The biotech brigands

The biotech brigands THE 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity is proving to be inordinately troublesome for the Third World. At the end of a 2-week meeting on this treaty (meant to conserve animal and plant varieties) held in Nairobi this July, developing countries were hardpressed to retain the concessions they had wrestled out at Rio.

The pesky issue was biotechnology. Industrialised countries chose to interpret key clauses of the treaty in a manner that will protect the interests of biotechnology industries located mainly in the US. This was a clear setback to developing nations, who stand to lose the benefits due to them.

The developed nations refused to transfer biotechnology, were unwilling to sign a protocol to ensure the benign use of biotechnology, and restricted the kind of projects that could avail of finance from the Global Environment Facility"s expected $200 million annual flow of funds under this treaty. In fact, their demand for the ownership of existing gene banks became more strident. Developing countries went into a tizzy because at Rio, they had insisted that the benefits of biotechnology, which may be crucial to agriculture, be passed on to them by industrialised countries in return for the genetic resources of the Third World.

At Nairobi, however, many developed nations chose to interpret this clause selfishly and differently. Said France, "There are several technologies that may not get transferred through commercial channels because they are not profitable, and are best handled bilaterally. "This was endorsed by the UK, USA and Sweden.

Restrictive condition
Industrialised countries said that technology transfer requests will be considered only for projects that "achieve the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity in which access to and transfer of technology are integral components, which build capacity and for which funding is necessary under the financial mechanism, first taking into account alternative sources of funding".

This approach was flayed by B P Singh of India"s ministry of environment and forests, who was supported by delegates from Malaysia and Brazil. The issue remained unresolved and is expected to be discussed again at the first meeting of the signatories to be held in November this year.

The developed nations were also unwilling to protect developing nations from the hazards of biotechnology. The US blandly opined that a legal agreement to ensure the safe use of biotechnology was not warranted, while the European Community stated that technical guidelines on biosafety should first be established. The UK even agreed to be one of the hosts of a meeting on biosafety in 1995 in Asia. However, P P S Chauhan of the Indian delegation said that a protocol is necessary to prevent transnational corporations from arbitrarily carrying out tests of living or genetically modified organisms in developing countries.

Although a majority of the countries asked for a protocol, the meeting became embroiled in controversies. With no defined procedure to settle such issues in the absence of a consensus, Japan said that no agreement could be made on biosafety without one.

In an attempt to limit the funds provided to developing countries for biodiversity conservation, the US said that any link between poverty eradication and biodiversity conservation should be removed as a priority for funding. This created a deadlock as the G-77 had proposed that "projects aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, which contribute positively to the eradication of poverty", should be given priority in funding. Frustrated by the attempts of the us, an NGO representative asked: "Do we need a research paper now to show the linkage between biodiversity conservation and poverty eradication?"

NGOs also flayed the World Bank"s attempts to gain control from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the 500,000 crop samples held in gene banks in 18 international research centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). They included the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and the Mexico-based International Research Centre for Wheat and Maize. "The World Bank is not a legitimate trustee of, or policy maker for genetic resources donated by developing countries, since it is not governed on the basis of one nation, one vote," said a statement issued at Nairobi.

The appointment of a common trustee to all the 18 centres has become a political issue. Although the issue of the ownership of these genetic resources was not resolved at Nairobi, most developing countries and a few developed nations felt that these resources should be brought under the trusteeship of FAO instead of the Bank.

World Bank politics
The agricultural research centres, which are facing a severe financial crisis, were offered an increase of $40 million in their grants. Besides, their outstanding debt was written off by the World Bank at a meeting in Delhi in June. However, the Bank, as the chair of the CGIAR, sought a review of the deal between these centres and the FAO, although it had already been approved by all the parties.

Subsequently, Bank officials said they were holding separate discussions with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to link the ownership of germplasms with WTO policies on intellectual property rights. Ismail Serageldin, chairperson of CGIAR and vice-president of the World Bank, said he considered as "foolhardy" the arrangement through FAO that would have, for the first time, given policy control to the Third World.

The specific interpretations of the clauses on such crucial issues reflected the growing desire of industrialised countries to protect their fledgling biotechnology industry, which is still not completely covered by intellectual property rights and patents. As a developing country spokesperson said, "We signed the biodiversity convention in the hope of gaining the rightful value for our genetic material, in exchange of sharing the rather unnecessary burden on climate and ozone treaties. However, the industrialised nations are making it impossible for us by not keeping their part of the bargain on technology and funds."