News - November 22, 2007

Lawyers are winners in seed rights wrangles

Governments in developing countries often think that if they allow more intellectual property rights to be created for seed, they will stimulate investments in research and seed development, and this will benefit farmers. Not so, argues Dr Niels Louwaars in his PhD thesis.

‘Seeds of confusion’ is the title of the thesis. Louwaars, who works at Wageningen International, was supervised by university professor Rudy Rabbinge. The confusion in the title refers to policy on rights to seed made at international level and by national governments.

Louwaars discusses the subject from different perspectives. Agriculture is interested in good quality, productive seed or planting material, nature in maintaining biodiversity. When it comes to the economy, seed manufacturers are interested in making money. In the international arena, three different organisations represent these interests – the Food and Agriculture Organization, Convention on Biological diversity and World Trade Organization - often without consulting each other. At national level too, ministries in developing countries often work at cross purposes.

In international policy it is economic strength that weighs heaviest, says Louwaars. Governments of developing countries within the WTO or outside it are pressurised into issuing more intellectual property rights for seed in the form of patents or breeders’ rights. Pressure may be political or military, as occurred when Iraq started issuing more patents after the US invasion.

However, improving legal protection of seed does not necessarily result in better seed for farmers, states Louwaars. The formal seed sector – consisting of agricultural research, seed manufacturers and extension workers who try to introduce new seeds to farmers - may profit from more intellectual property regulation. But the formal sector only serves a couple of percent of all farmers in developing countries. Over ninety percent of farmers in developing countries get their seeds from the informal circuit, for example from neighbours or family. And if access to commercial varieties is limited through intellectual property rights, farmers will have less access to seed.

As a result of the increase in intellectual property rights in the commercial sector, developing countries and environmental organisations are increasingly arguing for the establishment of stronger rights to biodiversity, says Louwaars. And farmers’ organisations argue for the rights of farmers. The result, concludes Louwaars, is that the lawyers are the winners and common property is disappearing. / Joris Tielens

Niels Louwaars defended his PhD thesis on 12 November. His promotor was University Professor Rudy Rabbinge.