BRAZIL ABOUT TO PATENT LIFE?

David Hathaway | 25 October 1993 | Seedling - October 1993

Brazil is one of the key developing countries under intense pressure from Northern governments to strengthen intellectual property protection over life forms. Transnational corporations are pushing strongly for Brazil to adopt a new patent bill that would make it possible for them to enjoy monopoly protection and huge profits over crop seeds, livestock, and drugs developed through biotechnology. The Western-led push to patent life in Brazil has spurred off intense debate over the impact on all layers of society and catalyzed new coalitions among the scientific, religious, farmer, environmentalist and NGO communities. David Hathaway, of AS-PTA, an NGO working to strengthen farmer control over local biodiversity, reports on the proposed bill and its likely impact on Brazilian society.

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One year after the signing of the global Convention on Biological Diversity at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the industrialised countries are sharpening their tools to twist the treaty in favour of the biotechnology industry. The US government is moving forward to sign the Convention, but only on the basis of its "interpretation" of the sticky points. Under pressure from the industry, other OECD countries are equally trying to converge into a common power bloc as to how to "interpret" the Convention. After four years of polite negotiations, the real power politics begin.

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After 15 years of evading a response to the thorny question of who owns the genetic resources held in the genebanks of the International Agricultural Research Centres, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has decided to approach FAO to construct a global solution. At a meeting of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources last month, the CG and FAO agreed to start negotiations to give the CG genebanks a firm legal status and FAO a role in their political and physical protection.

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FAREWELL, CHRISTIAN

Erna Bennett | 15 May 1993 | Seedling - May 1993

Next month, June 1993, the renowned Gatersleben genebank in the former East Germany will celebrate its 50th anniversary. One man will be missing from the festivities: Christian Lehmann, who devoted his life to genetic resources and the success of the genebank. For next month is also the first anniversary of Lehmann 's unexpected death, which came at a time in his life when he was gearing up to work more closely with NGOs and community-based conservation initiatives. The following farewell was written for "Seedling" by Erna Bennett, also one of the greatest geneticists of this century and a revolutionary woman committed to people 's control over genetic resources. Erna was a stone setter in the move to get a global genetic conservation scheme set up in the 1960s, but now works actively with NGOs all over the world to secure viable and equitable farmer based approaches. Christian was her personal friend and colleague, so it is only apt that Erna offers him our collective farewell.

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A DECADE IN REVIEW

GRAIN | 25 February 1993 | Seedling - February 1993

Over the past ten years of Seedling 's history, what was once known as "the seeds issue" has passed from being a concern of very few individuals on this planet to the highlight of controversy among the 30,000 attendees of the UN Conference on Environment and Development -- the "Earth" Summit -- in Rio last June. To a large extent, the only progress traceable through Seedling 's trajectory over the past decade is the enormous growth of public awareness about the importance and causes of genetic erosion in world agriculture. The real work to effectively reverse this threat to global food security, to implement equitable and integrated strategies for genetic resources management, and to put farmers at the wheel of agricultural development, and their own destinies, still lies ahead of us.

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In January 1993, GRAIN staffers and Seedling co-editors Henk Hobbelink and Renée Vellvé sat down with Pat Mooney of RAFI to look back together over the first decade of Seedling. From a sporadic two-page telex written by Pat for 30 close collaborators in 1982, Seedling has become an internationally recognised platform for NGO networking on plant genetic resources and biotechnology. Since Pat was the first publisher of Seedling, before it was passed on to Henk in 1984, it was only appropriate for us to review together the history of the journal, the history of the issues it reflects, and the history of the NGO struggle it has served.

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An increasing number of scientists and companies are starting to experience some of the negative implications of applying the patent system to life forms. Tremendous costs for law suits and huge time delays in getting products to the markets are just some of the factors that become apparent. The most recent controversy was triggered off by the US National Institutes of Health patent application for almost 3000 human gene fragments. The situation is getting to a point where companies are starting to argue that the whole thing might work against innovation. In the meanwhile, the European Parliament - not bothered by all of this - adopted a report that basically endorses the EC Commission 's proposal to allow for the patenting of life forms in Europe.

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Ethiopia is a country of tremendous genetic and cultural diversity. Local farmers have been maintaining and continuously adapting their indigenous crop resources, which now prove to also serve agriculture at the international level. The Ethiopian genebank is carrying out a challenging programme involving farmers in several stages of the seed-saving and breeding process, while encouraging farmers to maintain local varieties by improving the genetic performance of them. A diametrically opposed strategy is followed by Pioneer Hi-Bred, the worlds largest seed company, which recently started operations in the country. Pioneer also directs itself to the small farmers, but to convince them to buy imported hybrid seeds.

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THE URGE TO MERGE

Peter Einarsson | 15 October 1992 | Seedling - October 1992

This fall a major merger will become effective in the Swedish seed business scheme. Two major Swedish breeding operations, Svalöf and Weibull, became Svalöf-Weibull AB, with the new 100% owner being Svenska Lantmännen AB, which is the central holding company of the Swedish farmers ' cooperatives. The merger puts the new company high in the top ranking of seed corporations worldwide. It responds to the business logic of "Big is Beautiful", but what might be lost in the process is the unique public service that both Svalöf and Weibull provided to Swedish farmers over the past 100 years. Peter Einarsson followed the process from close by and reports for Seedling.

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