Science in Society Archive

Rice is Life series: 4

Science for the Poor, or Procurer for the Rich?

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is the world's largest and most influential agricultural research network that is supposed to help the poor. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho questions its role in safeguarding genetic resources held it its trust.

The CGIAR is an association of 58 public and private institutions, sponsored by the FAO, UN Development Programme, UN Environment Programme and World Bank. It supports16 agricultural research centres worldwide. CGIAR's US$304 million (1998 figures) annual budget represents between 4-10% of the South's agricultural research funds and contributes to the training of almost every agronomist in the Third World. It is estimated that foreign aid flows to the CGIAR of $300 million per annum yield an unacknowledged return (to the North) of not less than $5 billion. CGIAR estimates that its research feeds at least 1 billion people, and its high yield research has reduced farmland requirements by as much as 40% while keeping staple food prices low for the urban poor. But CGIAR's claims are hotly contested by its critics, the strongest among whom are the poor farmers CGIAR is supposed to help. As much as 70% of the South's most important food crops are based upon CGIAR germplasm enhancement. Its 16 International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs), among which, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), play a key role in research policy development throughout the South.

Despite recent improvements, the South continues to be a marginal player in the development of CGIAR's research policies that profoundly impact national economies.

The CGIAR holds the world's largest international ex situ collections of plant genetic resources, the GeneBanks, containing more than 500,000 accessions that are vital for crop improvement worldwide. These are held "in trust for the benefit of the international community, in particular developing countries", and subject to conditions contained in agreements signed by the research centres and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1994. These agreements specify that neither the CGIAR Centres nor recipients of designated germplasm will seek any intellectual property rights (such as patents) over that germplasm or related information. Despite that, many biotech patents are based on genetic resources from the CGIAR's GeneBanks.

Under pressure from non-government organisations, CGIAR called for a moratorium on intellectual property claims on seeds held in its collections in February 1998. CGIAR Chair, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, a supporter of agbiotech, reiterated the CGIAR's "strong and unequivocal support" for the 1994 agreements, which seek to guarantee that access to these resources will not be restricted. He called upon all recipients of designated material to honour the spirit of the agreements with FAO and to refrain from applying for intellectual property rights.

In November 2001, a new treaty was agreed - the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture - by delegates from 116 countries. It would facilitate the free flow of genetic material to plant breeders (against the restrictions of the patents regime), but it fell short of banning patents on genetic resources. "We think it is good that there now is a treaty, though a number of issues have been left unresolved and in some areas it is weaker than we would have hoped," said Peter Rosset, co-director of the US based non-government organisation Food First. Among the major weaknesses are the unresolved issues of farmers’ rights and intellectual property rights. Unless farmers’ rights are settled in the farmers’ favour, and the principle that public resources should not be patented is upheld, "then much of the potential benefits will be lost". It could be worse. For unless the tide of rampant patenting of genes and plant varieties is stemmed, this treaty would simply open up CGIAR's GeneBanks to exploitation by biotech companies, and make it impossible for indigenous communities to safeguard their in situ genetic resources as well. Sources: "RAFI COMMUNIQUE on the CGIAR's Third External Review" 17/9/1997

Article first published 20/04/02

  1. Moratorium on Patenting Seeds. RAFI News Release, February 9, 1998. CGIAR Press Release, February 11, 1998
  2. "FOOD ANTI-PATENT PACT HAILED DESPITE WEAKNESSES" By Emad Mekay, Inter Press Service, November 16, 2001, Friday

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