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grain of truth

Biopirates or pioneering conservationists?


N.R. SACKVILLE HAMILTON
Head, Genetic Resources Center at IRRI

he genebanks of the Consultative Group on International Biological Diversity declared that nations have sovereign Agricultural Research (CGIAR) are often portrayed in rights but did not dene the rights of farmers or a mechanism the popular press as villains, the archetypical biopirates for fair exploitation of biodiversity. Each country needs to who steal huge amounts of biodiversity from their rightful work out its own answers, through whatever consultation owners and ride roughshod over the rights of poor farmers. process its government uses. At the same time the genebanks are often portrayed as heroes, Then there must be a process of intergovernmental the saviors of biodiversity that would otherwise have been discussion and negotiation to develop internationally agreed lost. Can we reconcile the two views? The truth resides in a standards. The relevant intergovernmental body is the newly implemented treaty. Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Without the tiniest shadow of a doubt, CGIAR genebanks which was formed in 1983 specically to address these issues. have prevented the wholesale destruction of the huge wealth Its 164 member countries together dictate how CGIAR of crop biodiversity created by farmers genebanks manage, share and exploit over millennia since the dawn of their vast collections. agriculture. Make no mistake the Through these countries, a The new International Treaty crop diversity we collected from the momentous new treaty the 1960s to the 1980s was considered International Treaty on Plant Genetic on Plant Genetic Resources at that time by many farmers and Resources for Food and Agriculture extension ofcers to be inferior. They came into force on 29 June 2004 (see for Food and Agriculture wanted the new miracle varieties that page 6). This treaty establishes, for gave farmers the higher yields they the rst time ever, an internationally implements, for the rst time needed to live without hunger. They agreed framework that recognizes the stopped using their old low-yielding rights of the farmers and countries ever, an agreed mechanism varieties. Without the foresight of our that developed the old varieties on predecessors, much of this age-old which modern sustainable agriculture for sharing the benets arising biodiversity would now be extinct. is based, and it implements an agreed By conserving the old varieties, mechanism for sharing the benets from the exploitation the CGIAR genebanks have done arising from the exploitation of more than anyone else to ensure the biodiversity. of biodiversity sustainability of modern agriculture. As we have done regarding New challenges confront us all the previous decisions of the commission, time: emerging strains of pests and the CGIAR genebanks will adopt the diseases, modern concepts of breeding for nutrition and policies and mechanisms of the new treaty. That is the only eating quality, and innovative technologies to make farming way we can be sure of following internationally agreed and more efficient and environmentally benign. The genes acceptable standards. required to meet these new challenges are largely found in If you disagree with these standards if you think they the old varieties. If we had lost them, sustainable progress cloak biopiracy in a mantle of respectability what should in agriculture would have become impossible. you do? Well, dont complain about the CGIAR genebanks. Maintaining the sustainability of modern agriculture There is nothing we can do about the standards because we and thereby alleviating poverty and banishing the specter do not decide national policies or international agreements. of mass famine requires us to exploit the old varieties. But We merely implement them. Instead, lobby your relevant this raises daunting questions. How can we exploit them governmental department. Get it to consider alternatives. fairly, with due respect for the rights of the farmers and others If it is not a member of the commission, get it to join. If it in the countries from which they came? Indeed, what are the is not a party to the new international treaty, get it to join rights of those farmers and countries? the governing body. That way, you and your government These are hugely difcult and sensitive questions, beyond can contribute to new decisions that will affect and improve the authority of the CGIAR itself to answer. They are national how we honor farmers and countries rights to share in the and transnational political issues. The 1993 Convention on benets of sustainable improvement in agriculture.
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Rice Today October-December 2004