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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