AFRICA SPLITS OVER BAR TO PLANT PATENTS
Ehsan Masood Nature, 11 March 1999
[LONDON] An Africa-wide consensus to restrict the patenting of plant varieties by overseas companies appears to be in disarray following a decision by 16 representatives of French-speaking African countries to break ranks.
These countries have agreed instead to recommend the latest version of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, known as the UPOV convention.
The decision was made two weeks ago at a meeting of patent office officials from member states of the Organisation Africaine de la Propriété Intellectuelle (OAPI), the regional patent office for Francophone Africa. The meeting was held in the Central African Republic.
Accession to the UPOV convention, which grants plant breeders intellectual-property rights over the commercialization of products such as seed, was also due to be discussed this week by 14 English-speaking African countries at a meeting organized by their regional patent office, the African Regional Industrial Property Organization (ARIPO), in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe and Kenya, which have a large community of plant breeders, are leading the calls for ARIPO states to ratify the UPOV convention. But environmentalist organizations such as the Canada-based Rural Advancement Foundation International are urging governments to stay out, on the grounds that ratification will prevent small farmers from saving seeds for re-use.
UPOV officials, however, point out that the convention allows subsistence farmers - those who grow crops to feed their families, but not to sell - and state-funded scientific research organizations to save seeds for replanting.
These developments will cast a shadow over an agreement reached in January by the heads of government of the 62-member Organization of African Unity (OAU) to restrict patents on plant varieties until an Africa-wide alternative system to patents has been developed.
This system, which is expected to be published in draft form later this month, will aim to divide the intellectual-property rights of new plant forms between plant breeders and indigenous communities that might have contributed to early varieties.
Johnson Ekpere, secretary-general of the Scientific, Technical and Research Commission of the OAU, says the decision by the organization's heads of state still stands. He says it was reached at a meeting of heads of government in Lusaka, Zambia, attended mainly by representatives of foreign ministries.
But Ekpere admits that details of this decision have not filtered down to science ministries and patent offices. "This is a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing," he says.
He describes as "unlikely" any attempts to ratify the UPOV convention in an African parliament. Mzondi Haviland Chirambo, director-general of ARIPO, agrees, and believes that ARIPO member states are unlikely to follow the lead set by OAPI countries.
Both Chirambo and Ekpere believe that African countries will want to delay new legislation until the outcome of a review on the relationship between TRIPS - a World Trade Organization agreement on intellectual-property rights - the UN biodiversity convention and the UPOV convention. The review is expected to be completed later this year.
All member countries of the World Trade Organization are required to frame their patent laws around TRIPS, which says that countries that prohibit the patenting of plant varieties must provide an alternative system of protecting the intellectual-property rights of plant breeders.
At the same time, however, the biodiversity convention is interpreted by some as suggesting that the benefits - including commercial benefits - from biodiversity should not be restricted to plant breeders, but should include those who may have contributed to a discovery in the past.
Nature Â© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1999