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Sunday, May 13, 2001 | Print this story

Americans Drag Feet on Crucial Seed Pact

By MARGARET WERTHEIM


     Here's a choice: to become paralyzed from the waist down or to die of starvation. This is not one of those macabre questions that rivet the imaginations of 10-year-olds, but a real-life choice faced by some 20,000 to 30,000 people every year. Caught in the tragedy of famine, thousands of people from Ethiopia to Bangladesh find that the only thing standing between them and starvation is the drought-tolerant legume Lathyrus sativus , known as the grass pea. In a mixed diet , Lathyrus is safe. Eaten in large quantities, it leads to a build-up of neurotoxins that causes spastic paralysis of the legs, an irreversible condition known as Lathyrism.
     At the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria, scientists are trying to engineer less toxic strains of Lathyrus. The problems of drought and famine cannot be solved by genetic engineering alone, but it is hard to imagine a more worthwhile application of biotechnology. Yet, the future of this project is now in jeopardy. International talks aimed at producing a global treaty on the scientific exchange of plant genetic resources are in danger of being derailed by the United States. And work like the Lathyrus research depends on scientists being able to share germplasm freely. In the absence of a treaty, the exchange of plant materials between nations has already begun to shut down.
     At a meeting last month in Spoleto, Italy, much of the rest of the world appeared on the edge of agreement, but U.S. negotiators refused to play ball, insisting that intellectual property rights should take precedence over the demands of developing nations. But while the media have paid lavish attention to the bickering surrounding the international biodiversity and global-warming treaties, U.S. recalcitrance has gone widely unnoticed. Still, the consequences of inaction would be grave.
     Failure to produce an agreement--formally known as the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture--"would be a global tragedy," says Pat Roy Mooney, executive director of Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), the only nongovernmental body participating in the talks. Since the treaty would cover the exchange of genetic materials from all the world's major food crops, it is critical to maintaining world food security. In the long run, failure to produce a treaty could prove disastrous to international attempts to feed the Third World as scientists, including those developing new breeds of crops aimed at easing starvation, rely on open access to germplasm.
     ICARDA is one of 16 international agricultural-crop centers that since the 1960s have collected, stored and propagated seeds, preserving the irreplaceable heritage of our agricultural genetic diversity. Collectively, the centers hold an estimated half a million plant varieties. During the 1960s and '70s, the centers' germplasm provided the genetic feedstock from which were bred the high-yield variants of staple foods such as rice, wheat and maize that were the triumph of the "green revolution" and which have helped to feed the world as its population has doubled over the past 35 years.
     As global warming picks up speed, bringing with it the attendant problems of increased drought and flooding, it is to these collections that all nations will have to turn to develop crop strains able to thrive under the new environmental conditions, Mooney adds. Crops such as Lathyrus, for example, have special genes for surviving in arid conditions, a genetic bonus we may wish to draw on if, as many scientists expect, global temperatures rise by several degrees over the coming century.
     Until now, access to plant genetic resources held in the agricultural-crop centers and other national gene banks has relied on voluntary agreement among governments, but that system is now breaking down. For the past six years, a contact group of 40 nations, including the U.S., has been meeting to thrash out a treaty to formally govern the exchange of seeds and germplasm among nations for purposes of scientific research.
     At the core of the proposed treaty is a list of staple crops whose genetic material would, in effect, be declared the common heritage of all humanity. These crops--wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, beans, rye, barley, potato, beet, lentil, cassava, chickpea, coconut, apple, banana, etc.--would be exchanged freely among treaty signatories and could not be patented unless substantial genetic modifications were made. Such an agreement is necessary because some nations, notably the U.S. and Australia, have already granted patents and other intellectual property rights on unmodified seeds obtained from the seed banks. This practice has infuriated some nations in Africa and Latin America.
     One major roadblock that treaty negotiators face is a fundamental divide between the nations of the south and north. Many of the southern nations, burned by centuries of exploitation, are suspicious of any moves to open up their genetic resources to the north. In an increasing number of southern nations, Mooney says, there is public pressure to halt altogether the flow of genetic material from their borders.
     At the moment, Mooney says, "the system is relatively open, but it's getting tighter and tighter by the day." He suspects that if a plant resources agreement is not reached soon, preferably at the next meeting in Rome next month, the entire system "could shut down very quickly. We'd see a real decline in the transfer of germplasm."
     Without easy flow of material, much of the research done at the agricultural-crop centers would be threatened. Researchers are already worried that funding for work on any crop not on the treaty's list will quickly dry up, as funders will be reluctant to support work that could create legal nightmares. For this reason, Mooney says his foundation is determined to get Lathyrus onto the official list.
     At a meeting in Tehran last year, the International Assn. of Plant Breeders for the Protection of Plant Varieties, the body that represents the seed industry, made a stunning conciliatory offer. It offered to pay into an international fund a small percentage of any royalties earned from patents derived from materials originating in the seed banks. This fund would subsidize research and conservation of genetic diversity, largely in the developing world. No formal figures were promised, and Mooney says no one is talking big bucks here, not more than $10 million a year. Nonetheless, most developing nations saw this as a hugely important step. More than the money, they viewed it as an acknowledgement of the intrinsic value of their indigenous resources. In response, many of these nations made important concessions. And at the Spoleto meeting last month, the G-77 developing nations, along with Europe and Japan, appeared to reach consensus on the wording of a draft treaty. The U.S., however, supported by Canada, New Zealand and Australia, objected.
     A Bush administration official from the State Department said the U.S. does not approve of the mandatory fund now proposed, which the administration believes would "infringe upon intellectual property rights in the U.S." In principle, the administration has objected to agreements requiring private companies to make mandatory payments. As the draft treaty is currently worded, the U.S. would not be able to sign it, the same official said. This policy cannot be blamed on the Bush administration because the U.S. position was set under former President Bill Clinton. Ironically, Mooney says, seed-industry executives are furious about the U.S. stance. Most other nations are also outraged, and when U.S. negotiators at Spoleto tried to reopen discussions on this point, the Europeans and Japanese refused to allow it.
     So irritated are these nations over what they see as U.S. haggling, they might go ahead and negotiate a treaty that doesn't include the United States. But the American team could still derail the process by pressuring the seed-industry association to back down. At the World Seed Congress in South Africa later this month, Mooney expects that the seed executives will come under intense pressure from U.S. officials. If the seed-industry association reneges, Mooney says that developing nations might pull out altogether. Then "we'd be back to square one."
     What is at stake here is the security of the world's food supply. For the sake of us all, we must not fail.

- - -

Margaret Wertheim Is a Los Angeles Science Writer and Commentator

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