Biopiracy to serve transnational firms

Guillaume Tarantini, translated by Aurélie Salignon
23 Juillet 2013

Under cover of protection of health, the European Commission proposed a legislative package in order to “modernize” the agro-food supply chain by strengthening the control of seeds and plants, for example. But regarding biodiversity, legislation can easily benefit to bioprospectors.

Biopiracy to serve transnational firms
The news caused deep resentments among amateur gardeners. On Monday, May 6th, the European Commission adopted three new regulations on seeds, plants’ health and controls. The gardeners’ fear to be criminalized provoked heated reactions. The European Commission was quick to point that “the use of seeds in personal gardens is not under the EU legislation and [that] amateur gardeners will still be allowed to buy any type of living plant material and to sell small quantities of their seeds”.

However, even though amateur gardeners have been reassured, farmers are not. The network Semences paysannes (farming seeds) denounces a “hold-up” on seeds “carefully hidden among several hundred pages of technical jargon”. It reminds us the crucial issue that biodiversity represents in the global economy.

War of seeds: from Christopher Columbus to Monsanto

In 1493, Christopher Columbus went back to Spain with some corn seeds. It was the beginning of a lot of exportations of plants and animals widely distributed to the Old continent: explorers have brought beans, potatoes, pumpkins and sweet potatoes from their expeditions, which supported the development of the European nations.

Then, due to the industrial revolution, plants start being considered as the main strategic resource. While Colonial powers organized the collection of genetic heritages, they also engaged themselves into a merciless war to win the control of seeds. As a symbol of that fight, the Dutch destroyed all the nutmeg trees and clove trees that existed in the Moluccas –an archipelago at the East of Indonesia – except their own crops. The accumulation of genetic resources in the North – basically rich but genetically poor - has never ended and were often supported by military interventions. The Norin 10 wheat, which permitted to improve mechanization and increase production, was brought from Japan by an agricultural adviser of the US army.

Since the early days of the 20th century, private seed companies joined the States in the fray. According to a report by Swiss organizations in 2012, Monsanto holds 36% of the varieties of tomatoes seeds that are registered at the European Community Plant Variety Office (CPVO) and 49% of cauliflowers. Swiss company Syngenta on the other hand, holds 26% of tomatoes varieties and 22% of the cauliflowers’. Put together, Monsanto and Syngenta already have more than 50% of the varieties derived from those two vegetables.
Biopiracy stands for private appropriation of generic resources - most of the time to the benefit of transnational firms – to patent and commercialize the products made from it. That is closely associated with the issue of patents and intellectual property. It is about taking control on the knowledge that has been accumulated within centuries of collective innovations, what could totally be legal.

Patents: the barriers of the 21st century

Biodiversity has been considered as a common good, thus free, for long. A local Turkish type of wheat permitted to improve genetically the American varieties to make them resistant to yellow rust, a disease causing fungus. It is estimated that the energetic contribution represents 50 million dollars in the US economy. Thus, patents give a monetary value to things that were priceless before, and they point the way towards private appropriation of natural resources.

That process is believed to be linked to English enclosure during the 18th century, that economist and Anthropologist Karl Polanyi defines as the period between 1727 and 1815, when the English Parliament adopted around 5,000 laws to allow the building of fences to determine the borders of parcels. The open field system was replaced by individual parcels, which increased the crop yield, but which took away from poor people their right of use. This historical and violent appropriation of land has been a prerequisite for the development of the current economic system, according to some economists.

“Be traders instead of victims”

However, the system is facing its own limits as it increases. In 1980, the uptake of biotechnologies, the phenomenon of concentration in the seed industry and social movements led to a new geopolitical conflict on the question of biodiversity. In 1992, the Rio Summit stood for a watershed event. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that was adopted is an affirmation of the States’ sovereign right on their biological resources, but it also endorses a commercial view with the concept of “spreading benefits”.

Even though “Natives and local communities” apply for patents, they do not have the means (financial, juridical or technical) to defend it. Moreover, there is a problem on the identity of the legitimate owner due to the collective aspect of inventions and the fact that they are shared with several communities and sometimes with foreign countries. According to the Mexican journalist Silvia Ribeiro, you might as well say to communities that they shall “be traders instead of victims and do it before others race ahead”. In these conditions, the CBD does not help to fight against biopiracy. By playing with the one who rules the game, you may be sure to lose.