Who owns our genetic wealth?

Who will be able to access the material? How will unauthorised use be prevented?

There was a news report not so long ago that Icrisat (International Crops Research Institute for SemiArid Tropics), an international organisation and part of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) consortium, had entered into an agreement with Gubba Cold Storage Ltd to set up a private seed bank, the first of its kind in India. No details were available of the terms and conditions under which the genetic material from the Icirsat gene bank would be placed in the physical possession of a private company. Icirsat holds thousands of varieties of chickpea, pigeon pea, groundnut, sorghum, pearl millet and small millets collected from farmers’ fields across the world.

What makes the Icrisat varieties particularly valuable is the fact that almost the entire collection has been characterised so that the properties of each variety are known. This information along with the huge choice of genetic material (over 1,20,000 varieties) is a veritable gold mine for seed companies. Access to crop varieties characterised for important properties like disease and pest resistance, drought and salinity tolerance, adaptability to soil types and weather conditions, yield traits etc., can be converted into lucrative crop varieties for the market.

The disconcerting thing about the Icrisat deal is that public material held in trust by Icrisat has been at least physically transferred to a private company. It is not clear under what terms the material will be stored. Who will be able to access the material? How will unauthorised use be prevented? What will be the monitoring process?

In the Svalbard Seed Vault, which is a permafrost gene bank in the frozen mountains of Norway, countries are depositing seeds of traditional crop varieties. All such seed collections are stored under “black box” conditions. This means the genetic material is coded and sealed in boxes before being deposited in the seed vault. The black box is under the control of the country or agency that deposits the material.

We must remember that all the material in gene/seed banks anywhere is the property of the farmers from whose fields the seeds were collected. It is not the property of the bank in which it is kept nor of the countries where such banks are located.

For instance, the thousands of traditional rice samples in Gene Campaign’s village level Zero Energy Gene Seed Banks are not Gene Campaign’s property. Ownership over the varieties and the community bank, in which they are conserved, rests solely with the local community. Similarly the collection of over four lakh varieties in the National Gene Bank in Delhi is not the property of the National Gene Bank or the government, but of the several hundred-thousand farmers who have maintained these varieties for generations in their fields and who have developed them with their genius and diligence.

The international community acknowledges the ownership of rural and tribal communities over the genetic wealth they have created. Well-defined procedures have been laid down if someone wants to access such publicly owned material. These include Prior Informed Consent, Material Transfer Agreements and benefit sharing agreements.

Communities have the right to refuse access if they feel this would better serve their interests. These internationally agreed conditions are binding on Icrisat, the National Gene Bank and local efforts like community geneseed banks of the kind that Gene Campaign has set up.

A central point is that of Intellectual Property Rights. The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, does not allow the grant of patents on plant varieties. Only a Breeders Right can be granted if a variety is developed using varieties accessed from public collections. If IPRs are to be granted, they have to be subject to conditions mentioned earlier and should include preferential access to farmers to the newly developed varieties. These are features that have not been operationalised.

The ICAR system too is preparing to throw open the national collection to the private sector. The (former) deputy director-general of ICAR, Dr Swapan Datta, is saying on record that the ICAR would offer multinational seed companies its massive national collection of germplasm in exchange for expertise and a share of profits.

India is moving towards increasingly participatory decisions. In this climate when law and policy-making is sought to being made more open and democratic, it is antediluvian for ICAR and even worse, a small committee of the National Advisory Board for Management of Genetic Resources, to take a decision on behalf of communities to make available their crop varieties to MNCs. Any decision on giving seed companies access to public genetic material can only be taken after public consultations and then following the due process of PIC, MTA and benefit sharing agreements.

The writer, chairperson of Gene Campaign, is a scientist and development activist. She can be reached at

( Source : dc )
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