by Niccolo Sarno

Brussels,15 Feb 2000 (IPS) -- A newly released report on biopatenting and food security has called on Europe to ensure that food security and the protection of biodiversity take precedence over commercial interests. The report, 'Biopatenting and the Threat to Food Security - A Christian and Development Perspective,' was published by International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity (CIDSE).

The CIDSE is a Catholic development alliance of 15 organisations from Europe, North America and New Zealand.

The report suggests that patents on genetically modified crops, enforced by current world trade rules and pushed by its supporters, such as the European Union (EU), enables major Trans-National Corporations (TNCs) to exploit crops at the expense of farmers in poor countries.

Jef Felix, CIDSE's Secretary General, said in a statement that the EU was currently supporting global trade rules on patents that permit huge life science companies to gain control over the earth's genetic resources.

"These rules result in the marginalisation and impoverishment of poor farmers and communities in the developing world. This contradicts and undermines the EU's own development policy which is aimed at the eradication of poverty and the promotion of food security," he said.

"Europe must ensure that international development commitments, made at various UN conferences over the past decade, including those dealing with food security and the protection of biodiversity, take precedence over commercial interests," he added.

The report will be sent to key officials in the Trade and Development Directorates of the EU's executive body, the European Commission, to members of the European Parliament and to EU member states' governments.

It also urges the international community at large to review the multilateral trade rules in order to ban patenting of life forms. This is a stance advocated by a large number of Third World nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America and by many development organisations.

"Opposition (to the ban proposal) has come from, amongst others, the European Commission and EU Member States," says CIDSE, adding that there is a fundamental inequity in the formulation and revision of trade rules.

The development network says that the existing patent system does not compensate indigenous peoples for their accumulated knowledge and expertise. In its report it denounces the present tendency to patent products based on traditional knowledge 'as this may curtail the rights of indigenous peoples to trade these products to countries where the patent was granted'.

It also says that the commercialisation of farming leads to traditional varieties being pushed out of the market and farmers becoming dependent on uniform commercial varieties. This, the report states, undermines small-scale mixed subsistence and local market-based production systems.

"This is a huge threat to small-scale agriculture with its multiple roles as it could dramatically reduce the food security of millions of poor people," says the report.

It warns that important stakeholders, such as poor farmers, the majority of whom are women, are systematically excluded from trade talks, while TNCs have little difficulty in gaining access to trade negotiators. "At the moment, TNCs have the means to set prices, apply for patents anywhere they want (the costs of which are too high for small farmers), fight legal battles using teams of lawyers and steer privately funded research and development in their commercially oriented direction," notes the CIDSE report.

According to CIDSE, 80% of patents on genetically modified foods are owned by just 13 TNCs and the top five agrochemical companies control 'almost the entire global seed market'.

"What is unacceptable is the growing concentration of control of the world's food supply in fewer and fewer corporate hands," say Jef Felix and Justin Kilcullen, President of CIDSE, in the preface of the report.

Under the so-called Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement, the United States and some European countries have been pushing for stronger intellectual property protection, including genetically modified crops.

TRIPS is one of the agreements of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), negotiated under the Uruguay Round and signed by more than 130 countries in Marrakesh, Morrocco, in 1994.

Over the last few years, several developing countries have increasingly voiced the concern that powerful corporations from the North are 'stealing' their genetic resources and patenting them, and some of them want the patenting of life forms removed from the agreement entirely.

But the poorest countries in the South account for only a tiny fraction of world trade and can hardly engage effectively in multilateral negotiations on trade because they often lack resources.

Also, aid conditionality can require changes in their trade policies.

"Some (poor countries) do not have representation in Geneva (WTO Headquarters), and may have to rely on aid money to attend meetings," says CIDSE.

A significant number of non-governmental groups have disputed at least five areas of the TRIPS agreement that, in their view, are in conflict with other international agreements. These include the Convention on Biodiversity, which grants local communities rights to manage their resources and genetic materials such as crops and seeds.

Under the TRIPS agreement, countries must grant patents for a minimum of 20 years to any inventions, including genetically modified crops, and other manufacturers can be granted licences to reproduce the product. (SUNS4608)