Food: promise -- and peril -- in 'patenting' seeds

Backyard gardeners seldom stop to think that the seed for the gian cucumber or tiny tomato may be "patented." But the vital diversity of the world's plants is threatened by the international spread of what amount to seed patenting laws.They are known as plant variety protection laws, and they serve acknowledged positive purposes. But they also contribute to agriculturalists' concern about the increasing extinction of plant varieties. New international strategies are needed to preserve the diversity essential to efficient and improved food production.

At stake is the future ability of the world's farmers to respond to the threats of shifting weather and blight. It is a matter of food reaching the tables of both hungry and well- fed nations in the decades ahead, as the article "Feast or famine" spells out in the Monitor's pullout section this week.

The "patenting" laws assure seed breeders that they will gain exclusive profit from the sale of new seed varieties they produce. They encourage the needed development of better seeds by providing for a return on investment. They have understandably found favor at the national level in many countries in North America and Europe. And now a new international convention, developed by the Geneva-based International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, could soon extend the seed patent protection of one country into other countries across the industrialized West.

Critics warn tht this will jeopardize world plant diversity even more by giving powerful private companies extended control over world seed markets, adding legal force to trends that already encourage farmers to become dependent on uniform varieties of seed.

The solution lies in balancing off the growing influence of private seed companies with greater seed-preserving efforts in the publicm sector. This means bolstering national and international efforts to store diverse seed varieties and to preserve nature's own stores of wild varieties.

A good start has been made by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, the United Nations agency charged with setting up an international network of "seed banks." But this is only a beginning. The board could do much more with greater funding.

National systems of seed storage and plant diversity preservation also need strengthening. The United States began its system of seed storage laboratories in 1957 and has made good progress. But it, too, could do much more with better national funding.

Also deserving more public funding are organizations like Oxfam's vegetable seed bank at the National Vegetable Research Station in England. Still in its early stages, this bank could prove an invaluable resource for poor countries without seed resources of their own.

One way new funding might be found for such institutions is for governments to levy a reasonable tax on the new profits made possible for seed companies by the new seed patent laws. The proceeds could then support public seed-preservation efforts.

Developing countries, for their part, will need balanced national seed strategies if they are to avoid the potentially bad effects of world seed patent laws and the depletion of their own natural reserves of diverse plant varieties.

As the architect of the "green revolution," Norman Borlaug, points out, such countries currently need more incentives for their own plant breeders to produce better local varieties. Laws that give international seed firms exclusive seed marketing rights could jeopardize such progress.

Developing countries will also need to avoid relying too heavily on single varieties of the superseeds, no matter how successful in the short term. And as , much as possible, their strategies should include support for setting up national or regional seed banks (with the assistance of international funding through groups like the UN's genetic resources board).

Finally, worldwide support for the international agricultural research centers around the world should not be neglected. These centers, coordinated by the World Bank's Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, are public institutions that constantly develop new varieties of beneficial seeds. Their work supplies a healthy competitive force to balance off the larger seed corporations. They ensure a continuing interchange of seed information with developing and industrialized countries alike.

Only with some far-seeing planning now can the future of the world's invaluable plant diversity be ensured.

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