­bers may also exclude from patentabil­i­ty: … (b) plants and ani­mals oth­er than micro-organ­isms, and essen­tial­ly bio­log­i­cal process­es for the pro­duc­tion of plants or ani­mals oth­er than non-bio­log­i­cal and micro­bi­o­log­i­cal process­es. How­ev­er, Mem­bers shall pro­vide for the pro­tec­tion of plant vari­eties either by patents or by an effec­tive sui gener­is sys­tem or by any com­bi­na­tion there­of. Although they start­ed the review in 1999, the offi­cials were not able to come to agree­ment on whether they should remove or extend these oblig­a­tions and exclu­sions. You might like to read “this(pdf file about 250k)”: WTO Sec­re­tari­at sum­ma­ry of the debates, which records the wide range of dif­fer­ences between coun­tries that were still unre­solved when the Doha nego­ti­a­tions were launched at the end of 2001. Min­is­ters at Doha told their nego­tia­tors to resolve these out­stand­ing prob­lems by the end of the Doha round, tak­ing into account the pro­vi­sions of the UN Con­ven­tion on Bio­di­ver­si­ty—since accept­ed by many but not all WTO mem­bers. No fur­ther progress has been made. There are some impor­tant and dif­fi­cult issues for agri­cul­ture (not to men­tion bio-diver­si­ty) in this debate. IP rights have a huge poten­tial impact on the rate of inno­va­tion in plant and ani­mal (includ­ing genet­ic mate­r­i­al) tech­nol­o­gy and on the eco­nom­ics of mod­ern farm­ing. If you’d like to know more, an excel­lent “paper”: on the impact of the TRIPS Agree­ment on agri­cul­ture is avail­able from the Quak­er UN Office. Com­pre­hen­sive, well-writ­ten, bal­anced. Now 5 years-old but still up-to-date.

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